The Old Armenians Social Club
Hollywood, California
November 2, 2001


Heading east on Sunset in the jaws of Hollywood. Not the mythical Hollywood…the one with the big letters on the hill, the residual of some real estate developer’s 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 lady’s 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 lamp’s post. Little Armenia. I’ve lived here 20 years and didn’t 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…things 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 eastern people…mostly men. Mostly older.

On most afternoons at the McDonald’s on the southeast corner of Sunset and Western is a meeting of the Old Armenians Social Club. These gentlemen are in their 60’s and 70’s 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 McDonald’s 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 McDonald’s. 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 you’re there, you’re in. You don’t 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 you’re old”, he said.

Another chimes in, voice dripping with sarcasm “You’re too old. You’re too slow. You don’t 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 (I’ll call him Alpha) serve as translator.

He continues, “We have lived. We have seen things. You haven’t. 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 60’s who tells me to call him John, pierces me with his soft blue eyes.

“It means we were prisoners.”

“Where?”

“Turkey.”

“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 I’ve 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 try…you are free to work hard for something but you are not free to take and to demand…Americans don’t 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…that 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.

They laugh.

“I don’t think so much”, says one.

“Why not?”

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 won’t 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 I’d settle for being able to get by…to 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 Master’s 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 can work.”

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 don’t think I’m 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 didn’t 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.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you like your work?”

“No.”

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 aren’t working they talk about work. When they aren’t 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 don’t 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 don’t…Work to Live. Not the other way around. On this Americans are wrong. That’s 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 McDonald’s 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 I’m nuts.

“Don’t you have email”, he asks.

I laugh and admit to him that I’d sold them all short. That I assumed that they were old and Armenian and wouldn’t 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 don’t 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 football.

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 isn’t 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 didn’t 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 you.”

I ask him if he would go design the curriculum for all high school US Government courses.

“Aaah…what do I know”, he says with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. “I’m just an old Armenian.”

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