One of my favorite scenes in any book takes place in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. If you remember the story, it’s about the citizens of a particular street along the California coast. There’s a man they call Doc who collects all kinds of species of sea animals to sell to colleges and laboratories. And there’s a group of homeless guys who live across the street from Doc’s shop. They live in an old warehouse and one of them lives with his wife in a large, abandoned piece of pipe. His wife has draped curtains over fake windows on the inside of the pipe and the boys all sit on the steps looking out at the street, judging the value of the world as it passes by. The homeless boys are led by a well-meaning man named Mack who wants to throw a party for Doc but just makes a bunch of mayhem trying.
One afternoon Doc and a friend are working in his laboratory and the friend happens to look out the window to see the boys drinking their beers and judging the world and he wonders out loud to Doc about whether they’re any good as men. Doc argues they are and says of the boys that in a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean.
Doc’s friend won’t hear it. They’re homeless and an eye sore. As Doc and his friend were talking, the whole town was headed down to watch a parade because it was the 4th of July. Doc told his friend to watch the boys and he bet his friend that even as the band marched by and as the princess rode by on the back of a convertible the boys wouldn’t turn and look. He said they were not taken in by glitz and glamour and noise. To the amazement of Doc’s friend, the boys never turned their heads.
And then Doc makes an observation about the world I’ve always thought was profound: The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.
I’ve always loved that scene. I don’t think a month goes by that I don’t think of it and I read that book for the first time twenty years ago. I don’t know why I like it so much except I want to be the kind of person who isn’t taken in by shiny things, by the big show of personality, of charm.
I’ve noticed something in life. I’ve noticed there are dazzling people who are remarkable and amazing and worth telling stories about and then there are quiet ones who get up each day and go to work like farmers. And I’ve noticed the quiet ones who get up each day and go to work like farmers are usually the ones that, over the long arch of a life, can be counted on the most. They speak a simple truth and prove their values through work. Everything else is a parade, I suppose. Sometimes when I meet somebody who talks slick and there’s a crowd gathering I think about Mack and the boys and I quietly walk the other way.