Remembering Robert Setrakian
BY ARMEN BACON
The news came out of nowhere. Fantasizing he was the kind of man who might defy the odds, I had imagined him living forever, personifying Saroyan’s famed words, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” I wanted him to be the exception. The unexpected sight of his name in a Fresno Bee headline – cradled between the front page and A7 caused a sip of early morning coffee to spill uncontrollably from my mouth, nearly drowning the story announcing his death. The headline read: Setrakian, friend of Saroyan, dies. Reeling, my mind created a run-on sentence, one much too long by any journalistic standard. I whispered in silence that he was my friend, too.
We first met on a beautiful fall morning back in 2001. I had said yes, reluctantly agreeing to meet him in the parking lot of the Radisson, located on Ventura Street, in the exact location where the Asbarez building had stood once upon a time. He came to Fresno with ambitious plans to organize a festival in Saroyan’s honor. I said yes because his last name ended in ‘ian.’
As he entered the hotel’s circular driveway, the sight of the ancient battered vehicle caused my eyes to roll backwards. It took him an eternity to climb out of the car but he instantly lassoed me into his world of dreams. Afflicted with polio since youth, he emerged limping, dragging half of his body as if it were filled with cement. Eyes dancing, he charmed me with a smile that formed a half moon tilted toward the sky. Within minutes of listening to his vision, I was dizzy with excitement. I had contracted Saroyan fever. I cancelled my morning appointments and we talked endlessly. By day’s end, we had forged a friendship and, admittedly, I was putty in his hands. No wonder Saroyan loved him.
The timing of the festival was, in a word – inconvenient. My personal life was in shambles, it was my busy season at work, and the last thing I needed was a new project, another committee. My insides were screaming, “No.” A little defiant voice kept nudging, “Yes.” Fortunately, I lacked the guts to tell him how badly I wanted to opt out.
I had admired Saroyan ever since laying my hands on a copy of My Name is Aram back in sixth grade. He seemed to understand the human spirit. He loved outcasts, anyone fighting insurmountable obstacles. In the back streets of my own private world, I was waging a personal war, one I couldn’t confess or explain yet to Setrakian – after all, we had barely just met. Like many of Saroyan’s characters, I felt vulnerable, isolated, displaced and at a complete loss for words. I arrived home that night hopeful that the team of Saroyan and Setrakian might somehow anoint me with the courage and passion to write and punctuate whatever life sentence I was destined to live. Was it possible, I wondered, that William Saroyan, the man capable of using words and language to resuscitate a peach, might also revive me?
A few days before the launch of the Festival, Robert took me for a private tour into the Art Museum gallery, showing me priceless, never before seen works of William Saroyan, our native son, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and playwright from Fresno. There was a hush in the museum that felt sacred to my ears. I wandered aimlessly at first but then took notice that much of Saroyan’s artistry was composed on hotel stationary. How odd, I thought to myself, that I had also collected hotel stationary since college days and early travels to Europe. I sat breathless in the gallery, staring off into space, wondering if some kind of divine intervention was in the works. That night I went home and found my stash of stationary. At 2:00 a.m. I began writing.
At first I wrote about the small, precious moments most of us are too busy to savor and celebrate. Chance meetings, uncommon friendships, those obscure occasions when dots connect and the world suddenly makes sense. Buried memories from my past surfaced. Bringing these moments to life, creating a series of docu-memories, was like breathing pure oxygen. The team of Saroyan/Setrakian had thrown me a lifeline. I grabbed hold. In the months and years ahead, Robert Setrakian would graciously read everything I wrote, offering comments, feedback, encouragement and of course, his unique side-bar commentary.
Long after the festival closed, he and I continued to correspond. Our friendship flourished despite the miles and years between us. My husband and I attended his wedding in 2004, when at the age of eighty he married Patty, the love of his life. His dear friend from college, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, officiated at the ceremony. It was a sight to behold, a veritable love fest, a moment I will never forget.
I spent the good part of this past weekend rereading many of the letters we exchanged between 2002-2010. While they are all treasured keepsakes, one note in particular, written right after the Festival, is probably my favorite.
“Since the final curtain of our Saroyan celebration, I have been searching through my festival memorabilia with the hope of finding the item(s) that, for me, best describe the meaning of the two month long event and all of the creative time before it. What I shall cherish most, is not the successful activities of the Festival itself, but rather the warm, loving friendships that have become a new part of my life. And for that, I am grateful. And for this, I owe Saroyan my heartfelt gratitude. And now, life goes on.”
Life, indeed, moved on. Robert Setrakian, much like William Saroyan, was a man whose wonder and whimsy could set a room on fire. On a beautiful fall day in 2001, he rolled into Fresno and not only brought his good friend Will back to life, he resurrected a community and ignited a passion that still burns in many of our hearts. Like so many of Saroyan’s beloved characters, Robert Setrakian was honest and real, made of pure heart and soul, and a man worth cherishing.
My husband and I attended the private memorial service held September 17th in San Francisco to celebrate Robert’s life. The afternoon was filled with music, memories and laughter, ending with Saroyan’s timeless words, “In the time of your life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite variety and mystery of it.”
Thanks to my friendship with Robert Setrakian, I continue to discover a new life that exists in the amniotic fluid of my own words and language. I made him a promise to keep writing, venturing off to wherever this leg of the journey, fueled and propelled by Saroyan and Setrakian, is fated to take me. Just as Saroyan’s most passionate love affair was with life itself, so was Robert Setrakian’s. And it was this generosity of spirit that made his lust for life also his greatest gift to all of us who had the privilege of knowing him.