“I don’t have to tell you the contradiction,” Rik says about the phallic name of the place as we walk in.

Pho Hung, a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Las Vegas, has three statues and a waterfall just inside the front door. We slip past the sounds of dripping water and find a twelve-foot-tall fertility-inspired centerpiece covered in fruits and vegetables. It towers above rows of tables and chairs.

We sit near the end of a table and stare at the giant plastic garden before some butterflies across the room catch our attention. They’re on a wall in what looks like a framed poster. It’s at least six feet across. “Are those butterflies real?” I ask.

Rik jumps up and heads to the glass-encased frame. “It is!” he says. His voice is naturally dramatic. He’s a DJ. But he could easily be a radio actor, or the softly evil voice of the strawberry-scented bear in Toy Story 3.

We haven’t even ordered yet. But I walk over too and see that it isn’t a poster. Inside the glass frame, dozens of butterflies, every color imaginable, lie frozen in time. The center column is filled with moths. Not little moths, but huge moths. Gargantuan moths. The kind that could terrify a kid on a jungle night if one were to flitter in front of the moon.

“Let me tell you about an iridescent blue butterfly I saw at a Darwin exhibit on the Berkeley campus last year,” I say. I search the rows for a blue glowing butterfly. “It was neon come to life. It was a sky. Or an ocean. Never seen anything like it.”

Outside, Chinatown in Las Vegas is booming. Spring Mountain Road is filled with endless Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Strip malls are decked out in Asian décor. There’s a tattoo parlor next to an Asian food restaurant next to a Boba shop. You can get an apple slushy, grab some goodies from a Korean grocery store, then swing by the Asia-themed Starbucks on your way to a casino with spinning slot videos based on the movie Jaws.

Everywhere you can get a foot massage. $19 for thirty minutes. Their “open” signs flash. Their neon signs beckon. Near a donut shop there’s a handwritten note on an empty storefront. At least one strip mall owner is sick of the local foot fetish. NO FOOT MASSAGE. NO HAIR SALON.

Rik’s been in Las Vegas ten years now. His hair is graying like mine on the sides. He has a beard but no moustache. He’s soft spoken; a big guy. He wears a GUINNESS shirt a lot.

He’s from Mendota in California’s Great Central Valley. It’s further north than Bakersfield, a town that now boasts nearly 10,000 inhabitants and nearly 40-percent unemployment. That was his childhood playland—the cantaloupe center of the world—until he was in his early teens.

Before Vegas, his family moved from Mendota and lived in Fresno, once home to Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist/novelist William Saroyan. Many people, myself included, have been taught to believe that John Steinbeck was the big Central California writer because he lived in the Salinas Valley and wrote Grapes of Wrath. But Saroyan preceded him as king. He wrote the short tale, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, (1934), which was taken from the 19th Century song of the same name. He also wrote The Human Comedy, (1943) and won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, among many other writings.

*     *     *     *     *

Rik’s eyes search the restaurant from behind dark-rimmed glasses. “Have I told you my William Saroyan story?” he asks.

Then, suddenly, the conversation shifts.  We get caught in small talk. It’s several minutes before we get back on the topic.

“I told Bonnie my Saroyan story,” he says. He’s talking about our mutual mentor, Bonnie Hearn Hill. She just released Taurus Eyes (2010), the second book in the Star Crossed Series. He gets on the subject of her husband, Larry Hill, whose short story collection, Saroyan’s Bookee was published in 2008 on Mark Arax’ imprint. Arax recently wrote the widely popular nonfiction work West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (2009). But that’s another story.

Larry, who is in his late 70s, is a wonderful writer. Don’t believe me? He recently won the 2010 Bellevue Literary Review Prize for Fiction for his work, Cocido, which I hear is online, but I have been having a hell of a time finding it.

I tell Rik I met Larry in an art gallery in Fresno. I explain that the entire room was filled with his paintings. A masterful abstract expressionist painter, Hill’s eye for beauty ties a peculiar modernism to lost generations of abstract artists. Splashes of color you might see in your mind but would never think to recreate, Hill can put to canvas.

Meet him and he’s quiet at first. But you immediately get the sense that he’s lived. I mean really lived. I’ve seen it in his paintings and in his eyes. “He’s an inner artist,” Bonnie says later in a telephone call.

She tells me she’s the opposite. An outer artist. Gabby. (Like me at times. I guess I capture a little of both worlds.)  She tells me that around fifty years ago Larry Hill was at Jackson Jones Liquor Store in Fresno. She said he and Saroyan reached for a bottle of wine at the same time. A magical moment. “He worshipped Saroyan,” Bonnie said.

At Pho Hung, Rik recommends Hill’s story “Tranquillity” that’s set in the Central Valley town of the same name. He points out the strangeness of the two L’s. I later get a glimpse of the book and start thumbing through a few pages. But Rik winds up taking it back.

I later write to Larry Hill and ask him if he’ll tell me his William Saroyan story. Apparently, he and Saroyan were both avid gamblers (as was my dad), and they shared the same bookee. But more important was Hill’s adoration for Saroyan, and the strange liquor store experience.

He writes back within a few days:

Hi, Nick.

It’s 1963. I’ve quit my teaching job ($4,000 a year) at Fresno High to try working full time as a commercial artist. Got a new home (Trend Homes by Spano, $12,000). Decide my birthday party needs a bottle of red wine (about a half gallon of Gallo Chianti, the kind in a husk basket because I think it will look good with my books on their plank and cinderblock book case.

I drive a couple blocks to Jackson Jones Liquor on the corner of Shields and West, park an old gray Chevy sedan I’ve named Moby, walk in, head straight for the wine display. Wow. Only one left down there on the bottom shelf. Just about to grab its dusty neck, when a huge hairy-knuckled hand beats me to it. Really it’s a tie, but I give in.

“All yours,” I say, “Mr. Saroyan.” For I’m looking straight into the fire and ashes of the legend’s face. First encounter with the man I’ve chased, spotted and missed in the Mecca Pool Hall, Blackstone Billiards, Ryan’s Arena, The Fresno Public Library. At The Big Fresno Fair, the Stockton, Pleasanton and Del Mar Race Tracks. Duke’s Place, Janofsky’s Pub, The Old Fresno, Duggan’s Yack and Snack, Darby’s Tavern, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the Bike Shop on Shields and Wishon, The Fresno YMCA (the day Abe Davidian was shot to death down the block), and twice in San Francisco on what proved to be bogus  leads.

He’s off to another display. No smile or thank you. Off before I can thank him for his body of work. Off before I can share a story about one of the bookies we have shared. One who’d cheated us. One we busted. One like Papa Joe who forgave us the juice when we were busted. God knows I’ve been told the stories. But, man, it would be great to hear one from him.

No such luck. I choose another bottle of wine. Unadorned. Probably not even a cork. Fuck it. I don’t care any more.

“Can I see some I.D.?”

It’s a new girl behind the counter, checking me out.

“You’re kidding, right?” I spread my wallet out in front of her. “I’m thirty-one, for Christ’s sake.” I hold the proof up for her and a few gawking patrons. “Five. Five. Thirty-two.”

From one of the people in line waiting behind me. Big voice. Like thunder. “Cinco de Mayo.”

I find him easy. “Right,” I say, “Cinco de Mayo, Mr. Saroyan.”

“Happy birthday,” he says.

Driving Moby back home, I must have been thinking how I would tell about meeting the Big One someday. I must have put a hundred strokes to it, giving it a little English here, a little follow-through there. Making sure I didn’t scratch. No worry though. I can pass for younger than I am. Saroyan’s so strong he’s scary. No one can kill us.

Larry

*     *     *     *     *

The food arrives. In front of Rik there’s a bowl of steaming seafood soup. I get eggrolls and a plate of lemon grass chicken and vegetables. The eggrolls are already sectioned. Each bite melts on my tongue. It’s my first time in a Vietnamese restaurant. This is my communion. I half expect butterflies to shatter glass, flit about the room, land on my glasses or Rik’s.

“When I was in seventh grade, a teacher gave me a book Saroyan wrote,” he says. “Every two weeks the library would get new books and I would flip through them finding everything Saroyan. I was obsessed with him. It wasn’t normal.” He says his teacher told him years later in a chance meeting that she wasn’t in class on a few occasions because she went to hear Saroyan give talks. She felt bad for not inviting him and carried the guilt for years.

Rik speaks slowly. The words roll off his tongue, bounce into the desert restaurant unveiling a mind’s eye cinematic view of California’s Great Central Valley. Mendota version. Dusty town. Smell of cantaloupes in the air. I can see the dirty purple sunsets along imaginary agri-rows. Melons and vineyards; Rik wandering down Mendota’s sidewalks. Old men riding bikes downtown. Baptist churches with their big-haired polyester preachers of the late 1970s. Every farm town and city is an imaginary dust devil away from the next.

He talks about Fresno next. I imagine drive-thru dairies. Milk in bottles and factory smokestacks. Grape vineyards surrounding a city like barbed wire.

“When I moved to Fresno I lived downtown,” Rik says. “It was 1981. I was sixteen. I had a 1965 Chevy Stepside that my dad got me. Then Saroyan died. I was devastated.”

I half expect Rik to choke up.

He goes on. He picks at his soup. It wafts in swirls of steam like spirit-filled incense. “I knew where Saroyan lived. After he died I drove past his home.  What was amazing was there were boxes of trash outside of Saroyan’s house along the street. All of a sudden I found myself parked next to the curb throwing the boxes into the back of my pick-up.

“And it wasn’t just any trash. It was every Christmas card, postcard and letter ever written to Saroyan,” Rik says. “There were articles too. I took them home and over the next few months I locked myself in my room and read every single one.”

I’m in shock. When I think about this moment in our conversation I imagine my jaw unhinging, bouncing on the table, then onto the floor and up the fertility statue. It gets lost among plastic tomatoes. “What did you do with it all?” I ask.

“I began giving away Saroyan’s postcards. All of it. I gave them to teachers, to friends, to anyone I knew who loved Saroyan.”

“Imagine what the family would do if they had that back. I can’t believe anyone would throw all of that away,” I say.

“Really said something about that family to me at the time,” Rik whispers. His eyes squint nearly shut.

“Do you have any left?”

“Maybe in a box. Probably not. You just lose stuff over the years,” he says.

A few days later I’m in his garage. I see piles of boxes. I want to tear through them, unearth an archive of lost literary history. But I just pass through. The door behind me closes. In my mind I claw at the wood to get in.

 

 

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NICK BELARDES is illustrator of NYT Best-Selling Novel by Jonathan Evison West of Here (2011), author of Random Obsessions (2009), Lords (2005), and the first literary Twitter novel: Small Places (2010). An author, poet, and screenwriter for Hectic Films, Belardes turned TV/online journalist overnight after blogging his way to success. His articles and essays have appeared on the homepage of CNN.com and other news sites across America. You can find Nick on Facebook and Twitter.

72 responses to “Saroyan’s Postcards”

  1. This is the first thing I’ve had the time to read in over a week, and it seems I’m the first in line to comment! Woo!

    I was strangely ignorant about Saroyan until about a year ago. I studied American literature for four years of university and his name never came up (during the several classes I managed to attend…). It was only in studying the California poetry scene through Beatdom that I began to notice his name appearing again and again.

    But it’s much easier to note a name like “Pho Hung.” That’s awesome. Even after two years in Asia I’m amused every time I see the words “dong” and “wang.” Both those words appear in my address… so you can imagine how awesome a trip to the Post Office can be.

    • And just about the only one commenting. I had a feeling the length of this piece would scare people off. But those who read its entirety will understand the importance of the entire story…

      • Yeah, you really should keep all information to a maximum of 140 characters… This is 2010, after all.

      • Becky says:

        Well, for my part, I don’t know who this person is, really. I’m a content junkie, so if I don’t truly understand what’s going on, I tend not to say much.

        Doesn’t mean I didn’t read it.

        Just for the record.

        Whole thing. Read it. I’m a trooper. 😉

        Not like it was a chore…as always, there’s a lot of gorgeous writing here. I just find myself outside. So I’m watching.

  2. Patty Wonderly says:

    Reading your work always makes me want to go to the places you describe. I love how you capture the randomness of every day conversation and turn it into something worth reading. I can’t believe Saroyan’s family didn’t recognize the value of that trash!

  3. Connie says:

    Dumpster divers! Pickers! Yard sale divas! Finding treasure in the discarded is truly a wonderment.

  4. Dana says:

    “The food arrives. In front of Rik there’s a bowl of steaming seafood soup. I get eggrolls and a plate of lemon grass chicken and vegetables. The eggrolls are already sectioned. Each bite melts on my tongue. It’s my first time in a Vietnamese restaurant. This is my communion. I half expect butterflies to shatter glass, flit about the room, land on my glasses or Rik’s.”

    Love this!

    And such restraint, not pawing through his boxes.

    • Would you have looked? I imagine the end of Indiana Jones.

      I figure if I had tried, someone would have said, “We have top men working on it… top…. men…”

      • matildakay says:

        I can’t believe Saroyan’s letters and postcards were tossed out with the trash. That family really did not know the value in what they were throwing out.

        I also can’t believe you didn’t rummage through the boxes for a piece of literary treasure yourself. That is restraint for sure.

  5. “or the softly evil voice of the strawberry-scented bear in Toy Story 3….” Great! Actually, I was picturing the guy as 1988-era Rik Smits the entire time. Sweaty, lanky, oddly effective in a Dutch sort of way….Like, sure he’s from Mendota….anyway, this is a terrific piece of lit weirdness. I kept expecting John Fante to show up. Human Comedy is one of those books I think I’ve read but really haven’t, mostly since a moldy hardbound copy of my father’s sat on the bookshelf in my room my entire childhood. Time to correct that oversight. Thanks for the gentle push.

  6. JM Blaine says:

    I love butterflies
    & chinese food.

    Schezwan
    in particular.

    with brown rice
    & extra pineapple sauce.

    Orange & black
    butterflies.

  7. Matt says:

    I’ve heard of Saroyan but never read any of his work. I think I have to amend that oversight, and quickly.

    I’ve seen one of those huge blue butterflies.

    • Are you talking about one of those giant Queen Alexandra’s Birdwings? This butterfly I say was about the size of a Monarch.

      I don’t know my butterfly entomology, but one thing I do know, is you have been to amazing places and seen amazing things…

  8. Loved this piece… fantastic — makes me want to go to Fresno, and I never thought I’d say that!

    • I didn’t think too highly of Fresno for a long time. Blame it on the Highway 99 rivalry.

      But then I started meeting some of its writers, exploring some of its history, and began to occasionally ride a train there on dusty nights through miles of agriculture.

      I like it.

  9. Lorna says:

    My Grandfather was from the Fresno area. His father knew a famous writer too, his name was Samuel Clemens. My Grandmother once showed me a photo copied letter that Samuel had written my great Grandfather. My Grandmother said she had the original stored away in a safe deposit box. The sad thing is that when she passed away and the safety deposit was cleaned out the letter was not there. My Grandmother had a way of hiding things in odd places, behind the cardboard of picture frames, in shoe boxes, stuffed inside the lining of clothes. Who knows what ever became of that letter. Not even the photo copied copy was found. I was too young to recall what was written in the letter. I think mostly it was about Samuel’s recent travels.

    I have not heard of Saroyan before. But this story has me wanting to go read some of his work.

    I love the details of the butterflies too. I have seen a few blue morpho butterflies at a butterfly farm in St. Martin. They are one of my favorite butterflies.

    Thanks for sharing, Nick.

    • That Clemens story is amazing. I’ve driven through Columbia ghost town a few times where he stomped around…

      I would be tearing apart a house for a glimpse of such a memory.

      Immediately a couple of things come to mind after reading your comment:

      Me getting rid of sports memorabilia that I should have kept that had sports greats signatures. Why did I do that? Dumb.

      Another is part of a family story that I have written about a few times in which my great grandfather allegedly murdered a priest who raped a girl (who became his wife and my great grandmother). Apparently the priest had a treasure chest that was filled with money my gramps stole.

      My dad claimed he played with the money as a young boy. He claimed the money became worthless. I have heard a few family versions of the tale. But never any evidence of the money or chest remain.

      • Lorna says:

        Yeah, I don’t talk about the Clemens story often because, really, I have no facts to back it up. It would be cool to have the letter surface somewhere though. I know my Mom and Uncle tore the house apart looking for it, but it may have simply been thrown out in the trash because it was hidden by my Grandmother in a strange and unpredictable place.

        • I’m glad you told your story. Facts, no facts, it’s still great to hear. And you never know, there may be a copy of the letter in some Clemens archive and you just didn’t know where to look! Have you tried that?

        • Lorna says:

          I in fact spent a little time yesterday on Google and bookmarking a few items. If it’s out there, I intend to find it.

        • Did you find out where the Clemens archives are? Any clue as to what year the letter might have been written? If you can narrow it down in any way, that would be key. I would scour books of his letters and look in the bibliographies of those books for further clues…

        • Lorna says:

          I am guessing it would have been written around the time Clemens was mining in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the Mono Indian Tribe. My Great Grandfather was full blooded Mono Indian. I found this online http://www.monolake.org/about/prospectors that puts the time frame somewhere between 1860 – 1877. I also found that UC Berkeley has some sort of letter archive for Clemens.

        • Is that where you are? I wandered around the UC Berkeley library a few months ago…

          Darn, you only narrowed it down to 17 years? Well, still, that still gives you a time period to shoot for.

        • Lorna says:

          No, I am at home online. I actually thought I found it, I saw the name Frank Fuller, got extremely excited printed and then realized my Great Grandfather’s name was Frank Fremont not Frank Fuller. Dang, I thought I had it for a second there.

        • False leads can just toy with our emotions. I hate that. Reminds me of helping an adopted friend search for her lost family (I’d like to rather think her family is lost rather than her).

          At least I’m reassured knowing you don’t remember names any better than I do! lol.

          Keep the search going. Sounds like there are many places to still look.

  10. matildakay says:

    I loved this story! Beautiful descriptions! Made me feel like I was in the restaurant eavesdropping on the conversation and seeing those butterfles myself. I imagine those butterflies flying around the restaurant like the Monarchs do in Pismo Beach, California every year.

    I haven’t read any Saroyan either, but think I should after reading this.

    • Suddenly I want to go to Pismo. I haven’t seen the ocean in some time. It calls to me like words from great books. And those cinnamon rolls! Oh goodness! I could live in Pismo. I think one day I shall!

      Thanks for your imagery. I love when writing connects to other memories, ideas, people, etc. You never know the kind of story you will spark in others just from taking the time to write a piece… I miss the monarchs!

  11. It’s a testament to your writing, Nick, that the “unknown” characters come off as the real stars here, with Saroyan as the thread in the background. You have such a gift for spinning people and an amazing ear for dialogue.

    Yes, we’re going to have to launch the TNB Saroyan book club or something–I’m not well-versed either!

    • Thanks Gina so much for your kind words. Saroyan is an overshadowed American literary hero. In the Central Valley he should reign supreme. But in Bakersfield his name isn’t well known. It’s all about that damn Steinbeck. Steinbeck wrote about this area in his redneck story of the Dust Bowl (and a great story it is). But he’s far less of a Central Valley man than Saroyan was in my opinion. However, he overshadows Saroyan at every turn since there’s the whole legacy of The Grapes of Wrath film and book getting banned in Bakersfield… and all the Okies in Bakersfield constantly want to celebrate Steinbeck… Bah…

      One of my goals has been to change all that thinking…

      Maybe by the time I’m 70.

  12. Fascinating story–of course I know Bonnie and her husband which made it all the more interesting. Reading about all the food made me hungry.

    • I’m always hungry. Especially for all the forms of Asian cuisine I’m always finding. I really love Thai food. And Filipino… And Japanese. And Chinese… and now Vietnamese.

      Bonnie is always saying how wonderful of a person you are. I was trying to think if you and I ever met in person and I don’t think we have. Though we have mutual friends.

  13. I meant to add that I know both Bonnie and Larry’s work.

    • I’m just getting to know Larry Hill’s work. I dig his Southern style. Raw, uninhibited. Just enough sarcasm to slap you in the face. Yet, there’s a grace and elegance in it.

  14. Really lovely, Nick. Very evocative of the places and people. I had no idea Vegas had a Chinatown. Who knew? I truly only get to Vegas when my family and friends tie me into the car seat and force me there. Too hot. Hate gambling (no religious aversion – I just want bags of STUFF for my money). Did I mention the heat? My son’s best friend is moving there to attend UNLV, so I guess my family and friends will force me to go again, pretending to visit him. Sadly, I’ve only read snippets of Saroyan. Perhaps Steinbeck’s big head kept getting in my way. One more author to put on my list of people to read…

    Thanks.

    • I agree. Las Vegas is too hot! The desert is too hot and needs one big fat freakin’ air conditioner in it…

      I’m not a gambler either. I have the luck of a Titanic voyager. I recognize this in me, so I’m not one to throw down $100 bucks or entire paychecks like my dad used to. At least I assume he did. The man lived for gambling.

      I hear good things about UNLV. They have a writer program connected to a graduate degree and the Peace Corp. Join up, save the world, and bust out a book! How cool is that?

      A agree: Steinbeck’s big head. I can already see I’m going to use that as a title of a future piece: “Steinbeck’s Big Head.”

  15. Jeannie says:

    I’ve been so busy that I’ve neglected TNB. This is brilliant Nick. You do have that special mojo that brings your characters to life. And Larry, oh Larry–that man is fabulous. I hope one day my family doesn’t throw out my letters and writings. Sorry a bit ADD today.

    Wonderful!

    • You raise an interesting point. I should put my Yahoomail password in my will. Oh crud, I don’t have a will. I need to write one, get it notorized, and have my email password in it! And then add in there that my family may never delete it all!

      Maybe I should print it all out and have someone handwrite it all in a cool leatherbound ledger! Wouldn’t that be badass?

      Oh the things we writers think of to preserve our history.

      And I agree. Larry Hill is brilliant!

      • Jeannie says:

        You say as I’m writing, this morning, in my leather bound ledger.

        Oh, I don’t want my family to have the password to my email. There are too many incriminating emails that would sully my good name. I’ll let them have anything I print out. That way I’m still the perfect daughter/aunt/niece/whatever they remember me as.

        • Lol! Oh, for leather-bound ledgers!!

          I have one. But I want another one. A big one. A giant one. So that I feel like an old sage while scrawling in it!!

          I hear you. I think that’s a strategy of many famous writers to limit what they publicly share. Like Kerouac’s sex list.

  16. DCR says:

    Saroyan we can read about, and your story makes me want to do that — created that little itch.

    I find I am curious about Rik’s central role — he’s an interesting one. As usual, your imagery is amazing — a total visual screenplay — especially if you have lived in the valley or spent time in a big city environment. I appreciate the contrast of the butterflies pinned to the wall and the fertililty references.

    Also, Larry’s art sounds interesting — do you have info on how to see it?

    Thanks for the great read.

    • I have some photos of Larry Hill’s art that I have been meaning to put on Facebook. I will do some of that today. Some of his pieces are like 15-feet tall! I have seen some amazing art galleries look even better by being adorned with his colorful works…

    • As for Rik, he will be in a few more pieces I write. He’s an interesting character to write about. And that’s his real name. Thanks for your kindness as always…

  17. Stephanie says:

    I need to read more of Saroyan. This was an interesting read. I love how you see the world, Nick.

    • Thanks Steph. I’m assuming this is @thestephbox from Twitter. Sometimes I take the world for granted and assume everyone sees it the same way as I do. I really need to spend more time trying to see the world from unknown perspectives. Thank you for saying I’m interesting.

  18. Lea says:

    What a treasure trove in those boxes! Wouldn’t you just love to dig through them and find some gem you couldn’t live without? As usual, your descriptions just drew me in and kept me reading.

    Great story!

    • Oh, I so hope some of those gems show up. I bet a few have. But someone needs to collect them again and put together for a future archive of LETTERS TO SAROYAN. Thank you for your kind words as always.

  19. Jan Fulton says:

    Felt like I was sitting at the table behind you – the conversation, the descriptions of the restaurant are so natural. The pace, so comfortable. I was taken back to my early childhood when my family lived for a time in Hilmar on a turkey farm, then Turlock, CA where my Dad operated a small coffee shop dontown- very small town central CA living in the 1950’s, not unlike Mendota, I am sure.
    As for Saroyan – very under-appreciated, except maybe in the Fresno area.

  20. Jan Fulton says:

    Felt like I was sitting at the table behind you – the conversation, the descriptions of the restaurant are so natural. The pace, so comfortable. I was taken back to my early childhood when my family lived for a time in Hilmar on a turkey farm, then Turlock, CA where my Dad operated a small coffee shop downtown- very small town central CA living in the 1950’s, not unlike Mendota, I am sure.
    As for Saroyan – very under-appreciated, except maybe in the Fresno area.

  21. From Larry Hill:

    Quite a trip. Pho Hung’s to Tranquillity with Rik. And you included me along the way. Thanks. Thanks especially for the direct shot to the heart that heartfelt writing brings. Man, the streets of Fresno, Bakersfield, Mendota. So young we loved the heated air. And still remember the “polyester preachers”. when one of us can hit that perfect note.

    Thanks for knowing how, Nick…

  22. Lee says:

    I had to read several times just to distill it all, but I am stunned by the legacy that was not considered “valuable” but I like that it was shared. As always, Nick, your writing is effortless.

    • Thanks Lee. While as a historian I am horrified by the idea of Saroyan’s trash being thrown out, it is nice to see a portion of his collective memory found his way somewhere.

      Yet, I’ll go a step further. Maybe it’s disturbing once again to know this story wasn’t told for nearly 30 years, and that his collective memory was once again forgotten. After all, I wasn’t able to turn up one document as evidence for this story…

      Of course this all just makes me feel guilty that I have lost many letters written to me through the years, including a few email accounts I should not have left idle…

  23. His royal Chadness says:

    Fresno is full of surprises; did you know that Sam Peckinpaw was from there too(I’m watching the director’s cut of “Major Dundee”.)?

  24. mike G says:

    yea Fresyes

  25. E.M. says:

    It’s almost that if a writer’s book is hard to find and it has awards to go with it, it gives a writer a ‘writer’s cred’. I wish ‘cred’ didn’t replace the actual word to use.

    • Cred sort of follows us everywhere we go. Street cred, writer’s cred. Do our resumes have enough cred? Do we have enough cred to even get published? All that necessary cred is why we have to have tough skin against rejections I suppose. Just some cred thoughts in me that you sparked.

  26. Erika Rae says:

    Is it weird that I have a 6″ blue morpho hanging behind glass in my bathroom? I am strangely conflicted over this. It’s so beautiful…and it’s dead. And I paid something like $35 for it from a Tibet shop in Boulder. I hate it, and love it. It makes me feel guilty and, yet, proud. The strange thing is, I think I *relate* to it. It reminds me of transformation. Of potential. It reminds me of a way of life. It reminds of the inevitability of death. The brevity of life. It makes me feel like a voyeur. A greedy colonialist pig. At the same time, it fills me with thoughts of passivity and the difficult necessity to at least sometimes enjoy the moment. It makes me think, “This moment is what I have. Might as well make it beautiful if I can.”

    From butterfly girl to the mothman, peace out.

    • I think it’s interesting how different readers grasp different meanings from this piece. You focused on the butterfly, which, though real, was really just a metaphor for how we discover hidden writers who flourish, die, disappear, and then end up in posts like this that serve as a mere pane of imaginary glass between you and what someone like Saroyan is/was.

      You’re right about the moment. So hard to live in and to even try to recognize as something beautiful or sane for that matter.

      Thirty-five bucks doesn’t seem like much to pay for all the beauty and pondering you got out of that butterfly. But at least you didn’t kill it. I tried to make my own as a kid by poking living butterflies with pins.

  27. E.M. - Eu...? says:

    Sometimes thinking you might maybe still have a glimpse of something you loved trapped away in boxes in a garage is better than clawing and clawing to have nothing in your hands and realize what you loved is gone and has been gone for a long, long time.

  28. Jill says:

    Nick, first I must say that the donut reference did not go unnoticed.

    Something else that did not go unnoticed is the word “contradiction.” Your tweets and responses are so witty and make me laugh; however, when I read your articles, I feel such a sense of sadness in your characters…even in your observations. There’s nothing right or wrong about that. I just feel the difference in your words.

    But, as for this writing…I was not aware of Saroyan…(admitting my ignorance here). However, I immediately looked him up. So, thank you for inspiring me to read about his contributions.

    Also…lots of collections mentioned. hmmmm.

    As always, enjoyed your words.

    • I just love donuts. They rarely disappoint me.

      You’re right. My prose/observation voice is something different than my sarcastic and often silly tweets and photos. I slow the world down in a blurry camera movement from character to character to setting in scenes, that lately, take place in one of the saddest places in America: Las Vegas.

      My book Random Obsessions is more like my tweet voice. One publisher, this grizzled old guy with a beard at least a foot long, called it filled with “ridiculous writing.” And he meant that in a positive manner.

      I’m hoping the young adult fiction I’m writing blends my ridiculous prose style with my creative nonfiction methods as of late. Something both fun, dramatic, mysterious, etc…

      As always, great to get a comment from you.

  29. Joe Daly says:

    I’m so happy I held off reading this until I had a quiet moment- very thoughtful, engaging piece. Typically excellent, Nick. The Saroyan story-within-a-story was mesmerizing. A sign of effective writing- vivid imagery through sparse prose. When Saroyan wishes him happy birthday, I immediately thought about that old Mean Joe Green Coke commercial. “Hey kid…”

    As always Nick, good stuff.

    • That was one of my favorite commercials as a kid. I mean, who didn’t want to be in a tunnel at a big NFL game and given a Coke from Mean Joe Green? I see the connection too and now only wish I had worked in Mean Joe somehow! hahaha.

      I’m glad you liked it. I did have a brief struggle with this piece, which was the beginning. But once I got that Pho Hung paragraph it was smooth sailing. The interesting part is I already had a rough draft of this when I got the letter from Larry Hill that I soon added. His writing is great and this piece without it, would have had a gaping hole…

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