- Historic Sites
“turn Back The Universe And Give Me Yesterday”
Memories of Fresno
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
If it is true that any man’s past cannot be restored—“Turn back the universe and give me yesterday,” Ernest R. Ball sang at the turn of the century— it is even more true that nobody’s past can be obliterated, effaced, or wiped out, short of the grave.
My own background, then: I was born in a house near the northwest corner of I, Eye, or Broadway, and Ventura, which has a nice Hispanic sound to it, suggesting venture, adventure, and similar opportunities that tend to follow birth. August 31, 1908—a Monday, still my favorite day.
Soon afterward I moved to San Francisco, San Bruno, San Jose, and at the age of nearly three in the early summer of 1911, after the death of my father, Armenak, I was ensconced in the Fred Finch Orphanage, in Oakland, where for the next five years I entertained thoughts of escape, going home, getting back to the family, to the Saroyan people, all of which is fully covered elsewhere, and some of it twice, some ten times, but which I believe may again be told with no enormous harm done.
Everybody lives one life, not two. The most anybody can do, especially if he is a writer, is find out a little more as the years go by of place, time, quality, and meaning.
Again in the early summer, this time in the year 1917, I returned to Fresno, where for the next nine years I met the world, the human race, yourself, and myself.
And then, again none too soon, I may say, I began to leave Fresno, early in the summer of 1926 (seasons accompany compulsions, of course). I began to leave home—free of charge, preferably to San Francisco, but the only ride available after a wait of eight hours was to Los Angeles.
That was the beginning of the peregrinations, as the saying goes.
The nine years in Fresno were the greatest in my life, they were the years that make or break a man. I was not broken. I was made, in the image that was inevitable, out of my tribe and nature, with muscle put upon my character by the need to become fully Armenian, Saroyan, myself, and then incidentally American and a writer.
I went everywhere between 1928 and 1964, when on almost a whim I bought a tract house in Fresno, and about a month later bought the house next door. I have been in the house next door part of every year ever since, and the rest of the time I have traveled, and I have lived in my fifth-floor flat at 74 Rue Taitbout, Paris.
Eight or nine years of ritual growth is really all you need, for the years of boyhood are at least ten times as charged with everything as the years that follow: and after about the age of twenty-four or so, if the truth is told, repetition sets in, and if you don’t watch it, so does death or its equivalent in one form or another.
Now I have an assortment of photographs by Claude Laval to study. On the back of each there is information for me to put to work, but I propose to remember or guess about each photograph, and then examine the information, for this exercise is properly a game, and I am glad to be a player.