Valley Voices

Brenda Najimian Magarity: Walking with Saroyan taught a lifetime of wisdom

Oscar- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan is a Fresno legend. He was born here in 1908 and spent his last 17 years in Fresno before his death in 1981.
Oscar- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan is a Fresno legend. He was born here in 1908 and spent his last 17 years in Fresno before his death in 1981. Fresno Bee file illustration

Although I was William Saroyan’s driver from 1975 through 1977, walking with him taught me valuable lessons that a young, protected Armenian woman in the 1970s might not have learned any other way.

Once we established that I would drive him around town, I picked him up at his home on Griffith Way. Except the times he went to special events, he wore shabby clothes – a dark wool scarf with holes in it, loose trousers that had seen better days. When I spent time with him, I wore the loosest garments I had. I didn’t put on makeup or take special pains with my hair.

I was teaching in Madera, and my mom still sewed my outfits. The hippie period was the rage, and I picked out wild floral fabrics in hot pink, bright yellow and orange paisley. When Saroyan and I spent time together, however, I wore blue jeans and a sweatshirt so that in my mind, at least, we would match.

He and my dad shared a joke about Saroyan’s “special” clothes, which my dad, the dry cleaner, called trash. Blunt and to the point in that Armenian way, my dad also was sensitive when he needed to be, as was Saroyan.

Yet to my father, he would say, “I’ll be in to pick up my trash clothes soon.”

Most times when I picked him up, he would climb into the passenger seat and say, “OK, we’re going to Westlan Shopping Center.”

This was about 1975, and the shopping center at West and Ashlan avenues – hence the name – had more shine and polish than it does today. At one end of the center sat a laundromat. No one ever said, “That’s Mr. Saroyan.” They acted like he wasn’t there.

The celebrated author and playwright shoved his clothes in a washer, and then we visited the Safeway, where he might buy a stewing chicken, bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. A huge bin of wrapped hard candy waited in the middle of the store. The first time I accompanied him, I was surprised when Saroyan grabbed a piece of butterscotch candy for himself and handed me one.

I didn’t want to go to jail, but I didn’t want to offend him, either. I took off the wrapper, put the candy in my mouth, and nearly choked on it.

After he put his clothes in the dryer, we visited the post office and then went to Winchell’s for coffee and doughnuts – glazed for him, cake for me. This was before the development of Herndon – or Shaw, for that matter. As we walked the undeveloped land that is now the northwest corner of West and Shaw avenues, he would find coins and stunning, multifaceted rocks.

Others have written about Saroyan and his rock collecting, but he wasn’t just grabbing any pebble off the ground. He was looking for the right rocks that only he would recognize. He was like a child in those moments he spotted something that appealed to him. He would put it in his pocket, take it home and place it in one of any number of canisters like the treasure it was.

Many times on our walks, he collected several dollars in change.

“Why is it,” I asked him, “that you can find all that, and I can’t find anything?”

“Because you really have to look,” he said.

For years, I wasn’t sure what he meant.

Yet, as we continued walking one day, I leaned down and found a quartz crystal the size of my palm.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

“I want you to have it,” I told him.

“No.” He stopped me on the path. “Brenda, don’t give away what you’ve found. It’s yours.”

That statement meant everything to me. In my family, I was trained to give everything away. Don’t hold onto anything. What Saroyan told me was a reversal of everything I’d ever known.

“What if someone needs it more?” I asked him.

“You’ll know,” Saroyan said.

I learned a great deal on those walks with him, maybe as much as I learned as I drove him through Fresno.

On the walks, we were closer to the earth and to each other, and a kind of honesty emerged. I found myself telling him things I hadn’t been able to share with anyone. About a guy I liked, who, Saroyan said, I should marry. About a class I was teaching, a book I was reading, a trip I hoped to take. About someone at school who was making my life miserable.

He listened. He advised. From the first, we had shared a bond I did not yet understand. Although he had not accomplished the fantasy dream of the family he truly wanted, he kept his lightheartedness. When he came to the home of my parents, they greeted him as one of us. I believe he saw in our home the kind of family he wished he could have had. I could tell that he loved the way my parents made a feast every Sunday, the way we laughed and cried with spontaneity, even the way my father teased him about his clothes.

I never forgot his advice.

“Don’t give away what you’ve found.”

When I was at a party with the man I later married, a girl sat on his lap, and I found the voice to tell her to get off of it.

To this day, when I walk, I can’t help glancing at the ground.

Walking with Saroyan taught me where to look, and it taught me how to look. Walking with Saroyan taught me to look with my heart.

Born in Fresno, Brenda Najimian Magarity is a second-generation Armenian American, daughter of a homemaker and a dry cleaner/hat-blocker. When she was in her mid-20s, she became the driver for author William Saroyan. A former high school English teacher, she is a published poet and board member of the William Saroyan Society.