A month ago I was asked by a very prominent Bulgarian writer, Nikola Indjov, to write a story for a Bulgarian sea almanac. It was not necessary to dig deep – I had only one in mind beyond which my sea experience amounted to nil. Therefore, it was very wise not to attempt any fiction writing. It all began sometime in 1968 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and it continued with interruptions over 40 years with no end in sight, thanks to Steinbeck's “Cannery Row.”
The book was given to me by my boss, the Director of the Central Laboratory of Biophysics of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, a biologist. At that time I was a young scientist fresh out of the Sofia University Chemistry Department. I was fascinated by the book to such an extent that upon returning it I naturally said “Thanks, Doc!” Calling him “Doc” at that moment was probably one of the major investments in my scientific career. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that not only I but “Doc” too had the dream to land by some magical trick on “Cannery Row” and to check the vivid images we had from the book against the reality. It was pure fiction to think about regular travel to the United States – this was a reality ingrained in our minds by the official state ideology.
Thus, for the above sea story, I was searching the web to see what was new about Steinbeck’s Monterey. I quickly found two interesting books that I didn’t know about: “Cannery Row, The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue” by Michael Hemp, and “Real Life on Cannery Row. Real People, Places and Events that Inspired John Steinbeck” by A. L. “Scrap” Lundy. I bought both of these books and read them. What was unexpected to me was to find that “Scrap” Lundy had read the book “Cannery Row” at least 22 years after I had first read it! For a moment, I was kind of proud of myself, but only for a moment - I was very much behind in crossing the boundary between fiction and reality.
On the web, I also found a picture of Alicia Harby De Noon, a lady who seemed vaguely familiar. Digging through my 1995 photo albums, I found a photograph that was probably an image of me and her in the Wing Chong Market. At the time, she was very surprised that we (me and my wife, Paula) knew many details from the book. She invited us in for a tour of the market and gave us a set of fish can labels as well as copies of some documents related to Doc's Lab (two personal letters by Ed Ricketts and Creditor's claim by Charles E. Burt to Ed Ricketts, deceased). I wrote a letter to Michael Hemp with this information and he kindly confirmed, without even seeing the pictures that, yes, we had indeed met Alicia Harby de Noon, the empress of the Wing Chong Market!
I also remember telling Alicia that we had our own "Doc," far away and long ago in Bulgaria, he called me "Mack" because I suggested that he hire four more young physicists, friends of mine, to form his own research group. I said that in 1970 "Mack and two of the boys" were sent to the city of Sozopol on the Black Sea to fix an abandoned fishermen house in order to serve as a summer Lab. It was named by me "Eastern Biophysical," the closest possible title to "Western Biological” – my second strong career move! The Cannery Row “game” was in full swing in that summer of 1970, mirroring the occupation of the Palace Flophouse by Mack and the boys, including drawing chalk rectangles for the “beds” and “furnishing” the fisherman house using legal and, even more realistically, semi-legal means. The latter was easy to realize taking into account that no money was allocated for the renovation activity due to, as we were told, purely formal reasons. Showing high level of sensitivity, we did not ask for details about these reasons - the similarity with Cannery Row boys was as close as it could get which was great and in some aspects liberating. Soon, the scientific operations in "The Eastern Biophysical" were totally immersed in the atmosphere of real brotherhood and sisterhood maintained not without the help of a constant stream of friendly visitors, one of which that summer was my future wife, a consequence which now could easily be measured very happily and quantitatively: 3 + 5, i.e. three children and 5 grandchildren.
In 1995, I could finally return to Bulgaria after 10 years in the USA, and I quickly went to see what remained of the Eastern Biophysical. The fishermen house was gone, only a small pile of rubble was marking its place. The sea and the rocks were the same, left untouched by the economical and political upheavals after the establishment of the democracy in 1989. Now, friends of mine who know the area advise me not go there. They say it is worthless now - the whole peninsula, called The Small Fjords, the most beautiful piece of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, has been “acquired” and fenced in by the new democracy-created robber barons who do not even bother to provide free access to the sea.
Nothing entirely unexpected, the real life naturally and mercilessly changes everything, just look at the present Cannery Row. This is why the stories are always better. They can live forever, unrestricted even by geography or history. We know that perfectly well. We also suspect that “Cannery Row” will always be a great challenge for snobbish literati whose attitudes are a far cry from Steinbeck’s one: you just “open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves” like some of these so delicate flat sea worms who break and tatter under touch that “you must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water.”
What’s next? Next, I am planning one more trip. On April 15th I will fly to L.A. where the Bulgarian “Doc” happens to live in Pasadena. From there we will follow the route of Steinbeck’s Doc from La Jolla to Monterey probably making our first and last joint pilgrimage to the place of our dreams without any great hope to resolve the ever present dilemma: When were we happier? Then, in 1970, or now?
Columbus, Ohio, March, 2009
Acknowledgments: Special thanks go to Tony DiCarlo for editing my prose, scanning and restoring my photographs, and helping me with my schizophrenic computer. I am very grateful to Michael Hemp for his interest and encouragement to present this story to all fans of the great old times and characters made immortal by John Steinbeck.
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When Alex Gochev (Mack) and his professor, George Dechev (Doc) arrived in Monterey they were met by Michael Hemp and PBL Member, Frank Wright, who opened the Lab in their honor. Nearly two hours past, spent in deep reverie of being in Ed Ricketts' Lab with one of the two members of the men's group that owned the Lab since the mid-1950s who actually knew Ed Ricketts.
Lunch at the Cannery Row Intercontinental Hotel, generously hosted by Lab Member, Frank Wright, prepared the group (Gochev and Dechev were accompanied by Dechev's wife, Violeta Decheva, and Alex’s close friend, Andre Yavrouian) for an internet television production at Wave Street Studios—an hour's historic interview by Kalisa Moore and Michael Hemnp with Dr. Dechev and Dr. Gochev. Click here to see the interview (scroll down to Memories of Cannery Row with Kalisa Moore and click on "Ed Ricketts Lab on the Shores of the Black Sea."
This entire oddessey is a testament to the global strength of the literary influence of John Steinbeck and the world-wide attraction of the lore of hisoric Old Cannery Row.
Alex Gochev has written of his quest for the distinguished Bulgarian journal "Vezni" and is also writing a book about it for a prominent Bulgarian publisher. It may be printed in a bi-lingual version.