I might very well be asked, ‘What do you like about Fresno?’ Well, that’s easy for me because, having been born in Fresno, and having spent some important years in Fresno, I like that connection between myself and this little area of the world — the earth — California. The place was the western side of I Street, also called Broadway, just north of Ventura Avenue, and that was a rented house. The occasion was Monday, August 31, 9108. Until my 8th year, until the summer of 1916, I had no memory of Fresno, other than a rather special memory which appears to have taken place sometime during my near or during my second year. They say that’s quite early, but I remember vividly our departure as a family — as a total family.
Armenak Saroyan, born in Bitlis, in 1874, now in the year 1910, 36 years old, leaving a house — a little wooden house apparently on a vineyard, and apparently tracking it down somewhere near the town of Sanger. The wagon had one horse and was open. It was more of a work vehicle than anything to transport people. The back of the wagon was loaded with household belongings — boxes with cooking utensils in them, bedding, and on the seat of the wagon sat Tahkoohee Saroyan (I use the Armenian pronunciation), also born in Bitlis, Armenia, in the highlands, instead of in 1974, in 1882, She was eight years younger than her husband. They both had the name Saroyan. In the back on the boxes sat Cozette, born in Bitlis in 1899, and Zapel, or Zabel or Zabe, as we called her, a variation of the name Isabel of Spain most likely — the name. She was born in 1902, and then Henry, who was born, not in Bitlis, but in Erzurum in 1905, when the rest of the family began the long journey to join Armenak Saroyan in New York. He had gone earlier — but not terribly much earlier, 1905. And finally, also in the wagon, was William Saroyan, born, as we just learned in 1908, and therefore, the youngest in the family, and that was all there was to be, because that wagon went down a dusty road, and I saw dust rise in the road, and I heard the melancholy footsteps of the slow-moving horse. A child senses things, and I sensed that my father was struggling with another episode of defeat, of failure, in America. He was a preacher in the Presbyterian branch of the Christian religion, education by American missionaries who had opened schools in Bitlis, and he had gone out to California to take over the church in Yettem, which is the only Armenian city in America that ever was founded. Yettem, meaning ‘paradise,’ or something like it. The word paradise coming from an Armenian work, ‘partes,’ meaning garden — possibly a Turkish work, I’m not sure, but I know that paradise is from a word of the near East, ‘partes,’ possibly Armenian more than Turkish.
That scene was further enhanced by the arrival on a bicycle on that dusty road of a telegraph messenger wearing a blue uniform and a blue cap. That always appealed to me. That messenger silently coming along, not making noise as the horse was making with its hoofbeats, coming along with a message. What would the message be? Well, in that melancholic atmosphere, the message was sad. It could be a message of death, of loss, of failure. Certainly, everybody in that wagon felt on that summer afternoon that things weren’t going well. And this feeling came from the head of the family. That young man of 36, Armenak Saroyan, preacher and poet, not having gotten the pulpit in the Armenian church in Yettem for the reason that he had not been told that the people there were all Turkish-speaking Armenians, who couldn’t understand Armenian. While he could speak Turkish, he preferred not to preach Christianity in the Turkish language, and so he tried farm work, vineyard work, and even the foreman of every job that he ever held continuous told him, ‘Sir, this is not work for you,’ and, of course, it wasn’t. Now, he had two morning coats, preacher’s coats, with tails, that I wanted to grow up into and longed for many years, and then in 1935, when I went to Russia on the first money that I had earned as a writer and came back, I went to the closet to get those coats so that I could wear them, since I had had a book published at last, and possibly have a photograph taken in my father’s coat. I was informed by my sister, Cozette, that during my absence traveling in Russia and in Europe, she had given the coats to the Salvation Army. And, of course, this was a terrible loss to me. It infuriated me, and I was ready to kill (figuratively at any rate) people who would do such thoughtless things. It may very well be that my father got these jackets, these morning coats, from the Salvation Army in the first place. We have always had a strong feeling of kinship with the Salvation Army. I have used their music and their meaning in my plan, ‘The Time of Your Life.’
Having this connection with Fresno — in other works, Fresno being the arena of my earliest memory, earliest geographical memory, Fresno continues to have that significance to me in the year 1976. I am speaking in early December of 1975, but we are as good as in the year 1976, the bicentennial year of this nation.
Now, that wagon took us first from near Sanger to Fresno, and from there to San Francisco, where indeed my father worked for a short time for the Salvation Army, and where indeed he won a Sherman Clay music contest which had a piano as the award, but having misread the rules of the prize, when he went back to pick up his piano, he was informed that the winner was permitted to deduct $100 from the price of the piano, which was about $1,000, and, of course, that was another disappointment to my father. He had a lot of disappointments after his arrival in America. For one thing, he wanted to continue to be a preacher, both in English and in Armenian, and in Patterson, New Jersey. But, when my mother arrived with her own mother, Lucy Saroyan, they heard the news that Fresno was the place and there were members of the family here, including my mother’s father, Minos’s kid brother, Farapet, who had a house on Blackstone Avenue. He arrived in 1894 here in Fresno, one of the earliest.
Well, I had that memory. And then, from San Francisco, I don’t remember any of those events. Apparently, you remember the things that have some special quality of involving the senses in them that didn’t seem to happen in San Francisco. I have a number of slight memories about our life in the area of San Jose called Campbell. It is still there, it is Campbell, we used to pronounce it ‘Camel,’ and I always associated it with that animal, but I discovered that we were referring to Campbell, California. There, my father tried the same as Sherwood Anderson’s father, raising chickens and selling eggs, and that failed, too, when his appendix ruptured, and while on the way to the hospital, he died in a horse-drawn ambulance. That was in July of 1911, two months before I reached the age of 3. So, there was nothing for it but put these children, the oldest of whom was 12 (that was Cozette), and the 9 was Zabe, and then 6 was Henry, and then almost 3 was William — to put them in an orphanage, a Methodist orphanage in Oakland, California, that had the name The Fred Finch Orphanage. Captain Finch, a well-to-do man of boats, ships, lost a son named Fred, and he put up this orphanage as a memorial to that boy. The boy died of some disease, I don’t know.
The next five years I had always imagined so many things inaccurately, that it had been four years, but actually it had been five years. The next five years were spent at The Fred Finch Orphanage, which everybody who lived there and was subject to the rules and regulations of that place either hated or pretended to hate. I hated the place, But I must also confess that having my brother there in the boys’ wards and having the two sisters over there in the girls’ wards, that I was hardly what could be called anything like the abandoned lonely orphans of most kids in such places. Or of legend and law as in Oliver Twist, which I read at the age of 9 or 10, which put me to worrying about that little boy over there in that place that gave him such meager food, gruel and stuff.
Then my memories of Fresno were renewed in the summer of 1916. I was not yet 8 years old. The train left Oakland, California, after an atmosphere of dispute and dismay, and a tense situation between the superintendent and the other matrons and executives of the orphanage and the eldest of the Saroyan children there, Cozette, who had indeed done a lot of work for the superintendent, John Wesley Hagen, and his wire, Lillian Pender Hagen. They were childless. Well, they had all those children in the orphanage, and there were quite a few of them. There were surely a 100 boys and a 100 girls. In the ward for the smallest of the children, I remember that there were hardly ever more than 8 or 9, and then, the train was taken nevertheless, and it came by stages. I remember that when we reached Tracy, the Southern Pacific train, I was told that we were halfway there, and the time seemed very slow in passing by.
Tekron Harlequin Bagdasarian, Dick Bagdasarian was there with his Oakland automobile, top down, to meet the four children of Armenak and Tahkoohee Saroyan, and to take them to his vineyard in Malaga. He was married to Takoohi’s young sister, Becky, and they had a place in Malaga with room enough to put op these children until their mother could find a house in Fresno.
Now, that’s when my real memories of Fresno began. And, I like all that about Fresno. I like the geometry of, the precise geometry, of setting out vines and orchards. And I was astonished by the contrast between the orderliness, if slightly despotic, of The Fred Finch Orphanage, and the total freedom and independence of the lifestyle, if I may use that overworked term, in Fresno. In a certain kind of a way, the postponed arrival of myself into a home of my own at the center of my own family, being in Fresno, surely made me helplessly aware, if not passionately fond, of the place. As we all know, one’s impulses to leave the place of one’s earliest life — I certainly was delighted to leave The Fred Finch Orphanage, and in 1926, a mere 10 years after my arrival in Fresno, I was delighted to leave Fresno, too. And, it wasn’t any too soon, because I really had become fed up, not only with the limitations and the preoccupations of the people of Fresno, but the same limitations and preoccupations of the members of my own family. A very special people, as members of any family are special. It was only later that I came to see from the perspective of faraway cities some of the charm and some of the depth, dimension, and potential meaning of Fresno, all of which has to be created by each member of that Fresno family. The immediate family and then the local family — visitors to the city itself. We are all visitors to whatever city we are in. There isn’t a great deal that can be said about any proximity of Fresno to culture in the sophisticated sense of that word. Culture is actually nothing more than how people say hello to one another and how they feel about one another, and whether or not they have a certain compulsion to be courteous with one another. We are thinking of culture now, though, in terms of the arts. The public library was a very powerful agent in my own development as one who had every hope of finding meaning in the human experience. This was supplemented by the movie theaters — the one called the Liberty Theater is now called the Hardy Theater and has been bankrupt and virtually shut for years and years and years. I saw that built just back of the Rowell Building on Van Ness Avenue. My corner for selling the Fresno Evening Herald was the Republican Corner, just across the way from where they were building that — there was a house there first. It was up on an embankment — about a 3 or 4 foot embankment, with a lawn sloped down. It was hard to cut that part of the lawn; you had to be clever in how you moved the lawn mower. And my schooling at Emerson School was sensationally effective, not for what was being taught by the schools, but for what was not being taught and for the bad manners and ignorance of everybody involved there. That is something that can be the occasion for disputation. It doesn’t matter where you go to get your education, or what they teach, or what they don’t teach, or how it works. It is the accident of who you are anyhow. You can make the most of anything. For instance, if the teachers are stupid as they were, for the most part, you notice that. I have to qualify that by saying that some of the teachers were not stupid. It was just that they were overworked and it was too hard, and the whole system was a little bit backward.
I loved the seasons. I liked the rainy spell. It was melancholy, in any case. It is part of our Saroyan family tradition — a helpless tradition, not by choice, to feel things somberly. And rain suited that perfectly. With the arrival of spring, there were great fields of poppies and other wild flowers, paintbrushes and such, and little blue flowers, that were not far south, about where the Sun Maid Raisin Association was, over in that direction, about, above Butler, moving towards Calwa, there were these great fields of poppies, and there still are a few of them around Coalinga, I understand. At least about 10 years ago, I went with a friend to Coalinga in a car, and we came upon a whole wild hillside that was — a meadow that was full of poppies. That was beautiful. The watermelons was a part of the summer that I absolutely loved, deeply. There were street machines long with booming motors that every summertime dug up and harrowed the tarred streets, and poured on new oil and the Billy steamrollers came along and steamed it down, and what it amounted to mainly was a replenishing of the oil. And this boom, boom, boom had a rather significant kind of quality to it – not ominous – more as an announcement of the future, which at lease I felt had to be fascinating and possibly deeply significant and satisfying. Although, in the midst of earlier thinking, there were risks and one was aware how fragile the human soul is in the human body, and that they both can end. One of the boys that was a part of our life stole a ride on a horse and was thrown from the horse, and his foot was caught in a makeshift stirrup, and the boy was dragged to death at the age of 11 or so. And, there were other deaths, especially during the 1918 winter over into the 1919 winter, but mainly it was in the 1918 part that it was most intense — of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and many people dies during that. Everybody in my family came down with it. By that time, we were established in the house at 2226 San Benito Street, which I have preferred to call in my play, ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands,’ 2226 Benito Avenue instead of Street. I like that word Avenue — it’s a little bit more appropriate to the method of the play. Now in that ramshackled house, which was owned by a man named Barr, who came on a bicycle once a year and checked the place, and papered the walls. The wallpaper was interesting. We had a big stove in the kitchen called Excelsior, and we burned sawdust in there. You got a load of sawdust dumped into one of the two bars that was related like in an angle, in the backyard, for $3.00. That sawdust would get us through the winter, and it made a beautiful hot fire. We also had a cat that came with the house when we were there, and I loved that cat and saw it catch mice and eat them. I was fascinated by that. I saw a gopher in the backyard catch a chick, one of the little chicks of our hens, and drag it down under the soil, cheeping for its poor little life, and I’m not even sure about how that happened, whether it was a gopher, or some other subterranean creature, or snake, or what, but I remember the little cheeping of that little soft chick, Eastertime chick, you might say. That house at 2226 San Benito Avenue was the arena, if I may use that word again, in which selling papers, selling the Saturday Evening Post, and my growth was in reading books from the public library and seeing a lot of movies and the vaudeville at the Hippodrome Theater — I couldn’t see the vaudeville at the White Theater, which was often vaudeville, because I couldn’t get into that one free, and the lowest ticket was 25 cents, which in those days was a lot of money.
But the round table in the dining room of that house on San Benito Street, San Benito Avenue, as I insisted on calling it, was where I did a lot of thinking, and a lot of drawing, and a lot of planning, and a lot of writing in tablets, trying to decide what my life was to be. Now all this has to do with Fresno. It is not that it has to do with myself alone, and if I would try to think ‘Well, how would it have been had I been brought up in San Francisco,’ well, I can be sure that it would have been great, but — [interruption in tape – to tape 2]
— that brought in cotton. Of course, cotton has no connection with the images of life that the grape has, and the fig, and the apricot, and the peach, and the olive, and the mulberry. In those days, the Armenians brought a hunger, and a relish, and cuttings of the mulberry trees to Fresno, and we used to eat them. Our mouths would become black from eating the mulberries, and I also now and then used to try to think what my life would have been like, my character and my identity, had my father prevailed over his wife and his wife’s mother, and his own mother, and his brothers, Lever, and Misak, and Miran, all of whom were out in Fresno — if he had insisted upon staying in Patterson, New Jersey, and in New York. He also preached at the Church of All Nations, down in the Bowry. I visited the place, and there was a man there that remembered him. That would be way back in 1939. And, speculating as to what life would have been like for me in those other places, I had to recognize the probability that there would have been tremendous advantages; and, also, if not disadvantages, differences. Nothing is a disadvantage; one makes the most of whatever one has and you can make a lot of what Fresno had.
Well, the question comes up: Didn’t Fresno have a tremendous limit of spirit and mind, and a certain kind of obvious, and foolish, and mistaken sense of superiority, based upon wealth and class and so on. Well, of course, it did, but that is human, and that is everywhere. Well, weren’t the Armenian people in Fresno belittled and considered inferior? Yes, they were, by some people, but not by everybody. Well, wasn’t it actually universally established in the mind, if you could call I that, of the town, and the region, that the Armenian was something else, as the saying is? Yes, that was true, too. Well, what effect did that have on me? Well, it had a little effect. I think it had a good effect. It certainly made it necessary for me to acknowledge to myself first that I am who I am — an Armenian — and not somebody who does not wish to be an Armenian, but somebody who accepts that he is an Armenian in an atmosphere where the Armenian is disliked, at the very least, we can put it that way. And that I must make know to anybody who dislikes Armenians that I am one of them. I am an Armenian. With that inflection. We had that. We had it at school; we had it in town; we had in stores; we had it in the streets. And there are many Armenians who would say, ‘Well, let’s face it — we brought loud, hearty voices, and strange manners to this world and these were outlandish things, and they were noticed.’ Even so. We brought our cooking, and in the wintertime, certainly at my family, garlic was part of our stews. We dried, oh, such vegetables as okra and eggplant and we made out of tomatoes into what we call salsa, which is a kind of tomato paste, and with lamb, these stews needed garlic. And I had a rather big dispute with an idiot teacher at Fresno, Emerson School in Fresno, not far away from my house on San Benito Street, just down the street to ‘L’ and there was the playground, the corner of the playground of Emerson School. And she actually said one day, immediately after the lunch hour, you Armenian kids who go home from school have got to tell your parents not to put so much garlic in your stuff, because you come back to classes and the rooms are filled with the smell of garlic. And I said, ‘Well, open the window.’ And, of course, she came at me with a weapon, a ruler, and was determined to commit mayhem, sent me to D. D. Davis’s office, and he sympathized with her and not with the Armenians and with me, and, of course, the sensible Armenian boys in that class kept their mouths shut, and, of course, I couldn’t. I had then, and have tried not to continue to have, the kind of spirit that says, ‘Well, we’ll get to the bottom of this, even if we have to go to the Supreme Court; and, of course, there is no bottom to get to. That was the way that that woman, named Miss Clifford, looked upon the heating of our class. They were overheated, all of the classrooms were overheated and they never opened windows, and I was right about that. Let anybody eat what the hell they want to eat, or must eat. And I loved those stews with the garlic. They were delicious, and open your windows. Well, of course, she had a tuna sandwich, I suppose. And that’s her business, and I don’t begrudge her eating what she wants to, but that was one teacher who was stupid. Miss Carmichael was a nice teacher, and an intelligent teacher; and Miss Thompson was an intelligent teacher; and Miss Brackington was a nice teacher. And the best of all was Miss Chambers, who lost her brother in World War I. World War I — what could it be? Of course, it was World War I.
Now, can you like a place whose identifying quality is preoccupation with crops and profits and whose range of spirit and mind is an assortment of churches. A circus once a year in a tent. Sometimes a revivalist in another bid tent a couple times a year. A parlor lecture club. Road companies of third-rate plays, a good vaudeville at the White Theater on Broadway, across from the public library. What could you expect of a people with that range? Well, you make your own culture, you see. That’s what it amounts to. People have to be permitted to have their options and preferences. It may come as a surprise, but I have to remark that when I bought my Underwood typewriter, my first typewriter was an Underwood typewriter. It cost me $15.00, and I had been a messenger for a short time, and, with permission, I had to get permission because that money that I earned, $15.00 a week, belonged to the family. We had no other source of money except what we earned. My mother worked at Guggenheim’s and Inderrieden, packing figs and my brother Henry and I were first newsboys selling papers, not delivering papers, selling them, and then messengers at the postal telegram office, and that was the thing that was so interesting. I wore the same blue coat that I saw on the earliest memory in Fresno when my father failed and left in the wagon. The scene of a vineyard on which it wouldn’t do for him to try to go on trying to be an ordinary vineyard worker. So he went off to San Francisco. But once I had gotten a job as a messenger, in my 13th year, the year 1921, I bought a typewriter in order to begin taking touch typing, as it was called, you don’t have to look at the keys, at the Fresno Technical High School, and I know how to type. I was good at it. Although, in learning how, I thought I would never make it. But suddenly it all came — fell into place, and there I was typing away. And to this day, I can type almost as good as I could then – not quite as good because things happen to the mind, to the reflexes, to the actions, the connections between the mind and the fingers. We must acknowledge these things. Probably little strokes in the head that make the fingers finding certain little keys — I used to be able to type the alphabet, for instance, straight out, very swiftly. But now I have to hesitate around q-r-s-t-u, and so forth. But I was getting to the point that in 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, when I was using that typewriter and writing essays and sending them to H. L. Mencken at the American Mercury Magazine, which was sensational in those days, and also to the Bookman and to the Century, and to the Atlantic Monthly, and to Harper’s, and to all of the other magazines that were in operation — well, I mention all the names, but I didn’t actually send stories to all of them before 1924. I sent — about 1922, 23, 24, a few to H. L. Mencken. Certainly, soon after the American Mercury started, I began to send manuscripts there and got them back. But the point I am making is, even to my own family, I said, ‘Well, I am in the business world, and I have to have a typewriter because it helps me in the business world,’ and I was believed. But after a while, my mother Takoohi did suspect that, like my father, my writing was not in the dimension of business letters: Dear Sir: Yours of the 14th instant regarding the shipment of one gross of pins for the transmission of your factory machine has been received, and we regret to state that those pins are obsolete and we no longer have any, and why don’t you use our new machine, which you don’t need any pins at all, but you may need some needles.
I was writing stories, and I must say that I was also writing poems because I liked a number of the new free verse fellows, especially, Edgar Lee Masters, and especially the Spoon River Anthology. It seemed so moving to me for all these dead people up at the cemetery at Spoon River, somewhere in the middle west, Indiana, Illinois, wherever it might be, to come out with their true stories in not very many words. I loved it. And so, when I was recently in Paris, two or three years ago, I spend half the year in Paris every year these days, I found a copy of the book for sale for about a dime, and it was such a joy to start reading them again, and it holds up beautifully. And soon afterwards I had a fan letter from a man who signed his name Masters, and replying to him (I don’t reply to fan letters as a rule, but I wanted to reply to this man because he was interested in the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and I had referred to that as probably not quite total, and we would find in due time some passenger pigeons some place or other in the world.) And I said in my reply to this Masters, I said that — how much I had like the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. He come back and said, ‘Pop would have been very pleased about what you said.’ And so, he was the son of Edgar Lee Masters, and a good man and a good writer in his own right, and there he was referring to Pop himself, as old as me. But no matter how owl you get to be, you also continue to be 12 when your father was 40. And so forth and so on. You also continue to be eight and you also continue to be six, and two, and whatever it was that you were. You don’t relinquish any of your linear time identities. They are all there and one — like a Palimpsest, falls upon the other.
But, it didn’t matter that my mother suspected and knew that I was a writer. It was expected of me to take care of my share of the responsibility of making our way in the world as a family. In those days, also, it was unheard of, by us certainly, that to get any help, even from members of our own family, let alone from the government, which would have been disgraceful. Thank God that that kind of folly in thinking is obsolete. There is a temptation to feel, ‘Well, we all made it; why can’t these other poor people make it?’ And, of course, nothing is more than stupid than that attitude. I must confess that I find that attitude among many countrymen of my own who do find themselves taking undue pride in their own sense of ability — of being equal to any situation, and of seeing it through and improving it, and so on. And then, putting that against other people who don’t have that, and thereby implying that the other people are lazy. Not taking into account the whole different structure and identity and a people who have survived for centuries under very harsh conditions and members of a very great culture, and I am talking about the Indians, to begin with, in the Valley — the San Joaquin Valley, in Fresno, in Tulare, and the mountains, and there are many tribes of them, of different kinds, and I am talking about, also, the Mestizos, the mixtures of Mexican, Spaniards with Indians, making the Mexican. And I am talking about any minority which is considered by anybody as being innately of itself indolent. This kind of narrow thinking is a temptation to all sorts of people, and one has to be sympathetic with the people who are wrong, too, you see. It is not enough just to be sympathetic with the people who are belittled; it is necessary to be sympathetic with the people who belittle them. So, in worrying about the persecuted, one is obliged also to worry about the persecutors. I consider that a basic measure of growth.
Now, we had certain places and certain conventions in Fresno that were to me beautiful. The courthouse park was a place; and the old courthouse was an image. The courthouse band concerts, with Dutch Leonard’s brother first conducting the band, were beautiful. This Paul Paul came along and conducted for a long, long time, and they were beautiful. The was songs were good and there was invariably, up near the podium, up near the shell where the band sat in an elevated state, there was invariably a little girl overcome by the beauty and harmony involved — her first experience of it — overcome to such an extent that she had to dance in the aisle, and, of course, fortunately, her own parents permitted her to do that, and everybody else was enchanted by her graceful, natural dancing. There were also misers. By which I mean to say there was the lore of the miser. There was a beardo, a bearded man who sold papers, and most newsboys were well under sixteen, and this was a man who was well beyond forty. And he was considered a miser. And it turned out that they were right. When he died, they found that he had a wealth all through his little shanty someplace, and they added it all up. It came to $27.45, and that proved that he was a miser. Good God. And there were cripples in town that you saw. You see that in a small town, and they are noticeable more in a small town than anywhere else — people in wheelchairs and people deformed, hunchbacks, and so forth. Some of them were Armenians and some died. And there were eccentrics. There were Biblical eccentrics — people who literally tried to follow the Bible and became like one of the disciples. One of them was an Armenian, and I think they called him St. John. He had a magnificent face and figure, and a robe, barefooted or sandled, and there was no way to know whether he was an eccentric or a saint. Or how he got by.
There were saloons in my earliest years of selling papers. There was the White Fawn, for instance, on Mariposa Street, between J and K, between Fulton and Van Ness, that is. And in that saloon, there was a free lunch that came with your beer, and in the back there were poker games. And over the bar were the great pictures of the theatrical qualify, of, semi-nude portraits that were very attractive. And there were the streetcars that had the names Recreation Park. That was out by the fairgrounds. And then there was another one out all the way to Riverview, and you can still get to Riverview, but it is now cut up into private property beyond the San Joaquin Golf Course, someplace out there. The car barns were on First, just off of Tulare Street, and they were red brick. One red brick, which I have always called, even in my novels, the Armenian Red Brick Church, is still there at M Street and Ventura on the southwest corner. It is a beautiful bit of architecture, almost perfectly proportioned in the tradition of the Armenian architecture. The builder was Kunderagia Konragen. Al Konragen, the brother of the builder was a man that had a fruit and vegetable shop out south of Market in San Francisco when I got back from New York in 1929, and I worked for him for a short time. And he had all the preoccupation of the Armenian exile, of sorrow about the loss of Armenia. He was especially bitter about the loss of Kars and Ardehan, and I admired him and listened to him, and worked for him.
The business of making use of Fresno is not making use of your own place, your own world, is not ever deliberate It appears to be unavoidable in any case. I hated The Fred Finch Orphanage. I hated Fresno. I recognized not much more than 10 years after I was out of The Fred Finch Orphanage that it was indeed one of the better orphanages that ever were, that ever are, that ever could be. And I even found some of the orderliness of the place deep in my own character and useful to me, and less than 10 years after I had left Fresno, thinking I would never go back — why should I ever go to such a stupid place — I began to see that it was whatever I chose to consider it to be out of all of the variety of things that were real there, it was my decision to choose what I wished to have and to keep and to use in my own character and in my own legend and lay and meaning. And there is no enemy in Fresno that is beyond the simple enemy of ignorance of terrible limitation. And this reality of ignorance and narrow limitation persists. It isn’t limited to any particular people. It’s haphazard. It exists amongst the liberated, so to put it. And one notices it and puts up with it. I returned to Fresno Gradually, on short visits, soon after my departure, because members of my family were still here and certainly many old friends were here. And even if I didn’t seek them out, I ran into them by accident, and that was always pleasant. But in 1964, having lived in Europe, having lived in New York, having spent three years in the American Army, having spend a year in London and then in Paris, during the war, I began to feel that I might enjoy spending some time in Fresno, and so I bought a tract house, and I am in that house now speaking. And I bought the house beside it. And one and off I have been here since 1964 on this return visit. Well is this Fresno, the present-day Fresno, very much like the other? The truth is the truth and must be told. It is exactly the other. And it is just fine. It is enormously big and prosperous, and, therefore, troublesome, with dispu8tes of all kinds, with annoyance with labor, farm labor, with annoyance that labor has about the owners, and this is all healthy and proper and right. But, now, anybody, anybody at all, who presumes that perhaps some order of activity in the arts is for him is not only not discouraged – he is more than encouraged. And that’s just find, too. Because even for people who, at best, are not obsessed with whatever it is that they think they want to do, and you have to be obsessed, it’s not too bad for anybody to think that they can write a poem. It’s a good thought. It’s a good thing. Or to paint a picture. Or to compose a song, or a symphony, or a concerto, or whatever it might be. Fresno is a good place. It’s the world, and how good can the world be in any case, wherever you go? How much different from Fresno is Paris? If you are there, you are there, and you can see and feel a culture, and you can see and feel a culture in Fresno, too.
I would not care to belittle anything about Fresno, and I would prefer to cherish everything about it, and to seek to try to understand those elements which sometimes really bother people and bothered me, and don’t bother me now. Because the only annoyance which is worthy of us has got to be the large annoyance of failure, of enormous failure, and that is inevitable in any case. And so we have to be charitable toward s ourselves so that we can be charitable towards everybody else.
I see my old friends, and then I hear that they have died and have been buried, and then I remember them. And then I see another old friend. The reality of boys 60 years ago still lingers in the men.