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Sole Food for a Wharf Rat

It’s what I call a day of grace. Sycamore trees are dropping gold doubloons at my feet and the warm autumn air wraps me like a favorite worn shawl. I’m almost levitating because I’ve just sold another batch of books. Monterey is quivering with commerce. Pity on anyone who can’t get outside for awhile.

Water splashes gaily at Portola Plaza’s gargantuan three-tiered water fountain that is situated at the epicenter of the brick promenade. Surrounding that are ancient adobes depicting grizzlies and Spanish settlers. I decide to take a walk that I have recently re-discovered: Wharf No. 2, the working wharf, not the tourist-laden one that looks like a street scene from downtown Tokyo.

I take the concrete walkway alongside the yacht club, which is very low-key, considering some of the Onassis-sized yachts that cruise into our bay. Little dinghies and sloops strain at their ropes with names like Oh! Susanna, Mighty Mary, Intrepid and Twilight. The oily water reflects back an orb of sun and suddenly I see dozens of orbs. These are light purple and they oscillate and drift thither and yon.

It’s moon jellies! Hurray! I don’t have to pay to see them at the aquarium. We’ve had such a spate of them recently washed up on the beaches. But I’ve never actually seen them in the bay - and especially not around the wharf.

After staring awhile and drifting with the jellies, I power walk down the creaky wooden planks of the pier toward the sole operating canneries in Monterey. I’m not much for fish but the fresh sea air co-mingles with them to off gas the most refreshing smell. They now have big signs that invite tourists like me to “buy fresh fish here.”

I peer into the open door of the cannery where men in slickers are hosing off the concrete floor and women with their hair in nets are slicing and dicing everything from snapper to sole. They wave at me and I grin like a kid on a camp-out.

Sea lions are bellowing and barfing under the pier pilings and I note five two-person fiberglass sail boats. A man with a bullhorn is ordering the teens who captain them to peel out of the bay in formation, put out their cigarettes, and lean this or that way.

I laugh at the teenage rebellion. One kid is shouting back to the kid behind him that he has a lighter. Another one challenges the teacher who shouts that he shouldn’t have gone past a particular buoy.

After they pass, I continue around the backside of the cannery and notice a man and woman staring into the inky water. As I am wont to do, and this is why I love traveling alone, I walk up to any darned stranger I please and start up a chat room. Being the big shot, I tell the couple that they are witnessing moon jellies.

They are admiring the spate of them and the man kindly proceeds to tell me more about them than I could have imagined.

“I want to pick up the ones on the sand and throw them back into the sea,” I say. “I know some of them are still alive after they get washed up.” (I know because I’ve poked them hard and they’ve quivered.)

“Oh, there’s really no point in that,” he says, smiling. “You see they drift with the tides and they can’t swim against them.”

So THAT’S why they become castaways. Ya’ learn somethin’ new ever’ day.

“And you don’t want to pick them up anyway. See those hair-thin fibers that line their outer rims? Those are stingers.”

We talk some more and I leave them, merrily filled with as much human contact as I’ll need for the day. I need to get my exercise laps in so I circle the pier several more times until a couple fishmongers give me the evil eye.

On my way back I stand in awe of one mammoth fishing boat, Pioneer, and how it is obviously still afloat and open for business. It is rusted worse than a thousand wheelbarrows left out in the rain, but a crusty fisherman is cranking its two-story high hoist and crane. What keeps it from taking on water, I cannot say. But it’s clear that this treasured boat is some sailor’s livelihood.

The next treasure the day brings me is this: a bum in a stupor, grabbing at his beer in a brown paper bag, droops on a bench. Just yards away another man, also in tattered and dirty clothes, earns my respect. He is playing a small red accordion and taps out a peppy hillbilly tune on what appears to be a makeshift tambourine strapped to his foot. This man is working for a living and I dig deep into my pockets to find half-pence or two but there’s zip.

I debate on whether to walk up to him and say, “Sir, I sure appreciate what you’re doing to earn a living. I like your music. Sorry I don’t have any money.”

Instead, I keep walking.

But then, something makes me stop and look back. He’s staring at me and so I hop a bit, letting him know I enjoy his jaunty music.

He smiles.

This is soul food that nourishes me for the rest of the day . . .



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