Walking the Graveyard with Willie Saroyan

The last time I saw my grandfather, Aram Arax, he was badgering an old black lady in the courtyard of their nursing home in east Fresno, his chest rattling with pneumonia and his mind stuck on one last poem he was still composing, an epic of early Fresno and his good friend William Saroyan, who
was seven years dead already.

“Lady Comrade,” my tiny grandfather pleaded, his belt cinched to the last hole and pee dripping out the bottom of his pant leg. “You must listen to my masterpiece!”

He then recited what he could of the poem he had written on and off for two years, writing to stave off blindness and senility, bent over paper the way my mother used to bend over her dough, braiding it line by line. It never quite came together. He had titled it “To the Master,” and he seemed unaware that it was too full of gushing pride about Saroyan, the writer who had given voice to my grandfather’s exile and the exile of 30,000 other Armenians who had found their way to this sunbaked valley of vineyards and orchards ringed by mountains.

“Look,” my grandfather had marveled as the train chugged into Fresno in the summer of 1921. “It’s just like the old land.”

And so it was, even if the Sierra wasn’t Mt. Ararat and even if the valley’s Thompson grape was poor cousin to the sweet jeweled berries of an Armenian homeland 2,500 years old. For better and worse, Grandpa and his countrymen had been reborn in a new Armenia called Fresno, ash tree in Spanish, and Willie Saroyan was their chronicler.

In the early days of Saroyan’s fame, they didn’t know what to make of the young writer who was spending more time in the waterfront bars of San Francisco. Whenever they would glimpse him back home, he was wearing stained chinos and talking in a voice that boomed and bellowed, bragging how he wrote a short story every day and an entire play in a single week. He took their exile and ethnic suffocations and gassy sermons and turned them into gems of comedy and tragedy–short stories like “The Pomegranate Trees,” “My Cousin Dikran, the Orator” and “Big Valley Vineyard.”

The Armenians of Fresno would have preferred something more weighty, something about how the Turks had killed 1.5 million of their family members in the 20th Century’s first genocide. Saroyan would leave such matters to writers like Franz Werfel, whose monumental novel “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” would memorialize a village of Armenians trapped in a mountain redoubt, heroically fending off waves of Turkish gendarmes.

Saroyan had another calling: to capture the dignity of the working man caught in the vice of America’s Depression and the mischief of growing up in the San Joaquin Valley surrounded by a bunch of crazy Saroyans. No one evoked the wonders of childhood better. This is how he began the short story “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.”

One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everybody who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.

Aram, he said.

I jumped out of bed and looked out the window. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It wasn’t morning yet, but it was summer and with daybreak not many minutes around the corner of the world it was light enough for me to know I wasn’t dreaming. My cousin Mourad was sitting on a beautiful white horse.

Fresno never fully appreciated Saroyan, not in life and certainly not in death. And, truth be known, he hated the place. He hated and loved Fresno the way only a native could love and hate it. Fresno bluebloods, if there ever was such a thing, weren’t fond of the Armenian habit of “going public,” whole families taking their watermelon and sharp cheddar cheese on the front porch and tattling loud into the summer night. With restrictive real estate codes, Fresno barred Armenians from living in certain parts of town through the 1950s. We were blackballed from Sunnyside Country Club.

Only occasionally did Saroyan deal directly with the hurt of this exclusion. But if you read him closely, it’s not hard to spot the pain, a kind of quiet insinuation, the exaltation of the outsider.

Today, a half century later, it is the Armenian developers who pervert the city’s orderly plan for growth with their vision of a new uptown near the river, and the Armenians who all but own Sunnyside Country Club.

Whenever Grandpa wrote about Saroyan, he wrote about flight–cranes and swallows and other birds of Armenia that left one season but always returned the next. It was an apt metaphor. Later in life, Saroyan bought two tract houses side-by-side in the middle of town and spent half the year in Paris and
half in Fresno. He would return every autumn, after the last raisin had been turned and before the first call of ponies at the Fresno Fair. He was a gambling fool. Horses, roulette tables, craps, the worse the odds the better. He said he despised money.

In those autumns of the 1970s, Grandma Alma used to put on glorious dinners with Saroyan as main attraction. I was the oldest grandchild, a would-be writer, and they gave me a seat at the table alongside the motley of painters and poets and old Reds from Grandpa and Grandma’s Party days. Saroyan devoured the grape leaf dolma and cracked wheat pilaf and put up with the crew of pretenders. I noticed right off that he spent most of his time talking and drinking Armenian cognac with the raisin farmer, Hodgie Kandarian.

Hodgie was a gentle man with kind eyes and proud hands and he and his brother, in the manner of too many Armenian sons, lived alone as bachelors on an 60-acre spread. The brother was something of a stock market savant. He sat in a slump and hardly made eye contact except to mutter the next hot tip. He was bullish on Wolverine shoes and Fruit of the Loom underwear.

Saroyan and Hodgie talked about harvests and cousins long gone. Saroyan seemed to have mastered three generations of Hodgie’s family tree, a skill honed from walking Ararat Cemetery and reading aloud the tombstones in the rain. After dinner, it was my job to drive the drunken master back home. On the front lawn, he stopped and shook his fist at the night sky.

“Drive me to Armenia,” he bellowed.

Years later, after discovering again the short stories in “My Name is Aram,” I thought I saw something of this lonely Saroyan in the character of Uncle Melik, the sanguine farmer who refused to believe that his patch of Fresno desert could grow anything but the finest pomegranates. After two or three seasons coaxing nothing but horned toads and tumbleweeds from the dry earth, Uncle Melik finally managed to pick eleven precious boxes of the ancient fruit, only to discover that the wholesale produce houses in far off Chicago¬†could not find a single buyer.

So the eleven boxes came back. All winter long, my uncle and I ate pomegranates in our spare time.

They are all dead now, Uncle Melik and Grandpa Arax and Saroyan and Hodgie. Gone, too, is their Fresno, its Victorian downtown, its domed courthouse. Today, there seems no easy way to stop the suburban sprawl, to lure the speculator’s dollar back to the center. Downtown Fresno now boasts the highest vacancy rate of any downtown in the state. There is talk of the magic of a $30 million baseball stadium and a meandering lake to awaken the ghosts.
Sometimes in the winter fog I drive by Saroyan’s old house and try to find the bronze memorial posted on the garage. It was here that Grandpa and I paid a visit in the summer of 1980, on my way to Columbia University to decide between a future in law or journalism. The room was filled with rocks of all shapes and sizes and Saroyan, who looked smaller than usual, told me he collected them to remind himself that art should be simple. He said he never used a vocabulary of more than 300 words.

“You must write about what you know in the language that you know it,” he said. He talked about the solitude every writer must find. “It’s lonely sometimes but it isn’t abject loneliness. Rather a kind of majestic one, a kinship with larger things.”

It was time to go and he showed us to the front door. Then, from behind his back, like a magician, he produced a copy of his latest book, “Obituaries.”

“Here,” he said, “this is for you. For New York City. Don’t be put off by the title. It’s not about death at all. It’s about living.”

When I got to the car I opened the book and on the first blank page, to my surprise and absolute delight, he had penned a small note. I read it to Pop.
“For Aram Arax, grandfather, and to Mark Arax, grandson. Fellow Armenians. Fellow writers. It is a track. It is a profession. But most of all writing it being alive. Continued good luck, Bill Saroyan.”

He died of cancer a few months later, uttering one of the great parting lines of our time: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

I was in New York and Grandpa broke the news to me over the phone.

“We have lost our crane,” he said.