The Place of Places - The First Armenian Presbyterian Church, Fresno, 1919

Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we enter The First Armenian Presbyterian Church, Fresno, 1919.

This chapter honors Saroyan’s early years with spirituality and his connection to his father. Though he was never a true believer, William attended the Armenian church as his mother instructed when he was a child. Here he talks about the preacher at his church, M.H. Knadjian. He was a man Saroyan respected. He writes, “I sometimes liked accepting the instructions of my mother to stay for Church after Sunday School, because the tall gentleman in the cutaway coat spoke both English and Armenian, had a good voice, and now and then told an interesting story” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

ArmenFirstPreHe notes that Reverend Knadjian married an Englishwoman and had half a dozen kids who he never saw at church. Knadjian received degrees at the University of London, then served for 13 years in Cairo as a chaplain for the British army of occupation. He was then stationed in Turkey and then served Fresno’s First Presbyterian Church from 1912 to 1920. He went on to serve other Central Valley Armenian communities, dying at age 89 in the Bay Area. Though Saroyan imagined he had half a dozen children, his obituary has Knadjian survived by only four children, the same number as the Saroyan kids.

In the early 1900s, there weren’t many academic theology historians, but instead there were religious leaders who were also religious historians. Knadjian was an educated man who knew both his scripture and the history of his people. He drew crowds in Fresno by giving speeches about history completely outside of his church sermons.

In “Sunday is a Hell of a Day,” published in 1957 in American Mercury, Saroyan writes, “Sundays in Fresno were both pleasant and boring for me. Most of the time I hated going to the First Armenian Presbyterian Sunday School, but I went just the same, because it was the rule of the family. I didn’t mind too much, because it was possible to have fun there too. Everything was in English, of course, except the major part of Reverend Knadjian’s sermon, but we didn’t stay for that very often. If we did we sat up in the gallery and counted bald heads and millionaires. There were around thirty bald heads to one millionaire. There were three millionaires, but they weren't halfers, they were full millionaires. How or why they'd become Presbyterians, I don't know. Things like that happen in a mysterious manner. The three millionaires of The First Armenian Presbyterian Church had good heads of hair. There was no connection, though, because so did ten times as many poor men. As for the women, they all had long hair.”

He explains that sometime around the 1940s, Knadjian visited the Saroyan family and left signed copies of some of his books. Saroyan wasn’t a big book reader but closes the chapter with, “Reverend Knadjian came to the house at 1821 15th Avenue in San Francisco one day when I was in New York and he left for me an inscribed copy of one of his ten or eleven books – historical, patriotic, poetic, religious. This particular book was patriotic: I found it absolutely fascinating – well-written and with great dignity.”

Though Saroyan didn’t know the reverend much, his presence remained in William’s mind. There was something impressive about the reverend that maybe stood in for his absent father. Perhaps Knadjian looked like the man Armenak could have become if he had found a pulpit in Fresno.

knadReverend Knadjian is also a character in the play Armenians, which was produced by the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in New York in 1974. Armenians follows several preachers and a few well-respected lay people who are discussing the annexation of Armenia to Russia in 1921, nominally when the play takes place. They feel somewhat helpless, having survived the Genocide by being in America, and do not know how they can help their brothers in the Old Country anymore. Notably, the pastors are from different denominations, but speak together as Christians. Protestant Armenians were much more likely to assimilate into American society, having typically been educated by American missionaries, and oftentimes married American or English women. On the other hand, Armenians who stayed with the mother church were less likely to Americanize or speak English, and this was sometimes a bone of contention between the two groups. Still, their Christian brotherhood was stronger than their differences most of the time.

Armenia is considered the first Christian nation, and it has always been a majority Oriental Orthodox, or Apostolic. Presbyterianism originated in Scotland and thrived in the United States in the 19th century. William’s father, Armenak, converted to Presbyterianism, but carried many of the old ways with him. This must have been another interesting mixture in his father that Saroyan could somehow relate to – Western Christianity met ancient Orthodoxy within Armenak, just as Californian culture met ancient Armenian culture within William. We can’t know how Armenak treated this duality, but we know that it was something that William studied within himself.

The history of Protestants in Armenia is relatively brief. Apostolic Armenians had lived among Ottoman Muslims for centuries in many towns, and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire allowed non-Muslims to practice their faiths, though not as equals to Muslims. In the 1820s, American Protestant missionaries entered Anatolia to convert the Muslims. This was a huge failure, so they moved on to ancestral Armenia, where they believed they might have an easier time of converting people from one Christian faith to another. This was a success, and the American missionaries began publishing newsletters and opening schools for Armenian students. They also promoted a freedom of thought that caused unrest among the newly enlightened Armenians who began to openly distrust the rules and administration of the sultan.

In his 1906 diary, translated into English only recently, Armenak wrote, “My freedom is fueling my thoughts, enabling them to fly, to soar, now that they are freed from restrictions. How blessed is life in freedom, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the will! How enlivening! Wonderful laws allow humans new advancements. France enlightened me about these. Freedom is the guarantee of happiness, which heaven was slow to grant to us Armenians. It was a gratifying experience for me to witness the supreme creature’s ability to live freely, in accordance with his calling and ideal, to think freely and to act freely. God, who is free, made his creation free and ordained it to live in freedom” (Journal of Armenak Saroyan, 1906). In 1906, he was working at The Christian Herald, journaling on the side and promoting humanitarian causes internationally via the Evangelical Christianity of the weekly newspaper.

With Greek nationalism surging and democracies in Europe pushing against the crumbling Ottoman Empire, missionaries were embedding themselves in the cracks. The religious balance was being interrupted in Armenia, and on the cusp of World War I, there were tens of thousands of Armenian pupils in Protestant schools. After the Turks massacred Armenians in the 1890s, the stage was set for more conflict. In trying to snuff out Protestant and European values, the sultan alienated all Armenians. Armenians rebelled and created further unrest in the empire, which was already struggling internally in the West and with the Russians in the East. Armenians were in the middle of a tinder box when genocide began.

In speeches that Knadjian gave in Fresno in 1915, he stated, “When the Armenians began adopting American and European ideas, about 50 years ago, the Turks developed a jealousy and a hatred that culminated in two dreadful massacres…The Turk when he found that his prey was taken away from his hand [as a result of the resistance at Van], resorted to his traditional method of attacking the innocent and defenseless populations in the interior. Orders went from Constantinople to every town and village to exterminate the Armenians” (Fresno Morning Republican, November 24, 1915).

Because of their close relationships with American missionaries, many Armenian protestants were able to escape the burgeoning violence and emigrate to the United States before World War I, sponsored by American preachers. This was how Armenak Saroyan left Bitlis, under the protection of William Stonehill, a Protestant preacher in New Jersey and the namesake of William Saroyan.

churThe First Armenian Presbyterian Church was founded in Fresno in 1897. Its first pastor was a former American missionary to Armenia, Reverend Lysander Burbank, who had served in Bitlis and spoke fluent Armenian. After him, the pastors of the church were Armenian men.

Saroyan attended church as a child and because his father was such an important mystery to him, he was interested in religion and spirituality. William tried many avenues to get to know his father posthumously. One way was to follow in Armenak’s footsteps by spending time in New York and Patterson, New Jersey. Another way was to examine Armenak’s poetry with the help of his family. Though he spoke Armenian, he didn’t read it. Armenak wrote in Armenian, though he was fluent in English. Especially in Saroyan’s early works from the 1930s, when he was very focused on his father, he incorporated religious themes in his writing.

In William’s 1931 draft, “Autobiography of One of My Selves,” he writes,

I go to church to sit, to be there. I am not a Christian, Presbyterian/ or atheist. I merely go. Whatever is said I do not hear, am not interested in. I look at the ceilings and at members of the congregation. If there is a beautiful woman in the church I look at her. Nothing is quite as delightful as a large voluptuous woman in a church. Everyone has noticed this. Why the women go to church perhaps they alone know.

I stand with the congregation to sing and I sing. I sing as loud as any of them and I am not mocking. I like to sing religious songs. Sometimes I sing them at home but the folks say I am mocking. I used to work with an old telegrapher in a small town telegraph office and all day Sunday he used to sing religious songs with a cigar in his mouth. He would sing "Sun of My Soul, Thou Savior Dear", Jesus, Thy Name I Love", "Nearer My God to Thee", and many others. Between stanzas he would spit into the cuspidor, but he was not mocking. I sing the same way. No one in a congregation has ever suspected that I didn’t believe what they believed. It’s my singing.”

Later he would write “The Presbyterian Choir Singers,” a vignette in My Name is Aram, in which young Catholic Aram is drafted by a Presbyterian into her choir because he has such a beautiful singing voice, a “Presbyterian voice,” she says. She pays him for his services and when he hits puberty, fires him. Aram tells us, “Like most Americans, my faith consists in believing in every religion, including my own, but without any ill-will toward anybody, no matter what he believes or disbelieves, just so his personality is good.”

1936’s Inhale and Exhale contained many stories with religious imagery, including “Psalms,” “Six Hundred and Sixty-Six,” and “Yea and Amen.” Armenak also lived on through his son. In the father’s travel journals, he writes, “When traveling, [it is] as if criticism, alienation, and ethnic distinctions disappear, and families relate to one another as members of one family” (Journal of Armenak Saroyan, July 22, 1906). This is echoed in William’s writing and in the way he chose to approach the world.

famBy the time William was older, his urge to know his father had faded some, especially once he became a father himself. He had begun to understand that there was no easy way to be a father, dead or alive. In Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, Saroyan writes, “Now, my father, Armenak of Bitlis, as I think of him, the failed poet, the failed Presbyterian preacher, the failed American, the failed theological student, up and died in a way that was clearly damned foolish and deeply discourteous, and yet in another way a great kindness to me.”

In this chapter, he explains that some time in the 1960s, the First Armenian Presbyterian Church became available for sale. He considered purchasing it because of its importance in his childhood, but his money manager talked him out of it as a bad investment. However, he admits to us, the readers that, “The fact is that something else prevented me from going through with the purchase. I was afraid to buy it. The place was deeply centered in my memory. I could actually go and buy and own such a place, but it would be a profound interference of some kind.” Owning the church would in some ways be making good on his father’s desire for a pulpit when he immigrated to Fresno. But that time had passed, and an older William knew it.

This chapter illustrates the many ways he tried to understand his deceased father through religion, through surrogates, through history, and even through buildings. Feeling connected to his roots was also a way to keep his father alive, and Saroyan would maintain this connection throughout his whole life.

The Place of Places: Chapter 62, House at Ventura and Eye Streets, Fresno, 1908


Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we delve into the beginning of consciousness at the House at Ventura and Eye Streets, Fresno, 1908.

This chapter continues down the philosophical path, this time examining man’s first consciousness at birth and what symbols we cling to throughout life. He begins, “The pattern of relationships begins to reveal itself quite early in the life of a man: he has to notice that there is a cave quality to all places. It can’t be avoided. The curves of space can be stretched to straight surfaces, but the place remains a cave, a place. From the most primitive to the most worldly, the human being finds a place to rest somewhere, ready-made, or he makes such a place, and it is inside, it has limits, and it keeps out the things the human being doesn’t want or the things he fears.”

The symbol of a cave was an intriguing one for Saroyan. It is a place of safety, of birth and rebirth. It’s also a place to avoid exposure, for better or worse. He often compares the cave to a womb. As we have discussed in previous chapters, Saroyan was interested in legacy and parentage, also utilizing the egg symbol for this. The cave is similar in tone, but it is also a place of refuge from external threats.

B325His play The Cave Dwellers focuses on the duality of the cave. It was written in 1955 in 8 days at the Great Northern Hotel, the same place in which The Time of Your Life was written in 6 days in 1939. He was in fact visiting New York for a revival of the latter play when he took a room at the hotel and began writing. The Cave Dwellers ran for about 100 performances in 1957 on Broadway. While it received positive reviews, it didn’t do much to revive his box office appeal on Broadway.

In the play, a handful of poor, downtrodden performers are living together in an abandoned theater in New York. They are starving and seem to be taking on new refugees daily. Eventually, they are pushed out by a demolition crew working on revitalizing the city. He writes in the introduction to the 1958 published script, “The Cave Dwellers happens on the stage of an abandoned theatre because all buildings are caves, and because the theatre is the cave at its best –the last arena in which all is always possible. In the caves of the government and the church, for instance, all has long since stopped being possible, in favor of a pattern of formal repetition, which some of us find only amusing and monotonous, by turns.” Yet in the play, the cave/theatre is also a cocoon, protecting the artists inside from the harsh realities of life outside of art. To Saroyan, art is truth but it’s also an escape. Ultimately, the performers in the abandoned theatre are forced to leave their truth and be engulfed by the world of commerce and so-called progress. The world outside of his cave theatre is disjointed and complex, while the world inside the cave theatre is simple and community-supported, though challenging to survive in.

To expand this idea out to his wider work, the communities of his rural Fresno stories are always tight-knit and living relatively simple lives. This is apparent in the My Name is Aram collection, The Human Comedy, Love’s Old Sweet Song, and many others from his body of work. Though he loved San Francisco, he never quite celebrates city life and defers to rural sensibilities. This was a popular theme in post-Depression literature and art, as cities boomed and drew rural folks away from their communities in the name of commerce. The simple truths first of the farmer and then of the artist became rallying cries for Saroyan.

drawingPlatoIt's hard not to also make a connection to Plato’s allegory of the cave, as well. In that story, leaving the cave means being exposed to ideas that can be uncomfortable. It is much safer and familiar to stay in the cave, even if it can only offer facsimiles of truth. In The Cave Dwellers, the artists are committed to their own realities, avoiding the harsher truths of the outside. In some ways Saroyan seems ambivalent about that choice. While he believes art is an avenue to truth, he also accepts that it is an escape from the reality that others live in. And he accepts that living metaphorically sadly doesn’t put food on the table.

He writes, “The world itself is a cave. Here and there it is a nicely decorated cave, but the better part of it is a pitiful shambles. Man-made and decorated the world, his cave, on behalf of his kids. On behalf of the animals, on the other hand, nature made and decorated the earth, but the edges are not smooth, as they must be in the world for men, who being always so near danger and death are fussy... He wants time to move in a line from start to stop, because he believes he does something of the sort, starting at birth and stopping at death, neither of which he understands” (The Cave Dwellers). Here again we see how the continuity of family, of mankind can be all-consuming.

He ends The Cave Dwellers with the lead male character, the King, guiding his artists out of the theatre and saying, “Farewell, then –womb, cave, hiding place, home, church, world, theatre—a fond and loving farewell.” In analyzing this, David Calonne explains, “These are all matrices or arenas of human life which must be abandoned for humanity to enter into grace, into oneness, into belonging. Even the theater must finally be left behind. Yet, as the King says, the farewell is also a welcome, a new beginning—a movement from the womb of spiritual development and soul-making to a new and unknown mode of being” (William Saroyan My Real Work is Being, Calonne). As always, Saroyan’s simple writing style belies his much deeper philosophies about how to live an authentic life when the complexities of daily survival threaten the soul itself.


Though the cave is somewhat of an ambivalent symbol, a staging ground where one can be both safely cocooned and also blissfully ignorant, this chapter also returns us to the other round symbols like the womb and the egg. These are much more welcoming and warm symbols with less ambiguity.

He writes, “For the brandnew life, without memory, or at any rate without that stage of development in memory which permits the new man to actually recall specific parts of his actual experience – places, people, voices, words, smells, sounds, and the various flavors of things consumed – for this new man the earliest hours and days and years of his experience are helpless: he finds himself carted about, held, moved, washed, fed, clothed, spoken to, and otherwise attended. Everything has the shape of a womb, from whence he so recently came…And then as time goes by, whether he actually goes to school or learns what he needs to know by other more direct means, he begins to notice his head – its exterior shape, roundish, with something inside there, back of the eyes, the nose, the mouth, and between the ears. There is something back there. It is of course himself, or his family, or the human family, and it is in that round place, and it will stay there as long as he himself stays anywhere. Inside the roundness of his skull there is this person, this part of all persons, and it seems to be himself, but at the same time it seems also be another person, another thing, somebody else, something else. But whatever it is, it belongs to him alone.”

The circle is symbolically rich, even mystic at times, representing eternity, oneness, and potential. These references to roundness, of the skull, of the womb, and in many cases the bodies of women represent such potential for Saroyan. It is a description that he employs often in some of his most Saroyanesque writing. Especially in his short stories, beautiful girls are always round or have round faces to show their fertility and youth. Characters sometimes peer out of round windows when looking out at new opportunities. In Boys and Girls Together, a character collects round, egglike pebbles at the beach, something Saroyan did in real life and donated to his archives.

drawingsRoundness was a deep archetypal symbol for him. In Inhale and Exhale, he writes, “A ball is something so accurate you got to feel happy about it and I guess everybody likes to catch a ball or throw one or bat one because a ball is such a perfect thing. I don’t know what I mean to say, but maybe you get the idea. You know, it's round and the idea of the thing is perfect and endless. What the hell. Everybody likes to play ball” (The World and the Theatre,” Inhale and Exhale). The egg, the ball, shapes in general intrigued Saroyan with their intrinsic values. His early drawings are full of experimental forms – sharp corners and lines juxtaposed with circles. His entire life was filled with this wonder about form. These early drawings were done around 1930 and he was still thinking about form in 1971 when he wrote the play, Armenians.

In the program notes for the premiere of Armenians, he writes, “In wanting ourselves continued in the fight of the world, what we really want is the continuance of the human family itself, in its broadest, deepest, most complex, most troublesome, most unaccountable, most unacceptable, most preposterous, most contradictory, and most inexhaustibly unpredictable reality. But what for? Why? For the reason that only out of that awful but also magnificent fullness may we expect the human race to begin—to begin, mark you— to become the fulfillment of what has been indicated in his nature and truth for as long as there has been a chronicle of such things—chiseled in stone, painted on cave walls, put up into breathtaking architecture, murmured in lullabies, whispered and roared in symphonies, held fast and secret inside all invented shapes—ship, locomotive, airplane, phonographs, radio, television (for instance). But probably even more significantly in the model of all shapes, the egg, which of course eludes us entirely, having come as we ourselves have come, from the soul and heart of secrecy itself.”

Saroyan concludes this chapter, “And finally he notices the shape of the earth, of fields, of the sea, and he notices the sun and the moon, and it is all around, going around and around.” This chapter is about the cycle of life and consciousness. Once again it is reiterating that the most important place of all is within oneself, in one’s body and mind. From a womb we move to a cave and understand our surroundings from within a skull. The closed circuit of existence was a comfort and a mysterious miracle to Saroyan.


The Place of Places: Chapter 61, Bitlis, Fresno, Los Angeles, 1926


Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we remember his roots in Bitlis, Fresno, Los Angeles, 1926.

This chapter is more or less about the concept of “home.” What makes a place your home? It’s what this whole book has been grappling with and many of his other memoirs touch on this question, as well. Saroyan was interested in identity, his own and others’.

FigsLike many young people, he shunned his hometown for many years, feeling that Fresno was suffocating and limiting. But as he aged, he began to appreciate where he grew up and gained a new perspective on the idea of “belonging.”  He explains, “Places make people. They very definitely do, almost physically. Places procreate. They are part of the human procreation process…There are places that are all business, and places that are all fun and frolic, and still other places that are all light and song and the senses and love” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). As we have seen in previous chapters, Saroyan’s brand of spiritualism had an Eastern flavor to it. And here we might say that Saroyan is talking about the “vibes” of a place. This is particularly useful for an author, as some of the greatest works of literature present their setting as a character in the story. And this is especially true of the writers that Saroyan admired, like Mark Twain, Jack London, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, and others who made their settings central to their plots and character development. This might have been something that he picked up on very early in his life, as he was reading in the Fresno Public Library as a child.

Let’s address the first place in the name of this chapter, Bitlis. It was the ancestral homeland of Saroyan’s family, but it was engulfed by the Ottomans in the 19th century. Bitlis has a complex history, having been occupied by Muslim Arabs, Armenians, Byzantines, Persians, Mongols, Kurds, Ottomans, Russians, and finally modern Turks. Both sides of Saroyan’s family were from Bitlis. In fact, Armenak and Takoohi had the same last name, though they weren’t related by blood. The Saroyan roots ran deep there and in the whole region around Lake Van. For much of Saroyan’s life, Bitlis was legend, available only in stories from his elders. The reality of Bitlis was immaterial compared to the symbol it represented: the culture of his people and the tribe he could belong to with unconditional love.

In an interview in the 1970s, he explained,

Fig“We are the product of two things well-known and established by everybody. The inherited and the environmental. I am an American by environment. I am an Armenian, that’s who I am. I was born an Armenian. But you put me in California, that’s my home. So somebody told me ‘What does California mean to you?’ I said, to be perfectly honest, it’s my native land. I have a very deep attachment to it. He says ‘As much as to Hayastan?’ Yes, as much as to Hayastan, as much as to Bitlis. In an allegorical rather than sentimental sense, Bitlis is supreme. But this is another dimension of experience. This is almost a dream. This is almost beyond anything that we need. Try to measure in terms of the reasonable, because, remember, Bitlis has become a kind of monument of our loss” (“Candid Conversation with Garig Basmadjian,” William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered).

David Calonne, a noted Saroyan expert, writes,

“William Saroyan was both enchanted and haunted by the ‘mulberry-scented air of Baghesht’: the splendid famous town of his ancestors. The quest for his familial beginnings in historical Armenia can be seen throughout his oeuvre, and his invocation of Bitlis is often a frantic search for traces of father Armenak…In the play Bitlis, he returns to the birthplace of his family in a final tender effort to reconnect with his actual and imagined past…Places for writers inevitably become imbued with personal, private meanings and become imaginative microcosms: symbolic landscapes upon which the artist's obsessions are enacted. So Faulkner's Mississippi became Yoknapatawpha County and Northern Michigan was mythologized by Hemingway into the ritualized initiatory scene of his powerful fishing story "Big Two-Hearted River." California's Salinas Valley was transformed into John Steinbeck's East of Eden, while Henry Miller's Pacific Coast became Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. So too did Saroyan make Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley in My Name Is Aram and The Human Comedy into a sunlit and tragic realm: a microcosm of Armenian immigrant experience.” (“The Mulberry-Scented Air of Bagesht: Saroyan’s Quest for Bitlis,” Calonne)

It is from this symbol that we can approach the rest of this chapter and in fact, his entire body of work. Bitlis is family and dispossession and resilience.

Saroyan uses smells as important metaphors in this chapter. A common literary tool, descriptions of smells can make very visceral connections with readers. He writes, “There were also the magnificent smells in the house in which one did one’s early time: the very walls themselves, the people who lived in the house, and the things they cooked or baked: Armenian bread, for instance, in the three popular forms prepared by the Saroyan family: the round, wafer-thin flat bread, the oval loaf bread only an inch or two thick, and the diamond-shaped little loaves of butter bread.” He goes on to explain that his family grew parsley, mint, basil, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and those smells were part of him too. These were the smells of Bitlis in Fresno.


Another topic of interest to Saroyan, especially in his later works of fiction, was assimilation. This is an evergreen subject for immigrants and the question is often - What do we lose when we assimilate so that we can succeed economically? It’s a major theme of the novel Rock Wagram, published in 1951. To Saroyan, the smells of Armenia keep him grounded in his culture when it would have been easy to lose oneself in the so-called American melting pot. This was a feeling that grew more and more powerful as he aged.

Next on the list for this chapter is Fresno, providing both a sense of belonging and rejection, the American immigrant experience in a nutshell. It was too small, too remote, too bigoted. But it also represented family and the legacy of his culture in diaspora. And it was where he was born, which he had an attachment to for better or worse. “After the World, after being Anywhere at all, my place was Fresno, and as far as I am concerned it was the very best possible place for me to be – and for this reason: that’s where I was dropped. The minute we met, that was it. We belonged to each other. Forever. It was a fact. I was born there. I wasn’t born in Bitlis, Marseilles, London, New York, or anywhere else. I was born in Fresno. It was my place. I loved it. I hated it” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

In this book alone, almost a quarter of the chapters are devoted to Fresno. It certainly had pull on his emotions, and the world was changing rapidly in the years that he lived there – 1916 through 1926. “Fresno had great early appeal for me. It had a fine smell of dust, of the desert, of rocks baking in the sun, of sand with cactus growing out of it, of water flowing in rivers and ditches, of orchards and vineyard set out in great geometric patterns, of leaf and blossom and fruit. It also had all the smells of rot, decay, and ferment: the great heaps of grape pulp and skin at the wineries sent smell all through the town if there was a little wind stirring” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). Perhaps no other artist has so beautifully rendered the hot farmland of the Central Valley, not generally known for its splendor.

LosAngLast on the list in this chapter is Los Angeles. Here he is repeating part of his story from Chapter 59. “After I got out of the National Guard in Los Angeles in August of 1926 I was still half-sick from the sickness I had fought in the furnished room behind the brand new Public Library. Something was wrong. I wasn’t myself. Things were assaulting me from all sides, breaking me up. I wasn’t in one piece.” Uncle Mihran finds him on a corner in LA and takes him to a Greek restaurant where he says, “the food was like the food at home. I ate vegetables with lamb, and that was it –the good food with the good smell brought me back together again. And so did running unexpectedly into a member of my family. Fresno was my place, and my family was my place” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

Once again, it is the smells of the past that bring him back together and make him feel safe again. And there’s a scientific reason for that – smells move through the olfactory bulb, which has a direct line to the limbic system that contains regions associated with emotion and memory. Similarly, taste moves through the nasal regions as well, so that flavors are actually smells. It is even thought that smell is the most developed sense through about age 10, when sight takes over. Thus, smells from childhood can evoke the most memories and emotions. The flavors of Fresno and family were unsurprisingly very strong, and left a lasting impression on Saroyan.

Saroyan isn’t considered a flowery writer. Instead of using visual descriptions, he leaned heavily on descriptive smells, a more subtle and possibly more evocative form of description. When his mother leaves him at the orphanage, he writes, “She went off, taking with her the smell of mother, and to a man not yet three that's quite a smell. It's made of skin and soap and a little perspiration and a little powder from Woolworth's, but mainly of her, unaccountable, of the pieces broken and not picked up” (Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who). He also describes the orphanage as smelling of lye or strong soap, the smell of an institution (Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who).

Saroyan’s body of work is obsessed with memory and relentless passage of time. Throughout Places Where I’ve Done Time, we can see that Saroyan is everywhere all at once, a sort of autobiographical singularity that allows him to put his life into perspective. He writes in this chapter, “How lucky every man is in being where he is, and from the millions of years of his people, whoever they are. Well, he can be sure of one thing, if they are here at all, they’ve been everywhere, they’ve been everybody – he is himself the King of Kings.”


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