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On the road again -- pressing inland along highway 41 between the coast and the San Joaquin Valley, I slow down -- near where James Dean drove his Porsche into eternal youth -- to get a glance at his memorial. A little further on there is an expansive sweep of brown hills rolling off into the hazy distance. There are certain pleasures in driving through open country. It reminds me that cities make up only a small part of everything. These fertile valleys feed most of the western states. There are roadside stands selling fruit just as there have been for a century.
It's been a few years since Fresno called and I am grateful to have a connection in the capital of the other California -- the one that grows the food. One of my gigs is at Barnes & Noble. I have a good time but the real treat is that I get to keep the big poster announcing my talk. My little house is becoming an collage of memorabilia from life on the road.
Got to the museum to see an exhibit on the life of local writer William Saroyan. The displays are extensive and artful, including the immigrant's trunk his father brought over from Armenia. The climate in Fresno is similar to the dry steppes at the juncture of Turkey, Iran, and the former Soviet Union that is the long-contested homeland of the Armenians. The central valley was profoundly shaped by events half a world away. From 1893 through 1918, the Turks carried out the epic massacres which set off the Armenian Diaspora, particularly to America. The exhibits show the harrowed faces of those who escaped the killings. Suddenly, Fresno became the hub of Armenians outside the Middle East.
The most poignant areas in the exhibit depict growing up in the Armenian community. He worked as a newsboy and was proud to have a prime corner to sell papers and the Saturday Evening Post. Rights to good corners only went to the boys who could hawk the most papers. One central case holds the old typewriter the young phenomenon used to write his early stories, like The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze which made his reputation. Posters for movies like The Time of Your Life with James Cagney, reveal the Hollywood perspective on his novels. Saroyan was so angry that the studio reneged on a promise to let him direct The Human Comedy with Mickey Rooney that he refused to attend the ceremony to receive his Oscar for the screenplay.
It took some ingenuity to track down the house where Saroyan grew up. It's in a part of town that has clearly faded. My local contacts thought all the places he had lived had been torn down. This was the one survivor. The current owner came out as I was taking a picture and talked about all the people who visit. She thought the groups of professors from Japan were particularly nice. She told me to sit near the historical marker so she could take my picture. Even though Saroyan later lived in Paris and New York, his best stories are all set in Fresno.
The other noted Fresno writer is very much alive. Philip Levine is a much honored poet who taught forever at Fresno State and turned down offers from top eastern universities because he wanted to stay in a real place. Said his poetry did better in a town with fewer pretensions. He has been featured at the Santa Barbara Poetry Festival so I have been able to hear his vivid depictions of working people.
Fresno is a city with a idiosyncratic mood. The hot fertile central valley has been a source of abundance for so long that various periods of architectural history melt into an esoteric pastiche. Stately late Victorian relics evoke turn-of-the-century affluence amidst solid craftsman-style bungalows from the twenties. The whole town could be a county seat in a prosperous part of Iowa.
An old canal winds through some fading neighborhoods. The channel is some dozen feet across -- high with fast-running water -- making its way to fields across town. Built before the houses, this swift liquid snake darts past humble and fine abodes with equal vitality. Along the sides, ivy grows down into the water and trees dip their branches for a cool bath. At night, lights bouncing off the ripples look like a festival in Spain.
Driving home the long way -- down the length of the valley -- the wind blows dust swirls across the highway. These tiny twisters do not take me to the Land of OZ. They do remind me of the dust storms that choked the midwest in the thirties and drove thousands of families to California hoping for better lives. Some of those families now own much of this precious land and can drive through these modest dust flurries in air-conditioned cars. In my wee pseudo-Jeep, I have to turn off the air-conditioning to get up the big hill. Still, I am grateful to have its cooling wheezes when visiting the country of the grapes and the raisins.