THE OTHER DAY, after reading for the dozenth time that Fresno, Calif., was number 277 on somebody's list of preferred places to live, I had a sudden, vivid memory of the last time I saw William Saroyan. Along with the raisins and figs that grow in abundance in the surrounding fields, Saroyan was one of Fresno's most famous natural resources -- a writer who used the material of his Armenian family and his small-town boyhood to launch a literary career that included a Pulitzer Prize for his play "The Time of Your Life."
I saw him only a few times in the 25 years I have lived in Fresno, but each time seemed special and meaningful in a way I can't quite name. Maybe it's that my memories and thoughts about my home town are bound up in, and only half-distinguishable from, the things Saroyan wrote about it. Or maybe it's even simpler: my memories of the man are memories of the place.
My last encounter with him occurred only a year or so before his death in 1981. I was turning left off Ashlan Avenue into the parking lot of a busy supermarket. Suddenly there he was up ahead of me, cutting through the intersection on his bicycle, riding with no hands because his arms were full of oranges, his brown felt hat pushed back on his head and a go-to-hell grin on his face.
Later, when I told the story to friends, I always said they were stolen oranges. This is the man who wrote in "The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills," "Every day was an adventure, a new chance to draw nearer to that great state of health which approximates immortality, when the senses are so finely alive."
There is no way I could have known the oranges were stolen. I said it from instinct, partly because they would have been stolen if he had been a character in one of his own stories and partly because I think Saroyan, would have preferred to have the story told that way.
Too, I told it that way because I know Saroyan's home town. Fresno may be one of the few cities left in the United States where a 12-year-old boy just turned 70 could swoop up some oranges from a neglected orchard behind a shopping center, jump on his bicycle and ride swiftly to his home in a modern subdivision a few blocks away.
I should make it clear from the beginning that the Fresno I know is not the one a motorist sees speeding down Route 99 on the west side of town. If you are a tourist from anyplace else, a Los Angelino, say, driving up California's long, central valley to view the wonders of Yosemite, Fresno may look a lot like the place you just left, with tract homes crowding the freeway and a gasoline smell in the wind. Since the air turned gray back in the '60s, the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east are no longer visible rising abruptly above the flatness of the San Joaquin Valley.
True, we have trees and vines and vast fields planted to cotton. If you can't identify the crop, signs are there to guide you: nectarines, they say -- or plums or raisin grapes. An old farmhouse still rises up here and there, but something -- maybe the large metal storage buildings for farm machinery, or the crop duster spraying malathion insecticide -- suggests that these are just remnants, that the small, homey holdings of years back have been sold out to conglomerates and that agriculture has become agribusiness to an extent unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Still, this outside view reveals only a partial truth, at least in the minds of many of Fresno's citizens.
During his life, William Saroyan often chose to live in this inland city he had brought to a limited fame, even before a New York geography professor listed it recently as the least liveable city in America. Saroyan lived in relative obscurity, if the word can be used in talking about any aspect of his life.
To this day, I don't believe that half the people here knew who he was, and most of those probably didn't recognize him when they saw him. People who did know him say he owned two tract homes side by side in a middle-class development near Route 99. In one, he lived. In the other, he stored the accumulated odds and ends of his life.
Like Homer Macauley, the telegraph messenger he wrote about in his novel "The Human Comedy," Saroyan liked to ride a bicycle around town and he liked to ride it fast. Like the Armenian grandfather in many of his stories, he liked to bellow with laughter. Like Aram Garoghlanian, the Armenian boy in "My Name is Aram," he was generally loud and public and funny.
He could be seen almost anytime, anywhere, mostly on his bicycle, sometimes in "his Kharman Ghia, on his way to the grocery store, where he would argue half-seriously with the clerks about anything from vegetable prices to politics.
The first time I saw him, I was a boy of 5. He was already famous for his books -- and even for a song that was a juke box sensation, "Come On-a My House," which he'd written with a cousin. Just as I was walking out of the new county library on O Street, Saroyan came walking in, handsome, impeccably dressed, his dark hair slicked back and his moustache waxed to an impressive handlebar.
I turned and gawked. Saroyan made a few, swift passes up and down the rows of books, looked intently at the walls, the artwork, the librarians. He looked intently at everything, it seemed to me. Then, abruptly, he left.
No one recognized him but me. I knew him from the picture on the back of one of his books.
I pondered the meaning of this for weeks. Why had he left so quickly? Was he disgusted at the newness of the building, it's lack of history? Did he want the library back in its old place?
No. Finally, I realized he was just looking, soaking it all up, the way a writer would. He had wanted something, some feel of the place, and he had gotten it as quickly as that. As an artist, he was, you might say, an expert at taking in impressions. Now, if he needed, he could write about it. Besides, I told myself, new building or not, vagrants still dozed over newspapers in the reading section and kids still came for books.
Years passed before I saw Saroyan again.
In 1970, back from college and all grown up, I thought, I was introduced. The occasion was a group photograph of Fresno writers for an upcoming book. The place was the old Santa Fe train station just east of downtown.
Unexpectedly, Saroyan turned to me and complimented me for one of my poems. Flustered in his presence, I couldn't remember the poem he said he liked. I told him I hadn't written it, but thanks. As he walked off, I remembered my poem that he had referred to -- too late.
That day I was treated to Saroyan being Saroyan right there in our home town, at the Santa Fe depot that had been there when he was a kid, close by the Santa Fe Hotel frequented then and before by Basque shepherds who tended sheep on large ranches in the surrounding hills.
Saroyan declaimed loudly to everyone the merits of photography, the beauty of certain poses. He made elaborate arrangements of us, suggesting this grouping, then that, until finally he denied the merits of all his own ideas with a sad look and the comment: "It will never work."
In desperation, we took a standard shot of all of us to grace the cover of our book, 20 some-odd poets and Saroyan, sitting and standing on the depot steps, staring straight at the photographer.
Thirty-five years after Saroyan was a boy here, I was a boy here, in the middle '50s. Things had changed some from his youth, but not much. The town was basically agricultural, being surrounded on all sides by enormous grape vineyards, fruit orchards and cotton fields. Nothing could change the landscape, flat as a pancake, and you could still see the purple, snow-capped Sierras every day, not just when rain cleared the air.
Neither could anything change the ethnic makeup of the place. Fresno's Armenian population was still large, though many of the poor immigrants of Saroyan's youth had become prosperous farmers and businessmen. Their place in Fresno society had been taken by poor immigrants from Oklahoma and Texas and Arkansas who had come out to work in the crops.
My family was among these. We lived in a not very popular section of town known as "Little Oklahoma" near the county fairgrounds on Ventura Street.
To the west and south were Fresno's considerable colonies of blacks and Mexicans, and way to the west, near Kerman, were the Russians, famous for their strange costumes and a church which allowed none of its members to marry outsiders.
Much of Saroyan's old Fresno was still there in the '50s. The Fresno County Courthouse had brooded over the town before Saroyan was born. Other buildings had gone up during his youth. In the '50s, even the movie theaters remained: the White, Hardy's, the Sequoia, the Fox Wilson.
These had been there during Saroyan's growing-up years, some under different names. Some had gone down, of course, and new ones had been built in their places, but the experience of a Saturday afternoon trip to the movies was much the same as Saroyan had described it.
Some of my favorite memories of growing up here are going downtown to those places with my friends.
Once, three of us had managed to scrape movie and bus fare from our parents. We rode the bus downtown and walked to the Crest, an ornate and palatial affair constructed during the '40s, but close to the theaters Saroyan had frequented when he was a kid. I don't remember the movie, but I recall how I loved to sit in that place, with its velvet curtains and high balconies, with its elaborate scrollwork on the walls, flooded with blue and gold lights. We walked home, a distance of several miles, so we could spend the bus fare on candy.
The candy I have also forgotten, but I remember the walk home, east on Fresno Street, past the old, domed courthouse, past the Farmer's Market to Tulare Street, then up Tulare with the streetcar tracks still there in the asphalt, past Uncle Tom's Cabin, a liquor store, where, it was said, "girlie" magazines were sold under the counter. Then we passed Federal Fruit Distributors, went south on Cedar at Roosevelt High School to Ventura and passed the county fairgrounds before reaching home.
Thirty years later, my own children are growing up in Fresno. The city still has, in someone's vocabulary, a Chinatown, a Germantown, a Little Italy. Many of the old downtown buildings are there even now -- the Rowell building, the Helm building, the Hotel Californian. And even today, several of the old movie theaters remain. The only things that's changed about the boys who frequent them is that they are mostly Mexican and their language is Spanish.
What amazes me when I think about it is that behind the makeup of mansard roofs and adobe fronts, despite middle-age spread brought on by the influx of refugees from Los Angeles, under the major surgery of regional shopping centers and Holiday Inns, Fresno has remained basically what it always was. A farm town, yes, but a nice one, large, but with a small-town atmosphere.
Oddly enough, I live only a little further from the corner of Fulton and Tulare Streets than I did in 1954. Forever, that will be what I think of as "downtown." I can be there in 12 minutes by Toyota pickup.
Granted, 30 minutes in the opposite direction would have me on the land of mega-agriculture, where farmers check their acreages from airplanes and mysterious pieces of machinery loom as large as my house.
In the semirural area where I live, on Fresno's far-west side, we are protected by a zoning law called "the two-acre limitation." This means that land can't be broken down into smaller parcels. None of us feels particularly secure about it. Experience tells us that suburban land developers always get what they want. We can feel their lusty glances as the latest bunch of houses goes up less than half a mile away.
Still, across the street from me is a 40-acre fig orchard, carefully tended by the Japanese family who own it. My children sometimes run around out there, barefoot. If they wanted, I suppose they could find an irrigation ditch to play in. Swimming in ditches remains an edge-of-town pastime. It's illegal, and it was always dangerous, but Saroyan swam in ditches, and I did, and somehow I am encouraged by the thought of it.
The ethnic makeup of our town remains diverse. Some groups have been absorbed, but others have taken their place. Hmong and Vietnamese can now be heard here almost anyplace; German, less and less. We remain a huge support system for agriculture. In spite of mechanization, most farms still require field hands; and, labor laws or not, children work with their parents.
I don't mean to make Fresno sound too pastoral, like America's last rural holdout. It's not. We have all the trouble, and some of the advantages, the big cities have to offer. You want dope, we've got dope. You want murder, we've got that. High fashion -- well, maybe.
If cities could be compared to boxers, Fresno would be a middleweight. Weighing in at 280,000 population, with many more just outside the city limits, we have to be considered large, if not the largest.
But, in spite of everything, I feel sure the Fresno Saroyan wrote about is still here, the kind of childhood he experienced is still possible, is in fact still happening just beyond an adult's ability to perceive it. Saroyan once wrote about his hometown that it was an "ugly little city containing the large comic world," and that it was "as good a town as any to be born into." This probably hasn't changed either.
My children got to meet him once. They weren't introduced. They just happened to wander into a branch library in the north part of town just as he was going out.
"Why, there you are," he declared, not knowing them from Adam. "Look how much you've grown. Why," he shouted, "I've known you since you were no bigger than that."
My son was 4 at the time, and he had a lot more poise than I ever did. He looked at the six inches or so Saroyan was measuring with his hands. "I never was that little," he said, and walked on in, leaving William Saroyan to bellow with laughter and take off on his bicycle, riding with no hands.