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Jack Smith

His recollections of the past reveal yet another : of the truly great cultural wonders of Fresno

April 10, 1986|JACK SMITH

Cities, like people, have inferiority complexes. Los Angeles used to feel inferior to San Francisco and New York. Now it feels inferior only to New York.

Conversely, every city that feels inferior to any other city must have a city it feels superior to.

Los Angeles used to feel superior to Bakersfield, but now Bakersfield is the closest place you can go to see a blacked-out Raiders or Rams game, and thus has achieved a kind of cultural status.

At the same time Bakersfield has always felt superior to Taft, and the legendary rivalry between their high school football teams is the theme of an improbable current movie in which a middle-aged Taftite (Taftian?), his life shadowed by a dropped pass that cost Taft the big game years before, tries to have the game played over.

A few years ago the then-mayor of Fresno, a fellow of more wit than prudence, called Fresno "the gateway to Bakersfield." Obviously that was a joke, since Fresno has always looked down its nose at Bakersfield.

I aroused the wrath of Fresno Bee columnist Eli Setencich a few years ago with my comments on a New York public opinion service that polled 1,201 single adults in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Fresno on their dating methods.

I wrote that I was puzzled that they would choose Fresno as representative of the Far West. "Being halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles," I said, "it is thought of as having neither the sophistication of the one nor the laid-back life style of the other, and people who don't live there can imagine no reasons why anyone would.

"Actually," I added, "Fresno has some excellent Armenian restaurants, good raisins, and a red wine that reminds me of ouzo. Of course a red wine shouldn't remind you of ouzo, but that's a matter of taste.

"But Fresno is not ordinarily thought of as a city that typifies contemporary American attitudes, especially in matters of social intercourse."

Those incautious remarks stung columnist Setencich to comment: "Well, what I would like to know is what does a guy who can't tell a red wine from ouzo know about raisins and besides when was the last time Mr. Smith came to Fresno. . . ? Besides, as everybody . . . knows, good raisins is a redundancy."

It seems that Mr. Setencich has been lying in wait for me ever since then, and the other day I walked into his trap.

In a column about a pit bull my family owned when I was a very small boy, I admitted casually that at the time we lived in Fresno.

Setencich sprang:

"The other day the Los Angeles Times columnist came out of the closet. His secret appeared in a remembrance of the old family dog.

" 'We lived in Fresno at the time,' he wrote. 'I'm not sure that I have ever before revealed that I once lived in Fresno.'

"The column was about the pit bull the family had in Fresno. Not an Irish setter, mind you, or a Great Dane or a Dalmatian or anything else sweet and lovely, but a pit bull.

"Buddy was its name. 'Buddy, a pit bull,' went the title on the column, 'Ideally suited to combat and to a family in Fresno.'

"Get it? Pit bull ideally suited to Fresno. Fresno, The Pits. One and the same. Are we in paranoia yet?"

Setencich notes that I added: "Like pit bulls, Fresno suffers from an unfair reputation."

I think that's what caused him to phone me. He wrote of our conversation as follows:

"So is that why it took him all these years to come forward and reveal the secret life of Jack Smith in Fresno? Not at all, he said:

" 'I just never had the occasion to mention it before.' Likely story, likely column.

" 'But it's the truth,' he said. 'It was in the early '20s. I was a little kid. I can't recall if I even went to school there.'

"What he does remember of Fresno, he remembers fondly. 'I think Fresno is a great city,' he said shamelessly.

"That's easy for Jack Smith to say. The last time he was in the great city, he was a reporter covering a veterans' convention in what used to be the Hacienda when one of its big attractions was the swimming pool that opened on the lower bar.

"That's his memory of Fresno, the bar and the window onto the pool and the weird guy swimming in it.

" 'The guy kept diving into the pool. A skinny guy, pale, with long stringy hair hanging behind him, and knobby knees. We called him The Thing.'

"While (he and the bartender) were talking about 'The Thing,' a woman walked into the bar and sat down next to him. 'She said ("The Thing") happened to be her husband.' "

I didn't explain to Setencich that the wonderful thing about the Hacienda bar was that you could sit there having a beer and watch women dive into the pool and swim over to the side above the bar to adjust the tops and bottoms of their bikinis, unaware that they were being observed. It was a very cultural way to spend the afternoon.

And now Setencich tells me the Hacienda has gone! Or has it only changed its name, and still has the swimming pool bar?

I hope so. Because except for that bar, and of course for the Armenian restaurants, good raisins and a red wine that reminds me of ouzo, what does Fresno have to offer?

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