Chapter 2

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John Steinbeck’s former front door

Highway Haiku # 2

Please keep your distance
I brake for dogs, deer, ducks, skunks
And epiphanies

It’s a fact of life that dogs like to pee in old familiar places, and new and unexplored ones; on spots previously sprinkled by other dogs and, sometimes, where no dog has gone before. In other words, just about anywhere they can pee, they will pee.

Even though I didn’t think John Steinbeck, being a dog guy, would mind, even though I was intrigued with the idea of Ace detecting any lingering 50 year-old traces of Charley’s scent in the grass around the author’s former estate, it was important to me that Steinbeck didn’t get peed on.

While plenty of critics did that in his day, I was not going to give Ace the option – not later, at Steinbeck’s grave in California, and not here, at the author’s former home, a modest bungalow on two oak tree-studded acres that overlook a quiet cove on Long Island’s Noyac Bay.

It was into its waters that Steinbeck plunged on what was supposed to be the eve of his departure – not to save his poodle from Hurricane Donna, but in rescuing his boat. It was here, in a six-sided cottage on the water’s edge that, upon returning from his three-month journey across America with his dog, he wrote “Travels with Charley.” And it’s here that Charley – full name Charles le Chien, a poodle born on the outskirts of Paris — died and was buried under a tree in 1963.

Today, the storied house and grounds are part of a long-running dispute that centers primarily on book royalties. Steinbeck’s son, who has argued the house should be returned to Steinbeck’s blood heirs, would like to see it used as a gathering place for writers. But Steinbeck left the home to his third wife Elaine. She passed it on to her sister, who wants to keep it as a vacation home for her family.

Lawyers were on the case. When dogs want to claim an area as their own, they pee on it. When humans do, they hire lawyers. I tend to think dogs have the more rational approach. Nevertheless, Ace — if I had anything to say about it — was not to shed a drop during our visit to Steinbeck’s property. I issued him a restraining order.

There is not much I don’t let Ace urinate on. I try to spare little, newly-planted flowers and shrubs. I warn him away (not always successfully) from park benches and garbage cans. Other forbidden objects include gravestones, memorial plaques, lawn decorations, welcome mats, automobile tires, infants, grown up humans standing very still (he did that once) and all the small dogs who, either seeking shade or satisfying their curiosity, gather underneath him at the dog park, as if they were conventioneers mingling at a Holiday Inn cocktail party, looking up to admire the atrium.

We arrived early in the morning in Sag Harbor, a former working class fishing village since claimed by the upscale. I wanted to give Ace a brief, well-monitored moment to walk on the grassy lawn Charley once wandered. Parking in front of Steinbeck’s former home, I let him out the back of the Jeep amid a constant, whispered but urgent refrain: “No pee. Noooo pee.”

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The house is not an official attraction, but it does draw tourists from time to time. No one was around, so we took a few cautious steps into the yard.

Immediately, Ace, as he does when he’s some place new, started looking for a place to urinate. Realizing that “No pee,” likely sounded to him an awful lot like “Go pee” – a command he always obeys — I stopped saying it.

Maybe I had unrealistic expectations. Maybe I was exhibiting an undue amount of reverence. But peeing in the author’s yard seemed a disrespectful and karmically unwise way to start a journey that, at least in part, he inspired. After but a few seconds on Charley’s grass, I ushered Ace back into the car.

As he watched out the car window, I strolled the grounds, avoiding getting too close to the main house, but walking over to the writing cottage and searching the periphery of the lot for the tree under which Charley’s old bones might be buried. I’d read it was a willow tree. I did not find a willow tree. Walking back to the car, under oak trees grown mightier in the 50 years that had passed, I wondered why, given Steinbeck’s proclivity to put labels on things – not people, but things – Charley’s grave wasn’t marked. Maybe I just didn’t find it. Maybe he didn’t mark it. Or maybe its markings had faded, tumbled over or otherwise been lost, like so much else, to time.

John Steinbeck may not be the greatest writer who ever lived. “Travels with Charley” may not be his finest work. But at a young age, growing up on this same island in a comfortable middle class home, well stocked with books, I happened to discover him. Maybe it was as simple a matter as wondering what grapes could possibly be mad about. It was one of several riddling titles, running down the bindings of the volumes in the family bookcase.

They were, to me, unopened puzzles. For whom, exactly, was that bell tolling? What was a “Wapshot Chronicle,” or for that matter a “Gulag Archipelago?” Who was Jack Kerouac and why was he on the road? What was “Milk Wood,” and why should I have any interest in what’s under it? Why would “the Rye” need a catcher? “The Great Gatsby?” Probably a magician pulling things out of hats, 10-year-old me reasoned, which would explain “Rabbit, Run,” just a few books down. Before I ever thought of opening and reading such grown up books, there was fun to be had in just looking, with head cocked sideways, at their random juxtaposition on the shelves: “Catch 22,” “Mila 18.” Close game. Maybe next year, Mila.

“The Grapes of Wrath” was one of the first I bothered to take down, blow the dust off and actually open. In exchange for that moment of curiosity, I was transported to a time and place I’d never been, met characters so vividly drawn I could see the lines in their lean and leathery faces, and encountered obstacles unlike any that I, a chubby, sheltered, station wagon-riding adolescent of 1960s suburbia, could ever have imagined.

I read both “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men” before junior high, and I think it’s possible that Steinbeck’s books helped instill in me whatever sense of compassion I would come to have. They absolutely led me to start thinking – and I would later confirm this also to be true outside of fiction – that people without money are far more interesting than those loaded with it, and that people who don’t say much are often those with the most to say. Through Steinbeck’s writing, at least in part, I learned about the dreams, humility and resiliency of our species, to appreciate what another man has been through and to respect what he has, however little it might be – that, maybe, the more modest it is, the more respectful one should be of it.

All respect aside, though, there I was, with my canine accomplice, trespassing – and for the second day in a row.

The day before, we’d driven up from Philadelphia, through Staten Island and Brooklyn, and stopped in North Merrick to meet Terry Ballard, a Steinbeck fan and systems librarian at New York Law School. In terms of its geography, Ballard knows as much as anybody about Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. In a meticulous labor of love, he’d researched and assembled an interactive map of the author’s journey, allowing one to get on the Internet and see all the places Steinbeck and Charley visited. Since then, he’d moved on to charting the significant places in Mark Twain’s life.

Ballard, a stranger except for an exchanged email or two, didn’t hesitate to invite Ace and me to his home, and he and his wife Donna weren’t the least bit concerned when they saw Ace’s size – big enough to make their Lhasa Apso, Yuji, disappear in a gulp or two. They welcomed him inside, asked what breeds were in him and didn’t flinch at the answer. Donna stayed home and babysat Ace while Terry took me to an Irish pub. We drank beer, ate stew and talked Steinbeck and, upon departing, I found myself wondering if their hospitality was a testament to the bond between dog people, or the bond between Steinbeck people.

Ace and I headed east for another 30 minutes before I started looking for a place to stay the night. Finding no big-name chain motels for under $100, I kept driving, hoping to find something independent and raunchy enough to be affordable. Stopping at two that appeared to fit that bill, I was told no pets were allowed. At a third, I walked into the empty lobby and saw a sign saying “No Pets.” Back in my car, I was pulling out when a female desk clerk still perfecting her English came running up to my car, waving her arms. I powered down my window.

“Why you leave? Why you leave?” she asked. “I have a dog,” I answered. “Oh,” she said, “We no allow dogs.”

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m leaving.”

“He can sleep in car,” she said.

“No, he can’t.”

On the Sunrise Highway, we passed one Sleepy’s mattress store, then a second, then a third. By the time we reached the Hamptons, I figured all chances for affordable lodging were lost. When we came to a fourth Sleepy’s, in Bridgehampton, I submitted.

I pulled in behind the store, sought out the darkest, most hidden parking spot and backed in, so if necessary we could make a quick getaway. While Ace can’t sleep in car, we can, and with the back seat folded down, he had plenty of room. Most of my baggage was either on the roof, Joad-style, or piled atop the passenger seat in the front. With some rearranging, I could stretch my legs across it and sleep, as long as I was willing to allow the emergency brake to get somewhat intimate with me. Ace dozed off immediately. Not long after I finally did, I was awakened by a bright light.

I was worried we might get rousted by police — we were vagrants in the Hamptons, after all — but this wasn’t them. It was a train, its light growing brighter and its horn blaring as it approached. For a second, I wondered if, in my grogginess, I had parked on some tracks. I looked back at Ace, whose eyes were bulging as wide as mine – a shared Holy Shit moment – just as the train whipped by on the other side of the shrubs I’d backed up against. There would be a few more loads of commuters passing through the night, waking Ace up, but no longer causing his eyes to enlarge. A simple pat on the head was assurance enough for him to fall quickly back to sleep, and amid a gentle patter of rain and lightning flashes in the distance, in the midnight solitude of a Sleepy’s parking lot, I would do the same.

In large part, that was because he was there. Were I truly traveling solo, I would have fretted over the fact that I was trespassing. I would have obsessed, even more than I did, about my uncomfortable sleeping position. I would have worried about who might approach in the night. When you have a dog with you, all the stuff that’s not worth worrying about in the first place has a way of staying within the realm of trivial. I think it’s a combination – of having another being to care about and having another being that seems to care about you – that serves to provide, at least to me, the kind of situational certainty I haven’t always walked through life with. When I’m with my dog, I’m more sure of myself. I might be more inclined to even stand up for myself. I might break a rule with which I don’t agree. One could call that “self confidence,” but that would be wrong. It’s really more “us confidence.”

This is one the secrets of the appeal of dogs: Dogs allow us to be alone without being lonely. They allow us to be us, but also make us part of a team. They keep us from getting entirely self-absorbed, give us a sense of purpose and — even with the tiniest of them – a sense of security. Multi-purpose beasts, they can either help us connect with society or help us maintain sanity and a peaceful soul when we choose to avoid it (as I’ll admit I sometimes like to do). They spare us from the painful side of solitude.

Up until New York, Ace had been constantly at my side, with one exception. Leaving Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, I’d stopped in Hershey, where a big RV show was underway. I checked him into a kennel provided by the entertainment complex while I spent an hour walking between rows of RV’s, hungrily eyeing the kind of rolling accommodations I coveted but couldn’t afford.

When I picked him up, he was clearly stressed. (He has been in day care a couple of times, but never, since his pound days, has he spent more than a few hours in a kennel, or stayed in one overnight.) It was a small facility with about a dozen crates. But it was chaotic – dogs coming, dogs going, dogs barking — and I guessed that he had felt abandoned. Just as one can be alone without being lonely, one can be lonely without being alone.

From there, we pressed on to Philadelphia, where we stayed a few days with some long-time friends who live just a few doors down from my favorite of the many icons the city has to offer, one that moves me even more than cracked bells and cheesesteaks — Eastern State Penitentiary.

Oh, the stories it could tell. For eight of the 16 years I lived in the area, I wrote about prisons for the Philadelphia Inquirer – an assignment that, like most, began with a crash course of my own design, aimed at making myself if not an expert, at least not a doofus, when it came to matters penal. Eastern State, considered the world’s first true penitentiary, opened in 1829 – the largest, most expensive public structure ever built at the time. It was there that the Philadelphia-born concept of reforming prisoners, as opposed to providing a strict diet of punishment, came into practice.

It was, in its intent, a noble idea, and a wise one, considering prisoners eventually get out. Rather than being a workhouse, like most prisons of the day, where prisoners toiled side by side in silence, Eastern State put them into solitary confinement. Alone with their thoughts, it was hoped that, they would become penitent. Each cell had a skylight, purportedly to let them know that God was looking down on them.

When Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the prison in 1831, he was impressed: “Thrown into solitude …where remorse will come to assail him…. Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness?”

It was powerful, alright, but it also made prisoners go crazy. Idleness works to no one’s benefit – except maybe those online universities and other companies that advertise on daytime TV. And without socialization, the anti-social become more that way. It’s true of caged prisoners and crated dogs. After food, water and maybe love, socialization and something to do are what dogs, and people, need most.

What became known as the Pennsylvania system was ditched in 1913. Eastern State, which would go on to house such notorious bad guys as Willie Sutton and Al Capone, remained open until 1971. Then it would become an abandoned hulk, serving later as a haunted house on Halloween, a tourist attraction and a museum. Its grassy perimeter, once eyed by guards, is now mostly sniffed by dogs. A children’s playground has been built on one piece of the prison’s backside, but the rest serves, unofficially, as a place for neighborhood dogs to relieve themselves.

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Four or five times a day during our stay, Ace and I walked over there. If no one was around, I unleashed him. He’d gallop about for a minute or two, then commence to sniffing, gathering canine history. I liked leaning against the 30 foot-high wall, 12 feet thick at its base. Somehow, contact with it made me feel more solid.

I ran my hand along the grey and brown stones, as if by doing so I might magically absorb some of the prison’s colorful past. That led, mostly, to gritty hands, but also to mental images of pinstriped suits and fedoras, Tommy guns and running boards; to thoughts about the folly of forcing religion on people; to consideration of all the bad places good intentions can lead, and the hazards inherent in penning a creature meant to roam — by which I mean not just dogs and other animals, but humans, and, particularly, Americans.

De Tocqueville, who after his visit to Eastern State would go on to write one of America’s first road trip books, “Democracy in America,” noted that Americans had a seemingly innate tendency to roam, and a shitload of resilience. (He didn’t use the word resilience, or shitload.)

“Born often under another sky…the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it; for the instability…instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.”

Our nomadic tendencies, our perpetual search for greener grass, our ability to bounce back were, 120 years later, common themes for Steinbeck, too. Only ten pages into “Travels with Charley” he notes, “Nearly every American hungers to move.”

While that may have been widely true in 1830s, and even the 1960s, there’s a good case to be made that it isn’t anymore. Americans seem to be isolating themselves more than ever. With technology having placed the world at our fingertips, there’s not much need to move our feet. With an economy grown more fragile, we’re more likely, for now, to hunker down. The resilience is still there, but, like the elastic in five-year-old underwear – and I packed enough of it to know — one sometimes wonders how much stretch it has left.

North of Philadelphia, we’d exited Interstate 95 in Yardley, the last stop before crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey. It’s a quaint little borough, most famous for braking for ducks, as proclaimed by its bumper stickers. It is where, in a life spent bouncing around, I lived the longest, 15 years. I showed Ace the three different houses I occupied, and I was heartened to see that, while having added even more Realtors, even more upscale restaurants and, of course, a Starbucks, Yardley still had but one stoplight.

Thirty minutes later we were on the New Jersey Turnpike, where – all quaintness quashed – we joined the northbound herd until pulling off at the Grover Cleveland Service Area. How better to honor our 22nd and 24th president than with a conglomeration of fast food outlets, vending machines, truck exhaust and shiny white porcelain?

The latter was my reason for stopping. When it comes to urinating, I always go first. I follow the advice that flight attendants give you about the oxygen mask — take care of yourself before assisting others, even your own small children. It makes sense on several levels, chief among them my bladder being merely mortal and Ace’s being an almighty wonder. Were I to let him go first, I would grow impatient, my bladder madder, and in my rush he’d not get the opportunity to fully sniff out his options, which seems important to him.

In the travel center’s restroom, five men were lined up at the urinals, three of whom were talking on cell phones. One had hands-free technology, one held the phone in place by crooking his head, and the third opted to use one hand for each task. Listening to three one-sided conversations at once – at least two seemed to involve financial deals – I felt left out, not having anyone to talk to. Not that urinal row is a particularly good place to strike up conversation. Unlike with dogs, for whom pee fests are a way to get to know each other, human decorum calls for a straight-head gaze and silence, unless of course you have vital business to conduct on your cell phone. So there the six of us stood, unzipped, poised and united in purpose, and yet all in our separate worlds.

On the way out, I grabbed an overpriced burger, then let Ace out to do his business. He sat patiently next to the picnic table while I ate, as long as I flung him the occasional French fry. I tried to dash off a quick blog post before my computer’s battery drained, fighting a keyboard that was getting increasingly greasy and a screen grown blurry from exhaust fumes. Not until Sag Harbor did I get the chance to give it, and myself, a good wiping down, using some of Ace’s water and a roll of paper towels I was lucky enough to find, amid all else, in the back seat.

My unnamed vehicle – though packed in a way to give Ace the utmost room – is jammed with stuff: Tent, sleeping bag, rolled up foam cushions, a fold-up cot, cooking equipment, cups and dishes, canned and otherwise slow to perish foodstuffs, a little propane burner; a box of books I think I might need, a box of notes and documents and little slips of paper with various phone numbers and passwords written on them, a fishing rod (never used on the trip), dog food, dog, dog crate (only set up once), and about three times as many clothes as I require. Atop that, or wedged into gaps, are the tools of my trade, whatever that is now — all the constantly in need of recharging gizmos necessary to document my journey: digital camera, video camera, digital voice recorder, laptop computer, cell phone, and all the cables, chargers and batteries needed to keep them working.

To think John Steinbeck, when it came to documenting his travels, got by with pencils and yellow legal pads.

His were simpler times, on the cusp of getting far more complicated. In addition to putting a man in orbit, and later on the moon, the 1960s – arguably the decade of more significant change than any other in America’s history, at least until those decades that followed – saw the invention of non-dairy creamer and permanent press clothing; the audio cassette and Valium; silicone breast implants and Astroturf; and, before the decade was over, the device that, next to the cell phone, is the second most likely to evolve into a human appendage, the computer mouse.

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Joyous Garde

When John Steinbeck strolled over to his one-man writing shack on the bay – named “Joyous Garde,” after Lancelot’s castle – he didn’t need to worry about Internet access. He wasn’t needled by incoming text messages, distracted by phone calls from telemarketers or suffering from the mental malaise that comes with having a brain clogged with passwords.

John Steinbeck never “LOL’ed, “OMG’ed,” or “CUL8R’ed.” He died before the Internet came along, leading us to new levels of distraction; before home computers that would allow us to keep all our information, vital and non-vital, in one place, get more whenever we wanted, and lose it all at once. The Internet would enable us to “reach out,” and “connect” in ways more superficial than ever before and – whoever thought this would be possible? – make small talk even smaller.

My theory is that all the artifice and cocooning the Internet would lead to has served to increase the popularity of dogs. They give us something tangible, something dependable, something real that pants and drools and sheds and requires us, at least a few times a day, to step away from the computer monitor. Maybe dogs are something to cling to in a world grown increasingly impersonal, where many of the traditional niceties we practiced have become less necessary, like a handshake, a smile, eye contact, or a friendly knock on a door.

A knock on the door was the last thing Steinbeck wanted when he was writing. He wrote “Travels with Charley” and “The Winter of Our Discontent” while sequestered in Joyous Garde, which he intentionally built small enough so that company wouldn’t comfortably fit inside. That, it seems, is how it must be with writers. First you socialize, gathering your information – a feat once accomplished by going out of doors and visiting people “in person.” Then you go into solitary (though dogs are allowed).

After buying his cove-front property, Steinbeck fretted much about having a quiet place to write. His wife enjoyed having guests visit, but that created too much noise for him. He built a work area in his garage. Then he tried writing in his station wagon. Then he moved his office onto his boat. None of them were just right.

Some might see that as procrastination. I’d argue that is part of writing (real writing as opposed to blogging), coming up with excuses to allow time for your thoughts to age like wine or steep like tea. On the ground outside of his writing shack, built on a triangular patch of land overlooking the bay, Steinbeck posted a sign intended to ensure he could write undisturbed. It bore one word, “Aroynte,” an old English term meaning “Be gone!” It’s still there.

His marks remain as well inside the simple two-bedroom house, located about a mile outside of Sag Harbor’s business district. On the wall of the kitchen, there are lines recording the heights of family members, visitors and Charley. According to a New York Times reporter who was given a tour of the house in 2010, the miniature cannon he once used to scare away geese is still in the living room. His statue of a unicorn remains, as does a sign he made reading “Trespassers Will Be Eaten.” Some drawers still bear his handmade labels, like “Knives, Chisels and Bladey Things.” The walls of his former garage are covered with grapevines he brought from California, and inside of the home hang photographs of Steinbeck with various famous people, and one of him accepting the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Some critics at the time – the more pissy ones — didn’t think much of the choice. A New York Times editorial noted Steinbeck “produced his major work more than two decades ago” and questioned “how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing.”

“Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck’s accomplishments,” the editorial continued (doing just that), “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer – perhaps a poet or critic or historian – whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a profound impression on the literature of our age.”

The award, while bestowed the same year “Travels with Charley” was published, wasn’t strictly in honor of that work, but “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” Still, coming on the heels of a “dog book” – even though “Travels with Charley” isn’t really a dog book – it led some of your more intellectual types to get that look of distaste they sometimes get.

That snobbishness remains — despite the plethora of dog books, some of them exceptional, in the last decade; despite the increasing recognition of how important the species is to humans. So much dog writing was for so long so trite, sappy and atrociously anthropomorphic, it’s hard for some people to take dogs as a serious subject matter. Dogs were never trivial, they were just trivialized. True, dogs are goofy, fun and contagiously whimsical – but those too are traits worthy of serious investigation. They too are attributes we, especially the more stilted among us, could learn from.

We need dogs. We need whimsy. And, when life becomes overly routine, we need to get moving, especially when we do the math and see there is much more of it behind us than in front of us.

Family members have said Steinbeck knew, or at least suspected, his days were numbered when he and Charley, in a camper he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s steed, pulled out of his driveway on Sept. 23, 1960.

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On Sept. 23, 2010, with a mutt named Ace, in a car with no name and a red blinking “malfunction indicator” light on the dashboard, I did the same, headed for the first of three ferry boat rides that would eventually land us in Connecticut.

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As Sag Harbor disappeared in the distance, I wondered why the town hasn’t done more to honor the author – not that he would have wanted it to.

Unlike his other hometowns, Salinas and Monterey in California, which have made much of their connection to Steinbeck, Sag Harbor gives barely a nod.

It could do a lot more when it comes to remembering him.

It could show a little more respect for dogs, too.

Almost everywhere we went we saw signs — in parks, shops and restaurants — stating, in no uncertain terms, that dogs weren’t welcome.

All in all, despite being the one-time home and final resting place of one of the country’s most famous dogs, Sag Harbor was not the dog-friendliest town in America.

But, with an eye toward examining America’s love affair with dog, that’s where we were heading.

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER

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Name: Samantha
Breed: Standard poodle
Age: 1
Encountered: Outside a coffee shop in Sag Harbor, New York
Backstory: Arriving in Sag Harbor to start retracing the route John Steinbeck took with Charley, the first dog we ran into was, appropriately enough, a poodle. Samantha belongs to Mark Brennan, who works during the week on Wall Street and spends weekends in Sag Harbor. Fetching as she was, Ace all but ignored her, more focused on Mark’s bagel than his poodle.

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