A well-kept transport truck is stopped outside a roadside diner. Tom Joad, freshly paroled from McAlester Penitentiary, walks down the road and pauses by the diner. Clad in new, cheaply made clothing, he sits down on the truck's running board to loosen his new shoes. When the driver walks out to his truck, Tom asks for a ride. The driver refuses at first, citing the NO RIDERS sign, but Tom suggests that sometimes "a guy'll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker." The driver wants to be a good guy so he agrees to give him a ride, telling him to crouch down on the running board until they are out of sight of the diner.
Once on the road, the driver immediately begins sizing up his passenger. When he learns that Tom's father is a cropper on 40 acres, he shares his surprise that they "ain't been tractored out." Tom becomes irritated at the driver's meddling questions until they reach Tom's road. Getting out of the truck, he discloses that he has been prison for homicide, sentenced for seven years but out in four for good behavior.
The second chapter sets the central plot in motion, provides basic background information, and foreshadows events that will come. The main character of Tom Joad is introduced, and his basic characteristics are established. As Tom will undergo the greatest personal change in the novel, it is important to note his individualism and quick temper. His irritation at the nosiness of the truck driver underscores his independent and somewhat solitary nature. In the course of the conversation between Tom and the truck driver, many key facts are furnished. For example, the Joads' current living situation is foreshadowed by the driver's surprised reaction to Tom's statement that his family are sharecroppers, "They ain't been tractored out yet?" Tom's admission to the truck driver that he has been in prison reveals an important fact, his position as a parolee, which will prove critical to his departure at the end of the novel.
The author also lays the groundwork for a basic theme in his work: the constant tension between those who have and those who have not. This conflict is brought up when Tom forces the truck driver to decide whose side he is on — that of the worker or that of the owners. This particular conflict will be passionately addressed in the intercalary chapters that examine the roots of the changing social structures present specifically in California.
The setting of the roadside diner will be revisited in Chapter 15. In both chapters, the diner serves as a point of human convergence: the migrant families, the wealthy travelers in their sleek, insulated cars, the truck drivers who cover the roads in the service of higher powers, and the stationary cooks and waitresses all connect in this setting. In the trucker's lament of the loneliness on the road, we begin to hear minor notes of Steinbeck's message of human unity. It is for human company, not food, that truckers stop at the highway diners. Later in the novel, we will see that the migrants are also looking for a human bond at the truck stops — they are armed with the simple faith that there might be someone inside willing to help them out.
cat slang for Caterpillar: trademark for a tractor equipped on each side with a continuous roller belt over cogged wheels, for moving over rough or muddy ground.
chambray a smooth fabric of cotton, made by weaving white or unbleached threads across a colored warp: used for dresses, shirts, and so on.
hobnailed describing boots or heavy shoes with short, broad-headed nails in the soles.
dogs slang term for feet.
truck skinner a skinner is a mule driver; here refers to a truck driver.
McAlester State Penitentiary near McAlester, Oklahoma.