Finally out of military prison for crimes committed during the war, Big Joe Portagee reemerges on the scene in Monterey. Whereas he normally spent about half of his time in jail, Big Joe had spent most of his military life incarcerated, always with a charge of or related to drunk and disorderly conduct. Not wasting any time, immediately after getting off the train, Big Joe walks to Torelli's and trades his overcoat for a gallon of wine, then sets out to find his friends. Instead, he finds pimps and harpies, who entertain him while he has wine to give, but who afterwards want only for him to leave. Big Joe does not want to leave, so he breaks all of the furniture and sets the house on fire. Finally, the police seize him and Big Joe sighs at the thought that he is home again.
Big Joe is sentenced to thirty days in jail, most of which he slept away. He liked being in jail because in the old days, all of his friends would eventually pass though. This time, there was no sign of Pilon, Pablo, or Danny, and the warden reported that he had not booked them in months. When his sentence expires, Big Joe sets out to find his friends. Wandering towards Tortilla Flat, he encounters Pilon, who is walking in a very businesslike manner. Pilon explains that tonight is St. Andrew's Eve, and that he is on his way to the forest to look for treasure. On St. Andrew's Eve, all of the mystic treasures buried by long dead pirates and criminals in the hills of Monterey were said to glow with unearthly light. Pilon allows Big Joe to follow him, but he makes him promise that any treasure that they find will be given to Danny for his hospitality with the house.
After a long night of searching filled with supernatural encounters, Pilon and Big Joe see a light coming from the ground. Pilon makes a cross from some sticks and sanctifies the ground. He draws a circle around the spot, which he and Big Joe sit within, and they pray to god not to allow any undead spirit to enter the circle. The blessing works and they survive the night without mishap. When the sun begins to rise, the two memorize the location of their treasure and then part, promising to return that night with shovels. They return to Danny's house and deny that they have had any luck in their search. Danny allows Big Joe to stay at the house so long as he keeps out of his bed.
When Pilon and Big Joe meet that night to dig up the treasure, Big Joe is carrying a gallon of wine. He has stolen and sold one of Danny's blankets. Pilon is infuriated and orders Big Joe to get the blanket back or be beaten to death. He also informs the big Portagee that he will be doing all of the digging that night to atone for his sin. They locate the site and then Big Joe digs all through the night. Just as the sun begins to rise, they strike something hard and clear the dirt away from it. "United States Geodetic Survey +1915+ Elevation 600 Ft," the concrete sign reads, and Pilon sighs exasperatedly. "Johnny Pompom," found one, he explains to Big Joe, and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $2000 fine for digging it up. They walk to the beach with Pilon waxing philosophically on his good intentions and bad results. They drink deeply of Big Joe's wine and finally fall asleep on the cold sand. When Pilon wakes up, he examines Big Joe, who is sleeping soundly next to him. He notices the Portagee's fine blue serge trousers, which are the wrong size any way, and comes up with a plan. He takes the pants and walks to Torrelli's, where he sells them for a quart of wine, which he immediately drinks off. Then on his way out, he steals pants and Danny's blanket from the alcove where Mrs. Torrelli has hung them.
In Tortilla flat, there was a woman named Dolores Engracia Ramirez who by her reputation for picking up gentlemen when they walked by, had earned the nickname Sweets Ramirez. When Sweets heard that Danny had become an heir, she naturally desired to become his lady, as did most of the single women of Tortilla Flat. She waited for Danny to walk by her house every day, but it was not a rout that he usually took. Consequently, when Danny finally did walk by, it was under the unusual circumstance of him having three dollars in his pocket, obtained from a sale of stolen nails to a hardware store. Sweets invited him in for a glass of wine, and as they drank it, the beast of lust grew in Danny's mind. Before he left, Sweets invited him to come back later, and Danny endeavored to do so with wine bought by his plunder.
On his way to Torrelli's, Danny runs into Pablo, who has somehow acquired two sticks of gum, one of which he immediately offers to Danny. Danny, feeling charitable, offers Pablo a glass of wine from what he is about to buy, but warns him that it is for a lady and that there will be no more. Needless to say, they drink off half of the gallon before heading to Simon's Investment, Jewelry, and Loan Company to buy Sweets a present. Danny's eye immediately catches on a large shiny aluminum vacuum cleaner, and he forgets that there is no electricity in Tortilla Flat. The proprietor asks fourteen dollars, to which Danny lays his two on the table. After much whining of poverty and fury at being cheated, Danny leaves with the appliance.
With the vacuum cleaner, Sweets makes a giant leap up the social ladder of Tortilla flat. She can be seen at all times pushing it around the house while making a loud humming noise in imitation of a motor. Sweets is so sweet on Danny for the gift that he begins spending every night at her house. Danny's friends begin to notice his absence and conclude that the affair, in its prolonged existence, is making Danny pale and unhealthy. Finally, Pilon decides to execute a plan. The friends of the house swindle an unsuspecting Italian out of a gallon of wine and drink it with Danny one afternoon. When it is finished and they are all feeling their growing thirst, Pilon brings up the town gossip and mentions that people were laughing at Danny behind his back. He explains that people had heard about the gift of the vacuum and that Sweets had been telling people that Danny would install wires for its use. They both agree that telling the woman "no" would be very difficult when the time came, and that this problem would be easily remedied if the vacuum cleaner were no longer to exist. Pilon offers to do all of the work for Danny, and leaves, knowing that Sweets goes to the market every afternoon at 4:30. He steals the vacuum and trades it to Torrelli for two gallons of wine. Later they hear that Torrelli had become ragingly mad when he discovered that the machine had no motor, and the friends laugh in their vengeance against the man who was so cheap with his wine.
Big Joe Portagee is an interesting addition to Danny's group of friends. He is a person who is completely subject to his impulsive desires. He is without manners, oafish, irreverent, and crude, but even in him, we see a genuine heart. For all of his wrongs, all that Big Joe really wants in friendship, and though sometimes he makes mistakes in the pursuit of it, the goodness of his desire redeems him. For instance, Big Joe steals Danny's blanket, but is only so that he and Pilon could have some wine while they dig for the treasure that they planned to give to Danny anyway. It is not that Big Joe was conscious of the offense. He is too dumb to realize that. He was only thinking about making the dig more comfortable for Pilon and himself.
There is a spiritual side to the lives of the paisanos of Tortilla flat that makes itself evident in the episode on St. Andrew's Eve. For all of the paisanos' irreverence of the law and of conventional living, the respect that they offer to the saints and other divine elements is very telling. Ironically and symbolically, the end result of all of their righteous procedure is worthless, or even dangerous junk. One has to wonder how this plays into Steinbeck's authorial comments on belief in the divine. Pilon and Big Joe go into the night with simple hearts and pure intentions, and come out with nothing, and, if they had been discovered, they would have received jail time and a fine. Though this can be taken as an indictment of religion in general, a more likely interpretation places the blame on Pilon and Big Joe rather than religion itself. Perhaps Steinbeck is trying to communicate that it is not enough to be spiritual only when it can be beneficial. Though Pilon has righteous flashes now and then, the rest of the time, he is a lying, cheating, adulterous fiend. His failure says that though he was in the right mind while looking for treasure, the ugly deeds of the rest of his life cannot be forgotten. There is no such thing as being part-time religious.
The vacuum cleaner is a clear symbol of the domesticity that is constantly at odds with Danny and the paisanos of Tortilla Flat. Though the vacuum's existence makes Danny's life comfortable in that he can spend the night with Sweets whenever he wants, his friends see that it is taking all of the life out of him. It is also an ironic symbol because all of the good that domesticity, embodied by the vacuum, is supposed to bring turns out to be empty. Its motor is gone, and with the motor, any usefulness that the vacuum could have provided is gone as well. Domesticity turns out to be a simple expression of false pride. Later in the book, the war with contentedness and domesticity will escalate even further between Danny and the trappings of his possessions. It is the overriding message of the book that these things are not comforts, as they are commonly seen, but traps that limit the freedom of men.