I am convinced that my New York license plates are responsible for the $133 speeding ticket I got from a Missouri state trooper a few weeks ago. An out-of-state plate means easy money, since I’m certainly not going to show up at the courthouse this week to contest my ticket.
But I’m also convinced those New York plates got me off the hook a few days ago when I was pulled over for talking on my cell phone in central California: “Are you from New York?” he asked. “Did you know it’s illegal to use a cell phone in your car here?” Hey, California, I’m not complaining, but when your state is practically bankrupt you might want to go ahead and issue a ticket to every single person you can.
Those are just two of the imaginary reactions my New York status has provoked. Verifiable reactions have been a mixed bag. Steinbeck captured it perfectly in his 1962 travelogue “Travels with Charley,” which chronicled the by-then famous novelist’s road trip around America in a camper he named Rocinante:
It was said that my New York license plates would arouse interest and perhaps questions, since they were the only outward identifying marks I had. And so they did — perhaps twenty or thirty times in the whole trip. But such contacts followed an invariable pattern, somewhat as follows:
Local man: “New York, huh?”
Local man: “I was there in 1938 — or was it ’39? Alice, was it ’38 or ’39 we went to New York?”
Alice: “It was ’36. I remember because it was the year Alfred died.”
Local man: “Anyway, I hated it. Wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
And that’s still just about right. People who don’t live in New York don’t live there for a reason, and they’re both good-natured about it and not afraid to share those reasons. I’ve been asked many, many times why I do.
This brings me to Salinas, CA, Steinbeck’s hometown, which is now home to the National Steinbeck Center.
I have your average American Steinbeckian education: I read the usual suspects in high school, and picked up “Travels with Charley” in preparation for this trip. I never did finish “East of Eden,” but it’s on that long list of books I’m totally going to get around to someday. I’m never going to read, say, “Cannery Row.” It’s just not going to happen.
The Steinbeck center has small, mildly informative displays about all of Steinbeck’s books, and a decent introductory film. With an $11 entrance fee, however, it’s probably only for superfans. Call me when the International Center for Alice Munro Studies opens up.
From Salinas, I drove up to Saratoga, where I spent a lovely afternoon sipping poolside margaritas with my friend Avik, and also touring his home that is shaped like a doughnut (seriously!). We went to a party that night in San Francisco, and the next day said goodbye and drove up the coast along Route 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway.
It was a dark and stormy day, but still lovely. I mean, it’s the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s gorgeous. Up, up, up the coast. It’s a long drive.
Now, after a few days of winding through redwoods and along the rainy shore, I sit in a coffee shop in Portland, OR, tapping away, planning the next few days, mulling over the deep thoughts that inevitably arise on days when I spend more than five or six hours in car. “New York is not America,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend in preparation for his trip 49 years ago. That’s why he left, and it has something to do with why I left, too.
If I drove directly to Brooklyn right now, I’d be 2,896 miles away. By my calculations, this is the very farthest I’ll be from home.