Two boys named Joey and Willard play in Cannery Row. Willard wants to fight, so he keeps provoking Joey, but Joey doesn’t take the bait. “Where’s your old man now?” Willard asks menacingly. “He’s dead,” Joey replies. “What’d he die of?” Willard asks, and Joey reluctantly tells him that his father committed suicide by taking rat poison. Laughing, Willard says, “What’d he think—he was a rat?” Joey tries to laugh alongside his friend, but Willard goes on, talking about how Joey’s father thought he was a rat. Still, though, Joey doesn’t become angry, instead saying, “He couldn’t get a job. Nearly a year he couldn’t get a job.” This kills Willard’s joke, but when Joey finds a penny, Willard stomps on it. “I saw it first. It’s mine,” Joey yells. “You want to try to make something of it?” Willard replies. “Why’n’t you go take some rat poison?”
Not everyone in Cannery Row is full of kindness or empathy. Indeed, Willard is the opposite of someone like Doc, who will sacrifice himself for the good of a friend. He’s even quite different than Mack, who at the very least wants to do nice things for his friends. In contrast, Willard only wants to insult his friend. And unlike Mack and Doc, Willard is also greedy, finally finding a way to provoke Joey by laying claim to the penny that should, in truth, belong to Joey. By showing readers this kind of mean-spiritedness, Steinbeck is able to emphasize the admirability of Doc and Mack’s goodhearted natures. At the same time, the sad story of Joey’s father is a reminder of the devastating poverty that is common among the people Steinbeck writes about.