Mae is a waitress in a diner along Highway 66 that caters to truck drivers and other travelers. Al is a silent line cook who works with her. Rich clientele will often stop their fancy automobiles at the restaurant, act haughty and dissatisfied with the food and the service, and tip poorly. Mae and Al call these people “shitheels.”
Despite having the greatest potential to help, the rich characters of the novel are also the most ungrateful and miserly. This reinforces Steinbeck’s view that power leads to selfish discontent.
A pair of truck drivers arrives at the restaurant. The truckers discuss the influx of migrant farmers with Mae. They go on to describe an accident they saw on the highway: a luxury car, a Cadillac, recklessly collided with a migrant family’s jalopy, leaving the driver of the Cadillac impaled on his steering wheel and killing a migrant child. Mae says she’s heard rumors that the migrants are thieves, but hasn’t seen any evidence of their dishonesty.
The car accident the truckers recount is a symbol for the way that the rich’s greed is destructive both to themselves and to less fortunate—and more innocent—people. Mae is someone who thinks for herself, who judges the migrants not by rumors but by the evidence she's seen.
A migrant farmer and his two shabbily-dressed sons enter the restaurant and ask for water. Mae seems irritated by their presence, but lets them drink. The man then asks to buy a loaf of bread. Mae is reluctant to sell one of the fifteen-cent loaves they use to make sandwiches, but the farmer only has a dime and can’t afford other food. Al tells Mae to sell the farmer the bread, and she obliges. The farmer insists on taking only ten cents worth of the loaf, but Mae gives him the entire thing. The farmer also asks to buy some candy for his boys, and Mae sells him two peppermint sticks for a penny.
The farmer’s persistent humility and refusal to steal from the store represents the dignity that the migrant farmers manage to retain through their struggles. Mae’s choice to give the farmer a bargain price on the candy shows that she’s overcome her initial ungenerousness, and once again affirms the presence of human kindness in this story.
The truck drivers at the counter watch the entire encounter, and call Mae out for selling candy to the farmer at a drastically reduced price. The two truck drivers exit, leaving a generous tip, and are soon replaced by more truckers.
The truckers seem to approve of Mae and Al’s generosity, and show this with their large tip. The prompt arrival of more truckers underscores the cyclical nature of life on the road.