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City of Exiles

No One Spoke More Eloquently for Fresno's Armenian Community Than William Saroyan, Whose Spirit Can Still Be Found on Its Quiet Streets and in Its Noble Faces.

November 22, 1998|MARK ARAX | Mark Arax covers Central California for The Times and is the author of "In My Father's Name" (Simon & Schuster)

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 a 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 than in Fresno. 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 "own" Sunnyside Country Club.

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