The Old Armenians Social Club
November 2, 2001
Heading east on Sunset in the jaws of Hollywood. Not the mythical
the one with the big letters on the hill, the residual
of some real estate developers wet dream. Not the one with
the stars on Hollywood Blvd., where a million years ago there were
big theatres and a sense of event and stars hanging at the brown
derby. The real Hollywood, farther east, gone to seed. Adult book
stores, seedy theatres, bars where the drinks are as tired as the
clientele. Bus stops with trash and graffiti sprinkled about and
sidewalks teeming with the invisible people of Los Angeles. The
invisible people actually ride the buses to low wage jobs in Beverly
Hills cleaning some rich ladys toilet and blowing the leaves
from the lawns of studio executives. They ride the bus to the Hollywood
Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, and Malibu. Or they
work in the rundown retail outlets serving their invisible brethren.
As you near the intersection with Western Avenue you see the little
green sign hanging crooked from a street lamps post. Little
Armenia. Ive lived here 20 years and didnt know there
was such a place. Passing through the several thousand neighborhoods
and enclaves of Los Angeles in our motorized shells we tend to notice
only the obvious. Skin shade, signs on businesses in different languages
that are easy. No detail.
The intersection of Sunset and Western has a number of large, decaying
retail establishments, packed bus stops, traffic that is just passing
through, and significant minority of homeless. It is largely Hispanic
but on closer inspection there is a large sub-population of middle
mostly men. Mostly older.
On most afternoons at the McDonalds on the southeast corner
of Sunset and Western is a meeting of the Old Armenians Social Club.
These gentlemen are in their 60s and 70s and live in
the nearby area, mostly at two elder care facilities. They all have
deep lines carving up swarthy leather skinned faces. They shuffle
to the McDonalds around 2pm, after the crowd has thinned out
a bit. After the aggressiveness and impatience of youth has moved
on to other things and before the families and the kids swarm to
their happy meals. They sip coffee and soft drinks, munch on fries
and occasionally, as a guilty indulgence, share a milkshake. The
talk comes in waves, sometimes raucous, filled with shouts and laughter.
Then the energy dissipates, the minds wander, thousand yard stares
in no particular direction. Folded arms pillow the heads on the
table tops. Snores.
Friday afternoons draw the largest gatherings, sometimes up to
20 members of the Old Armenians Social Club show up. On this Friday
afternoon there are 14 gentlemen in attendance. They have pushed
a number of the small, plastic two-tops together to form their conference
table. They dominate the middle section of the sprawling, gray tiled,
dingy McDonalds. The place is reminiscent of nothing so much
as a prison cafeteria, save for the exuberant, exclamation filled
marketing messages scattered about (Only 99 cents! New Flavor! Super
Size for only 39 cents!).
Membership is informal. If youre there, youre in. You
dont even have to be Armenian. A few Latinos are among the
ranks. You just have to be old. I was made an honorary member just
for talking with them.
Americans hate us, said one of the more reticent.
Americans hate Armenians?
No. Maybe. No, Americans hate you if youre old,
Another chimes in, voice dripping with sarcasm Youre
too old. Youre too slow. You dont know anything. The
world has changed
We know many things!
The last from the man who is their leader. I never did make out
his name, though he told me many times. The accents are very thick
and some of the members either do not speak English or are very
uncomfortable with it and have their leader (Ill call him
Alpha) serve as translator.
He continues, We have lived. We have seen things. You havent.
Young people think they know everything but they know nothing. They
think they have lived. You think you have lived but you are young.
You have not lived yet. Later, you will have lived but now you think
you know everything.
Just like we did when we were young. A giant vowel
movement rises up with hands thrown in the air and heads nodding
ascent. This happens a lot with the OASC. When they engage it is
extremely animated with theatrical gesticulations and many group
shouts of agreement or condemnation.
Three of the gentlemen have numbers tattoed on the knuckles of
their left hands. I ask what the tattoos are for. The group falls
silent, side conversations in their native tongue stop.
The youngest of the group (he is proud of this and tells anyone
who approaches and reminds the other participants endlessly), a
man in his early 60s who tells me to call him John, pierces
me with his soft blue eyes.
It means we were prisoners.
For what, I ask.
There was a time long ago where being Armenian in Turkey
was a crime. The other tattoed men laugh bitterly with John.
All the rest are silent, some fixing me with hard, challenging stares.
Alpha breaks the uncomfortable pause, But you asked us a
question and we will answer you.
He translates my original question those that need it. The glares
soften and some heads nod. A few smiles start to form. One of the
gentlemen, who to that point had spoken and listened through Alpha,
says something to the others in Armenian. A subdued vowel movement
from a group at the far end of the table. He says to me, What
is America? That is an important question
and it is about time
someone started asking.
More smiles and knowing nods. I feel like Ive just passed
some sort of test. For reasons I do not know I want these men to
approve of my Quixotic quest.
Everyone agrees on Land of the Free as being a good
descriptor, fair and accurate. But Americans do not know what
it is worth. No Americans have ever not been free so you are spoiled
and lazy with freedom. You think freedom means you must be allowed
to do anything you want and that everyone owes you something for
nothing. This is wrong, says Alpha. You are free to
you are free to work hard for something but you are not
free to take and to demand
Americans dont know this.
All of us, we grew up with no freedom. We grew up with no
chance to make our lives be something that we wanted. We could not
even know what it was to have such a chance but America
was the place where you could have a chance. That is why people
come here. Some of us come here and we did well. Some of us come
here and we did not do so well. Americans are bitter when they fail
and think someone robbed them. We just wanted to have a chance to
fail at what we wanted to do
so we are happy.
There are more loud vowel movements and hands gesticulating wildly.
What about Home of the Brave, I ask.
I dont think so much, says one.
They all laugh some more.
Look around, offers Alpha. No one will look you
in eye. People walk along the street looking at their shoes. They
think you are crazy if you tell them hello and they run into their
houses with metal bars on the windows and twenty locks on the doors
and alarms that call the police for you if the cat farts too loud.
They ask me why I am asking this question and who I am asking.
I tell them about the next two months I will spend on the road,
journeying across the country, staggering towards America. This
is given unanimous approval. They want to know what I do for a living
that I can take off for a few months to find answers that maybe
no one cares about. I tell them that I have some money saved up
and the trip wont be expensive but that it is a little scary
because I have no job lined up.
You will go tell Americans what they are thinking around
the country and maybe you will get rich.
I tell them that Id settle for being able to get by
have enough money to pay for my house and to support my wife. They
are very disturbed to hear my wife is not coming with me and think
this is a very bad idea. I explain to them that for the next few
months my wife will be working on large research papers for her
graduate degree in English. There is confusion about what a Masters
degree is and Alpha switches to Armenian to explain it. This seems
to diminish the disapproval somewhat. One of the members, who to
this point had not spoken to me directly, grabbed my left arm so
tightly that the circulation was cutoff.
This is something else with America. Women can learn. Women
One of his compatriots points out that this happens in most places.
Not like here, he snaps. In Turkey my daughters,
my wife, they had very little chances to learn. They are all smart.
My daughters have fast brains
very good brains but they have
almost no chance for education. Not like what they could have had
in America. This is important. You must tell the Americans this.
I laugh and tell him I dont think Im the conduit through
which everyone can reach the Americans. He looks confused and has
to wait for Alpha to translate.
Yes you are, he says. If you tell it, you are
the voice. It does not matter if anyone listens.
I didnt know that the Armenian people had so thoroughly grasped
the basic principles of Zen.
Alpha says, You should not be scared because there is no
job. You will find a job. They all agree with this one and
I wonder what kind of prescient powers they are blessed with.
Alpha goes on, It is only scary because you make the same
mistake all Americans make.
Do you like your work?
They all laugh and shout and slap the table and hoot. No
one in America likes their job. Work, work, work, work. Americans
work all the time and when they arent working they talk about
work. When they arent talking about work they talk about how
much they hate work. This is what Americans do. Maybe working all
the time makes you rich, huh? Maybe. Maybe it makes you sad, too.
You will like your work better when you dont do it all the
time. I came to America when I had the chance and I would not go
anywhere else. But everywhere else you go in the world they understand
what the Americans dont
Work to Live. Not the other way
around. On this Americans are wrong. Thats why you hate your
job. You want it to be your life. Work is not a life.
Much nodding of heads and grunts of agreement. I find that I am
one of the ones nodding and grunting. It is getting late in the
afternoon and the crowd in McDonalds is picking up. The meeting
begins to break up with some of the members shaking my hand and
wishing me the best for my trip. It seems that all of them know
people I should talk to
who will tell me things about America
that I should know
like they have great secrets that only someone
who came here from another country could know. And maybe they do.
I offer to give them my cell phone number and they could call me
and give me contact information. Alpha looks at me like Im
Dont you have email, he asks.
I laugh and admit to him that Id sold them all short. That
I assumed that they were old and Armenian and wouldnt have
access to the web or know how to use a computer.
How can you live in America without a computer or the internet,
he asks, laughing at me. Why would you live in America without
a computer or the internet?
He asks me if I will have a website reporting on my progress. I
tell him I dont think so and he spends about five minutes
reprimanding me for this horrible over site. He points out that
every fourteen year old you meet can build a website for you in
ten minutes and all you have to do is buy them a Brittney Spears
CD. We banter some more about the internet and cars, and American
The club has broken up and one by one everyone has scuffled off.
Except for Alpha. He leaves me with one last thought.
America is a good place. It is not home to me but it is now.
I miss the home I had. I miss the places and the people. But America
is the most free place. It is a place where you can be heard. Other
places are maybe as good at it as America but America was the first
and it is the best, I think. One thing though
it is a good
place but it is not a perfect place. Americans want to pretend it
is perfect. It isnt but in this country you can always try
to change it
to make it a little better. If Americans stopped
pretending that it was perfect they could do better fixing it. Your
fathers (by this he meant founding fathers) knew they didnt
have all the answers and knew no place is ever perfect so you must
make it possible to fix things. You should listen to them like they
are men, not Gods. When you do that you honor them for what they
are and you will do a better job taking care of what they made for
I ask him if he would go design the curriculum for all high school
US Government courses.
what do I know, he says with a mischievous
sparkle in his eyes. Im just an old Armenian.