Lee Chong’s truck is a converted Model T that has seen a lot of use. Although “any one of the boys” could fix it, Gay is indisputably the best mechanic, so he does the majority of the work, at one point instructing Eddie to sneak back to his house to steal a car part without being seen by his (Gay’s) wife. Before long, he gets the Model T running, and the gang heads for the gas station, where Mack tells the attendant, “Doc was a little short of change. So if you’ll put five gallons in and just give us a buck instead of the other five gallons, why that’s what Doc wants.” However, Doc has called ahead and instructed the attendant to fill the car with ten gallons and not to give Mack anything else. When this is done, “the boys” set off.
Unsurprisingly, Doc has predicted that Mack will try to keep some of the gas money. As such, readers see that, although Mack is capable of flat-out dishonesty, Doc is still willing to treat him as a friend and, for that matter, also still willing to hire him. This, it seems, must be because he believes that Mack is a good person despite his wily tricks.
The Model T runs rather well, considering that it can only go up steep hills in reverse. “Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation,” Steinbeck notes. “Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.” It is with this extensive knowledge of the Model T that Gay is easily able to diagnose the problem when the carburetor gives out and the car breaks down on the side of the road. Knowing that they need a new needle to put into a malfunctioning needle valve in the carburetor, he tells “the boys” to stay put while he goes looking for a replacement. “The boys” watch him leave, and they don’t see him for another 180 days.
Although Steinbeck’s humorous comments about the cultural role of the Model T in American society don’t necessarily fit into the novel’s thematic or narrative threads, it makes sense that he stops to consider the mechanics of this iconic vehicle. After all, Cannery Row is a text interested in exploring the disorder and chaos of reality. The Model T, then, comes to stand for the notion that certain things in life actually do make logical sense. Whereas language and emotions and relationships are constantly in flux, machines like the Model T either work or do not work, and a person can fix them as long as they understand their “planetary system of gears.” As such, Gay can repair the Model T if he finds the necessary part. However, humans themselves are not as predictable as cars, which is why Gay suddenly disappears for half a year. In this way, Steinbeck offers up a juxtaposition between the chaos that is human life and the order that defines the world of machines.
“Oh, the infinity of possibility!” Steinbeck writes, explaining how circumstances lead Gay to jail. First, the car that picks him up while he’s hitchhiking breaks down, but he’s able to fix it, so the driver buys him a drink at a nearby bar, where the bartender is celebrating his birthday. “Fate just didn’t intend Gay to go on that frog hunt and Fate took a hell of a lot of trouble and people and accidents to keep him from it.” Gay ends up breaking into Holman’s “bootery” with his new friends, and when the police come, he’s the only one still trying on shoes, so they take him to jail in Salinas. Meanwhile, Mack and “the boys” wait for Gay, eventually realizing that he’s not coming back, at which point Eddie leaves to find the necessary car part.
By explaining the long, winding path that leads Gay to jail, Steinbeck underlines just how temperamental and unpredictable humans are. In fact, he implies that this kind of randomness is the essence of life itself, suggesting that “fate” waylays Gay from doing what he intends to do.