And a combination of the previous two, I suppose

December 31, 2005

The Cabinetmaker

On Ninth Avenue in San Francisco between Irving and Judah Streets there used to be a cabinetmaker who lived above his shop. He was called in the old country manner, Barone Gapriel, or Mr. Gapriel. His family name was Jivarian, and he, also, was from Bitlis. He wrote poems.

I asked him how it happened that he took to the writing of poems, since he was a cabinetmaker, and a very good one.

He said, “Well, now, my boy, Mr. William, when I am standing here at my bench, doing my work, my mind does not have very much to do, it is a matter of hand, and eye, so my mind speaks to me, saying things, and pretty soon I listen to my mind. I hear my mind say one word, two words, one line, another line, and so in the evening after work I write down what my mind has told me. That is how it happened.”

He was a man of medium height, heavy set, with something about him that suggested the trunk of a large tree. His shoulders were broad, his hands large, his fingers well shaped and very strong. His eyes had in them a mixture of terrible sorrow and continuous dancing amusement.

His kids were away at college, for that was the one thing he believed he was his responsibility to them, to see that they were as well prepared for sensible living as anybody might be: two sons, one daughter. His wife he had found in America, but again she was from the city of Bitlis. Every afternoon around three she took him a brass tray, upon which rested a small cup of Turkish coffee, one piece of lokhoum, and a glass of cold water.

She smiled and said softly, “A moment of refreshment for you, sir.”

She left the tray on a clear place of his workbench and went back upstairs, for she knew that when he was in his shop he was an artist, a thinker, and did not want any kind of small talk to intrude on his own cabinetmaking and poetry-thinking.

Now, in those days there was a famine in the land, one might say in the manner of the writers of the Old Testament. There was certainly a shortage of money, and many poor families became poorer. All the same, they managed to sit down to heart meals of very simple and very inexpensive fare, including my own family, in the second floor flat at 348 Carl Street, about eight blocks from the shop of Barone Gapriel Jivarian. I was twenty-two years old and felt just slightly desperate about not having a steady job. Also, about not having become a published writer, although I worked at writing every day, and pretty much also every night.

Thus, being without income and therefore also without cash, I did a lot of walking, and a lot of water drinking, until suppertime, when great mounds of bulghour pilaf cooked with cut-up brown onions was heaped upon plates, so that my brother and I could ear heartily if not elegantly, so to put it.

I loved the stuff, and I still do. And long after I was rich, I frequently asked somebody to cook a big pot of it for me, or I asked a chef at a restaurant to make a special big pot of it for the following day. And finally I myself learned how to fix the dish, and so I have it whenever I want it, wherever I happen to be.

On my walks I frequently passed the cabinetmaker’s shop, and once or twice he saw me and waved at me to come in, whereupon he would say, “Well, now, you’re just the man I want to see, Mr. William. You are also a writer, although not yet famous. You use the English language. I, also, am a writer — well, perhaps not quite a writer, but at any rate I write my poems. And I use the Armenian language. This is the poem I wrote last night.”

And then he would read a poem that I thought was wise ands human, and incredible, not for a cabinetmaker to have written, but for any man to have written.

And I thanked him and went on to the beach where I walked and picked up pebbles, as if they were words, or coins of money.

Four years later, I broke though at least, and my first book was published, let me even now, almost forty years later, say praise heaven, praise God, praise Jesus, praise the sun, praise everything and everybody. While to poems of the good cabinetmaker were never published, heaven help us one and all.