"I've got to know more about this," I said. "I'm just writing a piece saying the crabs out here are lousy."
"Never mind the Brown Derby," I said. "I've got to be reliable and accurate about this thing, and what I want to know is: Where did you get this crab?"
"Well if you've got to know," she said, "that's canned crab, but I don't know why you had to be so inquisitive."
In other words, it was good old Crisfield blue-claw, and maybe it didn't taste good!
The lobster is that crustacean known in the East as a crayfish and in France as a langouste, and it's not much, any way you take it. It has eight big legs, but no giant claws, so that there is no claw meat. The fat and coral are inedible, and there is hardly any shoulder meat. The gigantic tail, when steamed and served cold, is white and of even texture, but tasteless. Broiling doesn't help any. The tail muscle of a langouste, when broiled, splits off into pieces, like a rope that has been unravelled, so that it is disagreeable to eat, and has no more taste than it had before.
But the prize monster of these parts is called an abalone. The abalone, if pulled out of the North Sea, would be a coquille, and if pulled out of Long Island Sound would be a scallop; but as it is, it is pulled out of the Pacific, which makes it different. The shell is large, some six or eight inches across, and fluted like a scallop shell, very pretty. The thing itself is a lump of muscle about the size of a small lemon, and so tough that if you tried to cut it, it would jump off the plate and hit the lady at the next table in the eye. So they operate on it with a hammer to soften it up a bit. How many outfielders they have to post, to field it home when it jumps off the block, I don't know; but when they get through with it, it is a sort of Childs pancake, and this they dip in batter and fry. You can have it. I got half of one down once: what an experience that was!
There are barracuda, salmon, halibut, swordfish, and tarpon, but I personally don't regard them very highly. Swordfish, I suppose, is as good as it is said to be; but for my part, when they begin serving fish in steaks, it doesn't seem like fish any more. The medium-size fish, like shad and bass, which go so well after the soup, don't seem to taste right: perhaps the trouble is in the cookery. The only fish I can say much for out here are the sand-dab, which looks like a small English sole and tastes like perch; the grunion, a near-smelt that is against the law for some reason, and that you have to get bootleg, and the trout. The trout all seem to come from Noah Beery's trout farm, on the road to the Mohave Desert. They are pretty good, 'anyhow at the Town House, where they know how to make a meuniire sauce.
Now then, if there are no smells to caress my nose, and no sights to delight my eye, and no food to tickle my mouth, this gets us down pretty much to what we laughingly call my intellect. God knows I am not particular here, not anything like as particular as I am about oysters. I don't ask for talk about Proust, or familiarity with the cosmic ray theory, or acute critical appraisal of the latest Japanese painter; I can take such stuff or leave it alone, and I usually feel better when I am off it. But I do ask —what shall I say? Something that pricks my imagination a little, gives me some sort of lift, makes me feel that that day I heard something. And I am the sort that is as likely to get this from the common man as his more erudite cousin, the high-brow.
But what do I get? Nothing. For when a gentleman appears at my door, orange peeler in hand, bows gracefully at my halting invitation to come in, removes his hat with the utmost aplomb, enters, sits down easily, and explains in accents that would do credit to a Harvard man that this particular article is manufactured by the O'Peelo Company, and bears the signed guarantee of that firm, handsomely engraved with one extra blade all for ten cents —when that happens, it is hard for me to escape the reflection that what this wight has his mind on is an orange peeler.
Now, right there, I think, I finally get into words my main squawk against this section: the piddling occupations to which the people dedicate their lives. Bear in mind my disclaimer of high-brow leanings, which is honest, and the earthy nature of the intellectual fodder that I ask. I am greatly stimulated by a trapper boy in a West Virginia coal-mine, or a puddler in a Pennsylvania steel-mill, or a hand on a Nebraska corn-farm. These people, although they usually talk a dreadful jargon, are frequently morons, and sometimes anything but admirable personally, all take part in vast human dramas, and I find it impossible to disregard the stature which their occupations confer on them. If they are prosperous, it is big news; if they are hungry, it is tragic; and no matter what their condition is, they share some of the electric importance of the stages they tread
But what electric importance can be felt in a peddler of orange peelers? Or of a dozen ripe avocados, just plucked that morning? Or a confector of Bar-B-Q? Or the proprietor of a goldfish farm? Or a breeder of rabbit fryers? They give me no kick at all. They give themselves no kick. The whole place is overrun with nutty religions, which are merely the effort of these people to inject some sort of point into their lives; if not on earth, then in the stars, in numbers, in vibrations, or whatever their fancy hits on. They are not, as I have hinted, and as I shall show more clearly in a moment, inferior people. Rather the other way around. But they suffer from the cruel feebleness of the play which the economy of the region compels them to take part in.
If it were only possible to create for them a suitable play ar-tificially, as it is possible to fashion a play for childhood, where libraries, schoolhouses, athletic fields, and a few leagues and debating clubs are all that is needed to set things humming —the thing would have been done long ago. But with grown-ups it is not as simple as that. The yarn has to be there. There can be no build-up, as they say in the movies, for the main situation; it cannot be evoked at will, and it cannot be faked. If the voltage cannot be felt, the whole piece falls flat, and it will throw off no jumble of delightful sparks, of the kind we were talking about in connection with Paris.
They not only give themselves no kick, but they have developed, out of the things they do, a curious slant on life, particularly on Labor, which you have no doubt read about and probably misunderstood. For these occupations are not only piddling, but also fly-by-night; none of them seem to pay, and it is unusual to find a man who is doing the same thing now as he did last year. If he has a poultry farm, a few months ago he fixed flats and a few months before that had a news-stand.
This makes for the most incredible incompetence at those routine things that you have always taken for granted. The paperhanger takes five days to do a job that a good man would finish in one; the restaurant has its lights so placed that your head casts a shadow on your plate, making it impossible to see your food; a house, well-defigned otherwise, has one corner of the living-room gouged out to let in a trick stairway, the result being that you cannot lay a rug; the salesman has a persuasive line of talk about the merits of the article, and then has to look on the icebox door to find out the price; the telephone clerk reports that somebody called, but hasn't taken his number so you can call back; the waiter clamps a fork over the spoon when he serves peas, in the elegant manner of an Italian serving asparagus, not noticing that when it is peas he is serving, and not asparagus, this makes them bounce all over the table like shot; the bookstore is sorry, sir, but would have to know the publisher before it could order that book for you, apparently not knowing that the United States Index, which is lying open on the counter, was invented specifically to solve this problem; the apartment-house has it drawers built exactly three inches too short to hold a shirt; the movie impresario wires frantically to New York for a certain writer, only to discover that for a year he has had the varlet on his own lot.
You may think I overstate the case, in a strained effort to be comical. I assure you I do not. It is not only my observation. It is the observation of every Easterner who comes out here: I have talked with dozens of them on the subject, and all of them make the same report, most of them with much fancier illustrations than those I have given.
Now, this kind of thing, together with the state of affairs that lies back of it, has bred a fear of good, honest, well-paid craftsmanship that is at the bottom of the very genuine anti-union sentiment that you find here. This sentiment, no doubt, had its origin in the disturbances that led to the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times' office some years ago, and Big Business certainly had a hand in that fight.
But Big Business, so far as I have had a chance to observe it, is pretty sensible now. The core of the anti-union feeling here these days is not so much Big Business as Little Labor; and how this works out I can best show by quoting a man I talked with shortly after I came here.