John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, lived in Laguna Beach while he wrote his first novel. Sadly, for all the “Laguna is so special” folks, it wasn’t about here.
He and his wife, Carol, rented a room on Park Avenue for $15 a month during the winter of 1931-1932. They were here for the cheap winter rent, pleasant weather, and scenic setting. They must have had some social scene thanks to all the artists and artistic types that congregated here for the same reasons as the Steinbeck’s.
His first books weren’t big successes. But his third novel, “Tortilla Flat,” was an instant hit. Hollywood came calling and the movie version soon followed.
“Tortilla Flat” has some useful observations in it for folks who are thinking about Laguna’s homeless problem. The novel tells the tale of Danny and his fellow paisanos who came to live high on a hill above Monterey in two houses Danny inherited from his grandfather.
The story is set in the years following WWI, when California still had the space for you to be you, no matter how special you might be. Danny and his pals are special in their quest to be free—free from all encumbrances that constrain most people’s lives.
They are content to live outdoors and give up all the creature comforts most folks work so hard for. So, it’s a big step up for the paisanos when Danny inherits two houses. He is happy to rent one to his buddies but never collects a cent. A crowd soon starts to form in the rented house as more and more friends sublet space at the same rent—nothing. Sort of like a homeless shelter, except you could do anything you want.
What these paisanos want most is to float above the obligations of the working world. Free to spend their day in the hunter gatherer’s search for whatever can be collected, scrounged, or stolen to buy wine and fill the stomach.
That leaves lots of time for philosophical discussions that often degrade into drunken fights. Time for adventures. Time to reflect on how good life can be with your tribe of fellow wanderers and why would you ever want to change.
The paisanos in Tortilla Flat and their contemporary version in Laguna aren’t victims. They have their life figured out. Our help is just part of the environment to be exploited.
We used to have the space for this behavior to carry on unabated. It now requires firmer regulation and perhaps a little less charity.
J.J. Gasparotti moved to Laguna Beach with his family when he was 11 years old. He has loved it ever since.