When Word Meanings Mattered: A Lesson in English in John Steinbeck’s Monterey, California

Image of word meanings on a napkin

I got the call at an ungodly hour of the morning. I don’t remember the exact time, but it was after 2:00. I know that for sure because 2:00 a.m. is when the bars in Monterey closed, and Sergio worked at a bar. He’d been in the country about a year, having arrived from a small town in the heel of Italy. He did other odd-man jobs: repairing things here and there, dishwashing, gardening, plumbing when called upon, but because of his size he was considered handy as a bouncer.

When Sergio was behind the bar, a person with fighting on his mind was certain to think twice before rolling up his sleeves. Seeing Sergio standing there with his enormous forearms and bulging biceps was usually enough. I’m sure that’s why Lester’s Bar rarely experienced trouble. No slugfests, everything peaceful; in my book it had to be because of Sergio.

When he wasn’t at the door looking threatening, he was cleaning tables and picking up empties. He did this six nights a week, with Sundays off; during the day he often took gardening jobs, working with Willy Hinze installing sprinkler systems in lawns around town. Willy was a dropout from the University of California at Santa Cruz, an ex-double major in psychology and philosophy. One day I saw Willy and Sergio hard at it after the municipal golf course changed hands and the new owner had them tearing out the iron pipes to put in new plastic tubing. The ground was soft from rain and Sergio was wallowing around in the mud while Willy sat in the bow of a cypress tree near the ninth green reading a book of philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea.

“I didn’t have time to read this when I was at school,” Willy explained when I stopped my car to say hello. “Listen to this: ‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.’ Wow, pretty powerful stuff!”

“Does Schopenhauer say anything about getting muddy? Like Sergio over there, for instance?”

“Oh yeah, as a matter of fact he does,” Willy replied, turning the pages to find the quotation. “Here ’tis: ‘A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.'”

Maybe Arthur Schopenhauer was right, but I don’t think Willy ever asked Sergio about it. Yet in the end Sergio probably couldn’t have cared less one way or another. He loved work, and that was enough for him. Hard work explained his physical strength and powerful build.

“How’s Sergio doing with his English?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, I’m on it. Every day’s a new lesson. He’s getting there in leaps and bounds.”

Willy returned to his book and I to my car. I waved to Sergio as I drove away.

Ciao, Sergio, come va?

Bene, sto bene, John. I see you a presto, Lester’s Bar?”

“Not tonight,” I answered. “I need to sleep tonight.”

That was the plan, anyway—until my telephone rang sometime after 2:00 a.m. It was Sergio.

“I am with the policia, John. In carcere. You come to get me, per favore?”

The drive to the Monterey police station from my house in Pacific Grove usually took 25 minutes, but that morning I made it in 15. I was in a hurry, dressed quickly in a track suit and flip-flops, and didn’t bother brushing my hair.

“He’s ready to go if you’ll sign for his bail,” the desk sergeant said when I arrived. “It’s not serious, so the bail’s $200 dollars.”

“What did he do?” I asked. “Why is he here?”

“He finished work at Lester’s, went over to the Coffee Cup Café for breakfast, sat down at the counter, and proceeded to use foul language with the waitress. Somebody heard it and called the police. We got him for causing a disturbance, using vulgarity, and insulting a woman in public.”

The sergeant added, “I imagine he’ll tell you the rest.”

After I’d signed the bail papers, they walked Sergio to the front of the station. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so defeated. Naturally tall and strapping. he came out looking bent and beaten.

Scusami, John. Mi scusi,” he pleaded as we walked to my car. “We talk tomorrow? I cannot talk tonight.”

“It’s already tomorrow, Sergio. I’m going to drive you home, then I’m going back to bed. When we talk, it’ll be in the afternoon, and you’d better have a good explanation. Capische?”


Sergio met me at the Coffee Cup, the scene of his unexplained crime the night before. I drank in silence and listened as Sergio poured out his grieving heart.

“Okay,” I finally said, catching the waitress’s eye and ordering refills. “Here’s the thing, Sergio. It’s obvious that Willy isn’t helping you.”

I picked up a napkin from the counter and drew a picture.

“You see this?”

I spelled it out in large print, slowly pronouncing each letter: F – O – R – K.

“This is what you wanted,” I explained. “This is what you should have said.”

Slowly, Sergio nodded.

“Now let’s hear you say it.”

He leaned forward. Looking at the letters, he pronounced the word carefully.


“And what will you say to a waitress next time?”

“Waitress, I want a fork. Please give me a fork.”

“That’s right,” I answered as I pondered the world of will and idea that causes people, if not philosophers, undeserved pain.

“If you ever say that other word to a waitress, the police will put you back in jail.”

John Bell Smithback About John Bell Smithback

John Bell Smithback is a former teacher and newspaper columnist living in Bellingham, Washington. He has published more than 50 books defining English idioms and proverbs for an international audience, as well as The Lonely Dark, a novel about America in the age of the atomic bomb, and Silent in the Dawn, a collection of poems. In his early years he lived in the Monterey, California house where John Steinbeck once wrote and where he met friends from Steinbeck’s time.

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