The Place of Places - Rooming House Behind the Public Library, 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 rent a spot in a Rooming House Behind the Public Library, Los Angeles, 1926.
This chapter is very similar to the previous chapter in form and function. Wherein the apartment at Divisadero and others in that chapter represented safety and security, this chapter is all about the themes of independence and freedom. Here we start in a tool shed converted into a room in Fresno; then to the rooming House in L.A.; then we move to the National Guard in Monterey; then San Francisco by way of Fresno; and then finally New York.
He begins this chapter, “For a long time the places where I stayed were not my own. They were not places I had chosen and gone to of my own free will. But I began to get to such places in July of 1926.” Again, these are not necessarily the most significant places in his life, but they combined to represent his first dip into adulthood and his own choices that brought him to his career and everything else.
He tells us he rented the room on Van Ness Avenue near Belmont in Fresno for two dollars a week, but he couldn’t take the smell, so he left after one night and returned to the family at El Monte. He was almost 18 years old and ready to find his own way, having left school earlier, anyway. He was working on vineyards and for his Uncle Aram instead of going to school. But a different part of Fresno wasn’t far enough for his wandering mind. He writes in Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who, “I had fought everybody for so long at school, at home, and everywhere else that I was sick of it, and sick of myself. I believed the way to become healed was to get out of town.”
He first went to his Uncle Aram to ask for money he felt he had earned serving as Aram’s office assistant. Aram exploded on him and refused him any payment. Then Bill goes to the Californian Hotel and waits for someone leaving town to hitchhike along with, not telling anyone where he went. A little old man drives him south, buys lunch for them both in Bakersfield, and disappears after they reach Los Angeles a little before daybreak. “And there all around me was this strange silent city that I hadn’t had in mind at all. I had had San Francisco in mind” (Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who).
Maybe more than anywhere else in California at the time, Los Angeles was growing by leaps and bounds. In 1920, the population of the city of Los Angeles was almost 600,000. By 1930, it was 1.2 million and it just continued to grow. In the very early 1900s, the intersection of 7th and Broadway, near where Saroyan was staying, became the retail and theater center of the city. In 1924, half a million people passed through the intersection daily, whether by streetcar or on foot. San Francisco was a proper city, but it was compact, cool with an ocean breeze, and established as one of America’s great cities. L.A. was still something of a backwater in the early 1900s. Downtown Los Angeles in July would have likely been hot, crowded, and utterly chaotic in its growing pains and construction.
Fresno is almost equally between San Francisco and Los Angeles and requires driving through coastal mountains either way. So, there are a lot of family connections to both places for people in Fresno, as relatives moved to bigger cities for more opportunities. Even though Saroyan claims he never much liked Hollywood, he began making connections in Los Angeles in his young adulthood. His uncle Aram and Grandma Lucine had also lived in L.A. for a time when Aram was attending USC to become a lawyer in his own young adulthood.
In Los Angeles, Saroyan “found a room in a very old building behind the brand-new public library” and he gets a job in the delivery department of Bullock’s Department Store. This was the first Bullock’s, which grew to be a large high-end chain of stores centered in California and was eventually purchased by Macy’s. He was to take packages off a moving belt and put them in bins to be delivered around town. “It was stupid work, but it was work” (Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who). However, after a few days he came down with a feverish illness and was sent home from his new job, still penniless. Back in the rooming house, he suffered for days and mentions that he drank copious amounts of water. This might be mentioned to illustrate that he couldn’t afford to have anything more than water, or it could be a nod to the way his father died, drinking water until his appendix burst.
Saroyan notes that he was in downtown Los Angeles behind the public library, the celebrated Central Library that is still the jewel of the Los Angeles Public Library system today. It had just been finished being built in 1926 and was a huge art deco building that included rotundas and gardens. A massive fire damaged much of the building in 1986, but today it stands much as it did in its early days, now surrounded by skyscrapers. Though he doesn’t mention going into the library, these were beacons of independence for him. In Fresno, they offered him an escape from his troubles and from his frustration with learning in a traditional school setting. Later in San Francisco and New York, local libraries would continue to be symbols of his chosen path to knowledge and wisdom. This library in Los Angeles was placed serendipitously for him, as he began to physically explore the world as he had done in books in Fresno.
Back to the rooming house, he finds he needs to make money to eat. So, he enters an Army recruiting tent nearby and joins the National Guard. He signs up to train for two weeks in Monterey and receives a dollar a day for that. After the two weeks, he would be required to drill for an hour once a week for a year, but that never happened. During the 1920s, men who signed up for the National Guard in Los Angeles would typically be sent to Monterey to train for two weeks at the polo fields near the Presidio. Saroyan lasted through training before leaving the military that first time.
He liked Monterey and even suggested in the 1930s that he and his cousins buy land there. It was also there that he first heard the song “Valencia,” which moved him so much that it was a key theme in his novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, another army story. Already when he was 17, he hated the Army: “The Army was stupid and full of little posers, many of them crooked” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). Of course, when he was drafted in the 1940s this dislike turned into full blown hatred. He writes in Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who, “Valencia had become a part of my life and fight, a part of all that I knew that nobody else knew.”
After the two weeks of training, he returned to Los Angeles where he was surprised to see his father’s younger brother Mihran driving in his Buick. His family had been looking for him and after telegraphing Takoohi that Bill was alive and safe, they ate lunch at a Greek restaurant, the first familiar atmosphere he felt in Los Angeles, and then they drove back to Fresno. He knew he was lucky sometimes, and he also knew that even when he sought independence his family was there to protect him.
In Fresno he reassessed his goals. What he leaves out of this chapter is that he took a job with the US Forestry Service in Sonora but left it almost immediately, grabbing a bus on to San Francisco. This is when he got a job as a typist at the Southern Pacific, which we discussed in Chapter 11. He was ready to start his career in earnest. Though he knew he was a writer, he hadn’t yet been published and worried that his career might have to be something else, but he knew it was time to swiftly slide into adulthood either way.
“In San Francisco the places where I stayed weren’t the best in the world, either, but they were the best I had seen so far” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). San Francisco was exciting and soon his family would reunite there, again providing a safety net while he was able to explore and make the choices only young adults think are smart. First Henry arrived, as he was supposed to attend Berkeley in 1927 but instead went to work for the Postal Telegraph Company in San Francisco. Then his mother and sister arrived and they moved to Sutter Street. This was the time period that Saroyan spent wandering the city gambling on Third Street and drinking whatever Prohibition-era bitters were being served at Breen’s, as we discussed in Chapter 39. This time period would be inspiring for most of the stories in The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other Stories.
He explains in this chapter, “But the real places that I finally came to know, the places that were real because they were truly mine, by my own choice, at my own time, I did not even begin to know until I had broken through, until I had become a published writer, until I had money in my pocket, and a portable typewriter beside my suitcase, and could sit down at a table in a hotel room and write something that would be bought by a magazine editor for better money than I had ever earned in any other kind of work. In short, the places improved as I learned to work effectively at my chosen profession” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). It was New York where he had the best feeling, the one where he could write, make money, and explore the town. Though he was also working at the Postal Telegraph office, it was summertime when he arrived there and the days were long, with many hours for him to delve into his writing and his explorations. We’ve talked about this experience in Chapters 7, 13, 18, and 47, mostly. New York was where the publishing was, so he went there to learn how to be a writer. With $200 dollars borrowed from the same Uncle Mihran who had collected him in Los Angeles, he took the Greyhound cross country and experienced America as an observer, as a writer.
Again, we see this focus on transient hotel rooms and their significance in his wanderings: “Hotel rooms have always had great importance to me. One of the first plays I thought of writing in New York in 1928 was called Four Rooms. That would have been a fine play, but it got away, too” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). Hotels were temporary places filled daily with transient people, and this appealed to the swift-moving Saroyan who wanted more stimuli all the time.
This chapter pairs his growing independence with the omnipresence of his family, a tiny coming-of-age story wrapped in a 2-page chapter in this book. Even in New York he was seeking the presence of his father, who had passed through the city 22 years earlier. Saroyan was a fiercely independent person all his life, preferring a sudden road trip to staying in one place. He cherished his freedom, and that included only ever writing under his own conditions and trying to remain unbeholden to anyone. This of course is never popular in a society and the times he was required to be accountable were some of his lowest. We see the sparks of this independence in this chapter as he explored the new and somewhat classic freedom of making the first decision to leave home.
Towards the end of this chapter, he explains that it was the greatest thing in the world when he arrived in New York, went to a hotel room, wrote something, and then wandered the city. “That was freedom, that was truth, that was reality, that was meaning.” After years of discipline at the orphanage and suffocation in Fresno, this time would have been utterly exhilarating. The chapter title itself, being situated near the library, describes the significance of the time in one’s life when we take our gained knowledge and strike out on the world alone for the first time.