A follow-up to this: The Facebook Folly
From Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck:
The main purpose of this homecoming seemed to be fighting over politics, but in between I visited old places. There was a touching reunion in Johnny Garcia’s bar in Monterey, with tears and embraces, speeches and endearments in the poco Spanish of my youth. There were Jolón Indians I remembered as shirttail chamacos. The years rolled away. We danced formally, hands locked behind us. And we sang the southern county anthem, “There wass a jung guy from Jolón— got seek from leeving halone. He wan to Keeng Ceety to gat sometheeng pretty—Puta chingada cabrón.” I hadn’t heard it in years. It was old home week. The years crawled back in their holes. It was the Monterey where they used to put a wild bull and a grizzly bear in the ring together, a place of sweet and sentimental violence, and a wise innocence as yet unknown and therefore undirtied by undiapered minds.
We sat at the bar, and Johnny Garcia regarded us with his tear-blown Gallego eyes. His shirt was open and a gold medal on a chain hung at his throat. He leaned close over the bar and said to the nearest man, “Look at it! Juanito here gave it to me years ago, brought it from Mexico—la Morena, La Virgincita de Guadeloupe, and look!” He turned the gold oval. “My name and his.”
I said, “Scratched with a pin.”
“I have never taken it off,” said Johnny.
A big dark paisano I didn’t know stood on the rail and leaned over the bar. “Favor?” he asked, and without looking Johnny extended the medal. The man kissed it, said “Gracias,” and went quickly out through the swinging doors.
Johnny’s chest swelled with emotion and his eyes were wet. “Juanito,” he said. “Come home! Come back to your friends. We love you. We need you. This is your seat, compadre, do not leave it vacant.”
I must admit I felt the old surge of love and oratory and I haven’t a drop of Galician blood. “Cuñado mio,” I said sadly, “I live in New York now.”
“I don’t like New York,” Johnny said.
“You’ve never been there.”
“I know. That’s why I don’t like it. You have to come back. You belong here.”
I drank deeply, and darned if I didn’t find myself making a speech. The old words unused for so long came rattling back to me. “Let your heart have ears, my uncle, my friend. We are not baby skunks, you and I. Time has settled some of our problems.”
“Silence,” he said. “I will not hear it. It is not true. You still love wine, you still love girls. What has changed? I know you. No me cagas, niño.”
“Te cago nunca. There was a great man named Thomas Wolfe and he wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again. And that is true.”
“Liar,” said Johnny. “This is your cradle, your home.” Suddenly he hit the bar with the oaken indoor ball bat he used in arguments to keep the peace. “In the fullness of time—maybe a hundred years—this should be your grave.” The bat fell from his hand and he wept at the prospect of my future demise. I puddled up at the prospect myself.
I gazed at my empty glass. “These Gallegos have no manners.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Johnny said. “Oh, forgive me!” and he filled us up.
The line-up at the bar was silent now, dark faces with a courteous lack of expression.
“To your home-coming, compadre,” Johnny said. “John the Baptist, get the hell out of those potato chips.”
“Conejo de mi Alma,” I said. “Rabbit of my soul, hear me out.”
The big dark one came in from the street, leaned over the bar and kissed Johnny’s medal, and went out again.
I said irritably, “There was a time when a man could be listened to. Must I buy a ticket? Must I make a reservation to tell a story?”
Johnny turned to the silent bar. “Silence!” he said fiercely, and took up his indoor ball bat.
“I will now tell you true things, brother-in-law. Step into the street—strangers, foreigners, thousands of them. Look to the hills, a pigeon loft. Today I walked the length of Alvarado Street and back by the Calle Principál and I saw nothing but strangers. This afternoon I got lost in Peter’s Gate. I went to the Field of Love back of Joe Duckworth’s house by the Ball Park. It’s a used-car lot. My nerves are jangled by traffic lights. Even the police are strangers, foreigners. I went to the Carmel Valley where once we could shoot a thirty-thirty in any direction. Now you couldn’t shoot a marble knuckles down without wounding a foreigner. And Johnny, I don’t mind people, you know that. But these are rich people. They plant geraniums in big pots. Swimming pools where frogs and crayfish used to wait for us. No, my goatly friend. If this were my home, would I get lost in it? If this were my home could I walk the streets and hear no blessing?”
Johnny was slumped casually over the bar. “But here, Juanito, it’s the same. We don’t let them in.”
I looked down the line of faces. “Yes, here it is better. But can I live on a bar stool? Let us not fool ourselves. What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What’s out there is new and perhaps good, but it’s nothing we know.”
Johnny held his temples between his cupped hands and his eyes were bloodshot.
“Where are the great ones? Tell me, where’s Willie Trip?”
“Dead,” Johnny said hollowly.
“Where is Pilon, Johnny, Pom Pom, Miz Gragg, Stevie Field?”
“Dead, dead, dead,” he echoed.
“Ed Ricketts, Whitey’s Number One and Two, where’s Sonny Boy, Ankle Varney, Jesús María Corcoran, Joe Portagee, Shorty Lee, Flora Wood, and that girl who kept spiders in her hat?”
“Dead—all dead,” Johnny moaned.
“It’s like we was in a bucket of ghosts,” said Johnny.
“No. They’re not true ghosts. We’re the ghosts.”
The big dark one came in and Johnny held out his medal for kissing without being asked.
Johnny turned and walked with widespread legs back to the bar mirror. He studied his face for a moment, picked up a bottle, took out the cork, smelled it, tasted it. Then he looked at his fingernails. There was a stir of restlessness along the bar, shoulders hunched, legs were uncrossed.
There’s going to be trouble, I said to myself.
Johnny came back and delicately set the bottle on the bar between us. His eyes were wide and dreamy.
Johnny shook his head. “I guess you don’t like us any more. I guess maybe you’re too good for us.” His fingertips played slow chords on an invisible keyboard on the bar.
For just a moment I was tempted. I heard the wail of trumpets and the clash of arms. But hell, I’m too old for it. I made the door in two steps. I turned.
“Why does he kiss your medal?”
“He’s placing bets.”
“Okay. See you tomorrow, Johnny.”
The double door swung to behind me. I was on Alvarado Street, slashed with neon light—and around me it was nothing but strangers.
The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me.
What I am about to tell must be the experience of very many in this nation where so many wander and come back. I called on old and valued friends. I thought their hair had receded a little more than mine. The greetings were enthusiastic. The memories flooded up. Old crimes and old triumphs were brought out and dusted. And suddenly my attention wandered, and looking at my ancient friend, I saw that his wandered also. And it was true what I had said to Johnny Garcia—I was the ghost. My town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance—and I wanted to go for the same reason. Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.