The author Curt Gentry was a big Steinbeck fan and he went out of his way to kindly help me with my book “Dogging Steinbeck.”  Here’s the beginning of his obit from the San Francisco Chronicle today:

Curt Gentry, a San Francisco author who wrote or co-wrote 13 books including best-sellers “Helter Skelter” about the Charles Manson case and a harshly critical biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, died July 10 in a San Francisco hospital.

Gentry was incredibly kind to me when I met him in the spring of 2010 while doing research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.” He bought me lunch twice and gave me his notes and the draft of his Chronicle article (see below) from his encounter/interview with Steinbeck in the fall of 1960, when Steinbeck and wife Elaine stopped at the St. Francis Hotel on Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” trip.

Gentry was one of the first to read my book and he wrote a wonderful blurb about it. When I read it at my book store/library appearances, I can hardly keep from choking up.

He was a great guy with great stories. I’ll always be sorry he was too sick to meet with me the last time I was in San Francisco.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with John Steinbeck in 1960.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with  Steinbeck in 1960.

The blurb Gentry wrote for my book, which was perfect and fair:

I still believe John Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest writers and I still love “Travels With Charley,” be it fact or fiction or, as Bill Steigerwald doggedly proved, both.  While I disagree with a number of Steigerwald’s conclusions, I don’t dispute his facts. He greatly broadened my understanding of Steinbeck the man and the author, particularly during his last years. And, whether Steigerwald intended it or not, in tracking down the original draft of “Travels With Charley” he made a significant contribution to Steinbeck’s legacy. “Dogging Steinbeck” is a good honest book.

– Curt Gentry

Author of “Helter Skelter: The True Story of

the Manson Murders” (with Vincent Bugliosi)

John Steigerwald column for 7.19/20.14

Isn’t college football wonderful?

Within the next week or two, student-athletes from all over the country will be gathering on college campuses to prepare for another football season.

At least one of them will have a big, fat insurance policy paid for out of the Student Assistance Fund. That’s the fund that schools use to help kids who may need money to fly home for a funeral or to visit a sick relative. You would think that an organization like the NCAA, which, until this year actually had rules against giving football players cream cheese for their bagels, would have a big problem with that.

Texas A&M’s problem was that its All-Everything offensive tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi, was thinking about declaring for the NFL draft after it was presumed that he would be a number one draft pick.

How do you prevent a kid from signing up for the multi-million dollar signing bonuses that number one picks get?

You insure him for a few million dollars against a career ending injury. The associate AD for football, Justin Moore, told Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports that it’s a loophole in the NCAA rules that, “I don’t think many schools know about it. It’s a game changer.”

Keep in mind that it’s the NCAA and its member institutions of higher learning that recoil at any mention of paying athletes anymore than tuition, room and board. How is giving a kid a $60,000 insurance policy any different from giving him $60, 000 in cash?

There were lots of coaches’ ears perking up when they heard that news. Expect lots of highly insured football players in the future and a lot more players sticking around for that extra year.

Not for anything related to academics, of course, but to enhance their draft status.

The NCAA is a corrupt, bloated, obsolete, useless bureaucracy that needs to go away. And, it just may be going before too long.

The Ed O’Bannon class action lawsuit just wrapped up last week and if O’Bannon wins, the NCAA will never be the same. He sued on behalf of players who, among other things, had their likenesses used to sell billions of dollars worth of video games without being compensated.

An attorney who has worked in the highest levels of professional sports (who spoke on condition of anonymity) said this about the lawsuit:

“I haven’t followed the testimony closely enough to predict the outcome, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. (NCAA President Mark) Emmert and his cohorts are like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the final scene where they think they fought off their pursuers, not realizing there are scores more awaiting them. The NCAA as we know it is dead. It’s just a matter of who and what, individually or collectively delivers the kill shot.”

“The five big conferences will have complete authority and the NCAA will be figuring out how to fund the millions of dollars of judgments against it that await.”

He had told me before the trial that I should expect “A crater in Indianapolis where the NCAA sits.”

The judge is expected to rule next month.

Can’t wait to see the crater and the chaos that will follow.

The chaos will ultimately make more sense than the NCAA has made in the last 40 years.

The great travel writer Paul Theroux is done with the continents of Asia, Africa and South America and is now working on North America.

He’s written a long article in Smithsonian magazine, “the Soul of the South,” that will be part of the book he’s writing about the American South.

He was also interviewed by NPR’s midday news program “Here and Now,” so you can listen to him. Here’s a previous interview with him from NPR, before he took off on his Southern trip.

Here are some pull quotes pulled from WBUR’s interview:

 

Interview Highlights: Paul Theroux

On reactions to being a Northerner traveling through the American South

“I stuck to the rural areas. And rural America has its deep roots, and, I think, great values. I said to a man in Aiken, South Carolina, ‘I’m a stranger.’ He said, ‘You’re not a stranger, there ain’t no strangers here.’ And a woman said the same thing to me in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. ‘I’m a stranger.’ She said ‘You’re not a stranger, there are no strangers here.’”

On visiting the infamous Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Miss.

“Bryant’s Store where Emmett Till met his doom, is still standing. It’s on a crossroads. Money, Mississippi, is a back road, there’s a railway running through it. Train doesn’t stop. The walls are crumbling, there are vines and roots sort of holding it together. They don’t know whether it’s a monument, a horror — it’s a haunted building. And Money, Mississippi, is a very tiny place. I doubt there are two dozen people who live there.”

On unexpected encounters in the Delta

“I was in the Delta, in the town of Greenville [Mississippi] in the Delta. And I must say, the Delta is a very poor place — poor in money, great in spirit. I was asking a lady about the B.B. King Museum and this woman’s colleague said, ‘Should we tell him?’And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the [colleague] said, ‘This is B.B. King’s ex-wife.’ His last wife! Most recent wife. So we talked about B.B. King.”

 

And here’s quote from Theroux about how helpful people are when you travel — alone.

 

THEROUX: When you’re traveling in the South, you get a warm welcome. I mean you, I go from New England, rather chilly and, you know, people barely say hello to each other in the post office. They kind of stare and think, you know, you look – they look at you as though you might be asking them not to pay their taxes or something. And, you know, in the South, I mean one of my earlier experiences was I was stuck.

I was looking in a map in my car and the woman in the car next to me said: You lost, baby? I said, yeah, I’m looking for this church. And she said: Well, I can tell you – I told her the church – she said I can take you there. Follow me. She drove three miles out of her way. I mean, we had been in a parking lot and she was going to church that morning too but not there and took me to the church. And I thought, this is wonderful, I like this.

And afterwards, I thanked her profusely. And she said: Be blessed. And I thought that’s the South: Be blessed.

I had a handful of encounters during my road trip in 2010. A guy in Minnesota drove across town to lead me to a diner and the women of New England took great pity on me, as I recount in this excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”:

 

I had my first face-to-face encounter with a human on state Route 11 when I drove through the sad little burg of Patten.

I had doubled back to photograph a bush-choked old house on Main Street that was obviously inhabited when Steinbeck hurried by 50 years ago. As I got out of my car, a young woman stopped, rolled her passenger window down and asked if I needed any help. She thought I was lost, which it looked like I was. But I was just driving as if traffic laws didn’t apply to journalists. When I told her I was chasing Steinbeck, she gave me a quick history of her town of 1,200 mid-Mainers.

The future didn’t sound too promising for Patten. It owed its existence to the lumber boom of the 1800s and still relied on forestry, hunting, fishing and the wood products industries for a disproportionate share of its jobs. Before the woman drove off she suggested I take a picture of the Patten General Store down the road. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s going to be torn down tomorrow.”

She wasn’t the first woman in timeless/spaceless/changeless Maine to think I was a helpless man in distress. She was the fourth in less than 24 hours. The first time was in Calais. After I left Karen’s Main Street diner and the Calais Book Shop, I stopped by the side of the road on my way out of town to write what I thought would be a quick blog item.

It was a pleasant spot by the St. Croix River, but mainly I wanted to take advantage of the sudden surge in Verizon’s cell phone signal. (Three weeks later, when my wife got our bill, I’d learn the strong signal had been coming from across the river in Canada. Two days of cross-border roaming charges in upper Maine would cost $900. In Billings, Montana, I’d waste an afternoon at a Verizon store getting the charges reduced to zero.) I wrote a blog entry about Calais and its people while sitting in the driver’s position, but because my laptop was on my “bed” in the back I had to twist around between the front seats to type. Because I am journalism’s slowest writer, the blog, which was really more like a long newspaper feature story, took almost two hours to write.

The first visitor was a U.S. Customs and Border Control officer, who pulled up behind me in her patrol car.  She had passed me three times and seen me in the same strange position, so she naturally thought I had a heart attack or had been the victim of a Canadian mob hit. Apologizing as abjectly as possible, I assured her I was fine and explained what I was doing. She was as sweet as any police person could legally be and with a smile left me to my pathetic, contorted typing.

Ten minutes later, I looked up from my keyboard to see two cars parked behind my RAV4 and a pair of women with worried faces hurrying toward me. They too thought I was dead or dying and were genuinely relieved, and not the least bit annoyed, to be told I was physically fine, just mentally challenged. I finally drove across the road to a parking lot, feeling like a jerk.

Maine people – Mainers? Manians? Mainsters? – of both sexes couldn’t have been more pleasant and they obviously had been brought up to be kind to strangers. But it was comforting to know the good women of The Pine/Potato State were looking out for me.  I’d meet dozens of other women on my trip who were unnecessarily sweet or went out of their way to help me – waitresses, motel managers, county government officials, mothers at home. Whether they were just doing their job or answering my fool questions when I appeared unannounced at their front door, not a one was sour or unfriendly or even wary. When you are old and scraggly and alone, as I was, you’re an object of pity and a threat to no one.

 

 

“Hydrogen Bomb”

By Al Rex

Not to mention, “When You see Those Flying Saucers”

By the Buchanan Brothers

I’m still uncertain about the new Old Crow Medicine Show album — there’s some good, catchy tracks on there, no doubt, and its not as if the gents suddenly turned into Florida Georgia Line (I just learned who they are, and they’re amazingly God-awful). Still, the production is oddly unsatisfying and feels sort of heavy. Their maligned 2009 Tennessee Pusher I tend to enjoy and defend as a style experiment; and because I listened to it during my travels, so it’s very 4 a.m. in a Baltimore Greyhound station. It’s moody, and has some lovely, lonely, eerie tracks, as well as some good fleeing from the po-pos with weed fiddle jams. Compared to that,  something about Remedy feels unfinished, yet overly glossy at the same time.

I’ll delve into that later, though. The final track on Remedy is the only one with Gill Landy vocals, and it’s a sad prison tune called “The Warden.” It’s pretty on the album. And it sounds better still live, near-a capella with five-part harmonies.

Except, listen to that mother fucking crowd murmur.

And then read this glorious Gothamist rant from last week, “Why Can’t You Ever Shut Up During a Concert”. Author John Del Signore is my spirit animal.

I don’t usually feel any homicidal urges at punk shows, for obvious reasons. But any kind of show with any kind of quiet or pretty song brings them up, because people cannot shut the fuck up, and they really can’t shut the fuck up when the song is quiet enough that their equally interesting friend can hear them prattle on without them needing to put their lips inside that friend’s ear drum.

I neglected to review the Willie Watson show I attended in May, but I had long feared that I would want to slaughter the entire crowd when I saw him, because there are just too many Youtube videos with background buzz blocking out the ridiculous Watson vocals. Thankfully at the show, I was squished up enough the stage that I mostly just heard Watson, who is an amazingly dominant player for someone with just a guitar, banjo, and occasional harmonica. When he got real quiet, though, there was the obligatory “I don’t give a fuck about shutting up, because I paid 15 dollars to come here and drink beer and ruin everyone else’s enjoyment” people.

They are everywhere. But every now and then even they can be silenced. That almost — but not really, but almost — makes the rude people worth it. Sometimes someone is so good, they can silence the drunk idiots. Watson managed it for nearly all of “Rock Salt and Nails.” And, possibly in response to my fervent prayers, Ralph Stanley did it with “O Death” last year. When your playing can win a hush from the drunken, loud, self-absorbed buffoons in lawn chairs for even three or four minutes, you have done good, son. But I still wish they would stay the hell home. You can buy beer from stores, people. You really can.

John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”

A Good Trip Gone Bad

A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.

Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?

Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.

A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.

But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.

Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.

Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America.  Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.

I can relate to LeBron James.

I’m old and white. I’m not worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I stink at basketball and nobody cares where I choose to ply my trade. But, here’s what I do have in common with James: When I was in my early twenties, I left my home in the Rust Belt and headed for Miami.

He left Akron. I left Pittsburgh.

It was late January when my two buddies and I piled in a car and headed South. It was cold, gray, with periods of snow, slush, salt and cinders.

The feeling I had when I got out of the car a day and a half later and saw palm trees and felt the warm breeze made the trip worthwhile. Whatever followed would be gravy.

We spent the first two weeks going to the beach every day.

We had arrived in paradise and couldn’t believe we had wasted the first quarter of our lives living in Hell.

Then we got jobs. It took about two weeks to realize that not everybody in Miami was on vacation. We left for work in the morning and when we got home around six o’clock it was dark.

Just like Pittsburgh.

It took us three months of that to realize that living in the Sun Belt isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You still have to sit in rush hour traffic twice a day and work at a job you may not like.

We went home.

Maybe, after earning a quarter of a billion dollars and winning two NBA championships, James came to the same conclusion.

There really is no place like home

On Friday, when he made his announcement on SI.com, it was 75 degrees with 46% humidity in Cleveland. In Miami it was 90 with 68% humidity. In Miami, everybody except the tourists wanted to be inside the same way everybody in Cleveland wants to be inside in February.

Good for LeBron James and good for Cleveland.

James did something that athletes are rarely smart enough to do. He made his decision based on something other than money. When you are half way to your first half billion dollars, you have the luxury of never having to make a decision based on money again. Very few players take advantage of that luxury.

In his statement to SI.com, James wrote, “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.”  Nine out of 10 times in professional sports, the translation of that statement would be. “I went for the cash.”

I don’t get that feeling this time.

James seems to genuinely want to return to his roots. And this is no small thing for Cleveland. And not just because it’s been 50 years since one of its major pro franchises has won a championship.

Cleveland is like so many northern cities that have been destroyed by bad government and are desperately trying to encourage natives to stay and new businesses to relocate.

This is about so much more than basketball.

LeBron James just told the world that he could live anywhere and he chose Cleveland. (Okay, maybe he actually chose Akron.)

That’s even better.

Good for Akron.

Good for Cleveland.

- So, Sidney Crosby played the entire post season with a sore wrist. There were reports that Crosby’s inner circle was upset with the Penguins for leaking the news early in the week that Crosby could be having surgery on his right wrist that was injured some time in March because he didn’t want to appear to be making excuses for his un-Crosbylike performance in the playoffs.

A sore wrist explains a lot.

People who have watched him for the last nine years were stunned by the sudden loss of accuracy with his shots and his difficulty making and accepting passes.

Maybe this will nip the “Peyton Manning of the NHL” narrative in the bud. That was a ridiculous narrative to begin with since, before this season, among players with 60 or more playoff games, only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had averaged more post season points per game than Crosby.

- I will never ridicule or question another Pirates off season pitcher signing again.

- There are few things more ridiculous than people in the media blaming LeBron James for the circus surrounding his decision to return to Cleveland. That was a media circus. Not a LeBron circus.

- James’ decision may have helped the Browns by taking the spotlight off of Johnny Manziel. Johnny seems to like the spotlight.

- Dave Littlefield drafted Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Tony Watson.

- While channel surfing last weekend, I stumbled upon something called Pro Footvolley on Root Sports. It’s two person beach volleyball with a soccer ball. No hands allowed. It’s bad enough that the human race has descended to such depths that a sport like that would exist but, professional? On television?