The Time of Your Life
Armenian-American author William Saroyan was born one-hundred years ago this month. Saroyan was in his mid-thirties before he began publishing short stories. “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” published in 1934 in the popular Story magazine, first drew a large audience of readers to him.
My Name is Aram, a collection of short stories published in 1940, became a best seller internationally. It is about a young boy and the colorful characters that made up his immigrant family and immigrant community. The short stories were based on Saroyan’s own experiences growing up and living in the rich agricultural region of the San Joaquin Valley in southern California.
When I was a sophomore at Purdue University in 1961, William Saroyan was a Writer-in-Residence. While there he wrote a play, High Time Along the Wabash. I thought it was preachy nonsense but by a writer I had already come to respect because of The Time of Your Life. I had a romantic notion of writers, and Saroyan, more than a bit full of himself as he stood before us announcing that he was indeed the man, William Saroyan, taught me that people who appear to be egotistical fools might also be fine writers and that the public figure of a writer is not necessarily the private figure.
In 1964, I left Indiana and drove to the Bay Area, arriving with $20 and a used Royal manual typewriter. I hung out in bars like the old waterfront watering hole in Oakland, The First and Last Chance Saloon, where Jack London had spent many afternoons reading and writing (the bar appears in more than one of his books). Johnny Heinhold, the original owner, during a heavy rain had offered the young boy temporary shelter, and thus began a friendship that lasted until London’s early death at age 40 in 1916. A photograph still exists of London at age ten, in The First and Last Chance Saloon, reading from a large dictionary, a gift from Heinhold, who later loaned London money to go to college.
I also hung out at The Overland House, another Oakland bar from the Bay Area’s more raucous years, and where, for the most part, I resisted falling in love with a young part-time prostitute named Paulette, Hispanic, beautiful breasts, who, strangely taken by the notion that I was a writer, would drop in to see me on her way to work as a waitress at The Overland House.
I like old bars, even a bit jaded and degenerate. I like women who like old bars. I like the bartenders whose destiny has been to wear garters on their sleeves and pull long drafts and listen to sad stories by too many old timers who have struck out or by confused young girls looking for love in unlikely places.
William Saroyan’s best known work, The Time of Your Life, also takes place in a San Francisco bar. This was the first drama to win both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (which Saroyan refused to accept) and the New York Drama Critics Award. Since the original 1939 production it has been revived on Broadway three times and has been presented several times on television, most recently in a 1976 PBS production starring Nicolas Surovy in the lead role. In 1948 it was also made into a movie starring James Cagney that was considered mediocre by the critics.
Unlike so many social-protest plays of the 1930s, Saroyan’s play, which takes place in “the lousiest dive in Frisco,” is about losers, drifters searching for some meaning, perhaps even a little love in their lives. Joe, a young man, enters their lives, encouraging these dozen misfits (but survivors nevertheless) who just happen to be in the same place at the same time, to live their lives to the fullest, no matter how low, no matter how unimportant.
Here at Lakeside, although many of us are long past our working years, or even our “saloon years,” Saroyan’s pronouncement that this is “the time of your life” has power.
“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.”