Lee Chong's

 

The "Wing Chong" building, inspiration for Lee Chong's grocery.

   Lee Chong's grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and to be happy -- clothes, food, both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork-chops. You could buy at Lee Chong's a pair of slippers, a silk kimono, a quarter-pint of whisky and a cigar. You could work out combinations to fit almost any mood. The one commodity Lee Chong did not keep could be had across the lot at Dora's.
   The grocery opened at dawn and did not close until the last wandering vagrant dime had been spent or retired for the night. Not that Lee Chong was avaricious. He wasn't, but if one wanted to spend money, he was available. Lee's position in the community surprised him as much as he could be surprised. Over the course of the years everyone in Cannery Row owed him money. He never pressed his clients, but when the bill became too large, Lee cut off credit. Rather than walk into the town up the hill, the client usually paid or tried to.
   Lee was round-faced and courteous. He spoke a stately English without ever using the letter R. When the tong wars were going on in California, it happened now and then that Lee found a price on his head. Then he would go secretly to San Francisco and enter a hospital until the trouble blew over. What he did with his money, no one ever knew. Perhaps he didn't get it. Maybe his wealth was entirely in unpaid bills. But he lived well and he had the respect of all his neighbours. He trusted his clients until further trust became ridiculous. Sometimes he made business errors, but even these he turned to advantage in good will if in no other way. It was that way with the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Anyone but Lee Chong would have considered the transaction a total loss.
   Lee Chong's station in the grocery was behind the cigar counter. The cash register was then on his left and the abacus on his right. Inside the glass case were the brown cigars, the cigarettes, the Bull Durham, the Duke's mixture, the Five Brothers, while behind him in racks on the wall were the pints, half-pints and quarters of Old Green River, Old Town House, Old Colonel, and the favourite -Old Tennessee, a blended whisky guaranteed four months old, very cheap and known in the neighbourhood as Old Tennis Shoes. Lee Chong did not stand between the whisky and the customer without reason. Some very practical minds had on occasion tried to divert his attention to another part of the store. Cousins, nephews, sons and daughters-in-law waited on the rest of the store, but Lee never left the cigar counter. The top of the glass was his desk. His fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages. A broad golden wedding-ring on the middle finger of his left hand was his only jewellery and with it he silently tapped on the rubber change mat from which the little rubber tits had long been worn. Lee's mouth was full and benevolent and the flash of gold when he smiled was rich and warm. He wore half-glasses and since he looked at everything through them, he had to tilt his head back to see in the distance. Interest and discounts, addition, subtraction he worked out on the abacus with his little restless sausage fingers, and his brown friendly eyes roved over the grocery and his teeth flashed at the customers.

Chapter 1 of "Cannery Row"

   Over Doc and Mack a golden melancholy settled like autumn leaves, melancholy concocted equally of Old Tennis Shoes and old times, of friends lost and friends changed. And both of them knew they were avoiding one subject, telling minor stories to avoid a major one. But at last they were dry, and their subject confronted them.
   Doc opened with considerable bravery. "What do you think of the new owner over at the grocery?"
   "Oh, he's all right," said Mack. "Kind of interesting. The only trouble is he can't never take Lee Chong's place. There was never a friend like Lee Chong," Mack said brokenly.
   "Yes, he was wise and good," said Doc.
   "And tricky," said Mack.
   "And smart," said Doc.
   "He took care of a lot of people," said Mack.
   "And he took a few," said Doc.
   They volleyed Lee Chong back and forth, and their memories built virtues that would have surprised him, and cleverness and beauty too. While one told a fine tale of that mercantile Chinaman the other waited impatiently to top the story. Out of their memories there emerged a being scarcely human, a dragon of goodness and an angel of guile. In such a way are the gods created.
   But the bottle was empty now, and its emptiness irritated Mack, and his irritation oozed towards Lee Chong's memory.
   "The son-of-a-bitch was sneaky," said Mack. "He should of told us he was going to sell out and go away. It wasn't friendly, doing all that alone without his friends to help."
   "Maybe that's what he was afraid of," said Doc. "Lee wrote to me about it. I couldn't advise him - I was too far away - so he was safe."
   "You can't never find out what a Chink's got on his mind," said Mack. "Doc, who would of thought he was what you might say - plotting?"
   Oh, it had been a shocking thing. Lee Chong had operated his emporium for so long that no one could possibly have foreseen that he would sell out. He was so mixed up in the feeding and clothing of Cannery Row that he was considered permanent. Who could have suspected the secret turnings of his paradoxical Oriental mind, which seems to have paralleled the paradoxical Occidental mind?
   It is customary to think of a sea captain sitting in his cabin, planning a future grocery store not subject to wind or bottom-fouling. Lee Chong dreamed while he worked his abacus and passed out pints of Old Tennis Shoes and delicately sliced bacon with his big knife. He dreamed all right - he dreamed of the sea. He did not share his plans or ask advice. He would have got lots of advice.
   One day Lee Chong sold out and bought a schooner. He wanted to go trading in the South Seas. He dreamed of palms and Polynesians. In the hold of his schooner he loaded the entire stock of his store-all the canned goods, the rubber boots, the caps and needles and small tools, the fireworks and calendars, even the glass-fronted showcases where he kept gold-plated collar-buttons and cigarette lighters. He took it all with him. And the last anyone saw of him, he was waving his blue naval cap from the flying bridge of his dream ship as he passed the whistle buoy at Point Pinos into the sunset. And if he didn't go down on the way over, that's where he is now - probably lying in a hammock under an awning on the rear deck, while beautiful Polynesian girls in very scanty clothes pick over his stock of canned tomatoes and striped mechanics' caps.
   "Why do you suppose he done it?" Mack asked.
   "Who knows?" said Doc. "Who knows what lies deep in any man's mind? Who knows what any man wants?"
   "He won't be happy there," said Mack. "He'll be lonely out among them foreigners. You know, Doc, I figured it out. It was them goddam movies done it. You remember, he used to close up every Thursday night. That's because there was a change of bill at the movie house. He never missed a movie. That's what done it, the movies. I and you, Doc, we know what liars the movies are. He won't be happy out there. He'll just be miserable to come back."
   Doc gazed at his run-down laboratory. "I wish I were out there with him."
   "Who don't?" said Mack. "Why, them South Sea Island girls will kill him. He ain't as young as he used to be."
   "I know," said Doc. "You and I should be out there, Mack, to help protect him from himself. I'm wondering, Mack, should I step across the street and get another pint or should I go to bed?"
   "Why don't you flip a coin?"
   "You flip the coin," said Doc. "I don't really want to go to bed. If you flip it I'll know how it's going to come out.

Chapter 1 from "Sweet Thursday"

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