One gray Saturday, I went looking for William Saroyan's Third Street. I had already gone looking for a lot of his places in San Francisco. If a young man or woman is a writer, they've probably gone looking for a lot of somebodies' some places. They're a way to find a kind of truth, a truth that a young writer has found in reading stories, and to see that the source for that truth is some place earthly. If they made literature out of their places, why can't I make literature out of my places? It's a very fair question, maybe the fairest question a young writer can ask.
I'd saved up Third Street. It had been a very significant place in his work, and I'd waited till I'd gotten a little bit of my own San Francisco under my belt before I'd gone to explore it. It had been the place where Saroyan had told his story of the Depression. Most of all it was the way to Number One Opera Alley, the off-track gambling house where men who couldn't find work tried to make a little money off horses.
It didn't matter that nobody thought of Third Street the way I did. It didn't matter that there was no Depression, and when you turned onto Third Street from Market Street, you saw the big hotels and the department stores. He was still right. As soon as I saw it, I knew he was right, even if I didn't know what he was right about.
You start with a city. And then you see how everybody is at the mercy of that. And then you see how impossible it is to stop and either laugh or cry about that. And then you see that you have to keep moving.
Okay, I'll keep moving, but I'm going to do something with this street when I stop and sit down. I just don’t know yet what.
The feeling that I was going to do something with this street filled me with a certain strength and I kept going. It wasn't exactly a happy feeling to see one of Saroyan's places, because the life was still going and the life didn't look like it cared. But somebody had been right. Somebody had made something out of the street, which meant that there was more human beings could do than just keep going.
There was a place for the inside thing, the thing that life seemed to be happening too fast on Third Street to recognize. That's all. William Saroyan's stories had an inside thing that made me love the outside things—the places and streets and cities he wrote about. But even before I went looking for his Third Street, I knew that what I had to really be looking for was my Third Street. Because the inside thing and your own true heart were the same thing.
My God, I thought, how lonely does one man have to be? You realize as a kid that you love books and then as a young man new to a city you realize that you have another writer's vision of the city inside you, and even that becomes nothing to lean on when you are walking in it. The people whom you see do not care. They do not care if they look Saroyanesque. That's how alone I am in the world, I thought. I can't even bring my favorite writer with me.
But it's a funny thing. That loneliness is the start of your own vision. It is the moment when you see that the people on the street depend on you for the recognition of their humanity. There are no shortcuts to it. You can't say, boy, they look for all the world like the character in this story, and expect that to carry you through. You have to let them be just as unknown and lost and world-wandering as they might appear to you, and let them have a place in your story, without knowing yet what that is.
I kept going down Third Street, past the hotels and department stores, and out where it got more Saroyanesque, where there were corner stores and small dark bars and people sitting in them in the daytime, I saw the faces of men who might still be unknown and lost and world-wandering even if I wrote stories about Third Street and became a writer like William Saroyan. And that was where comedy came from: the comedy of saying, write them anyway. Write them anyway, even if you don't know if they'll make one single difference in the life of the world. Even if Third Street will still be Third Street, and nobody will have any idea how we got here, how the world got to be this way. Write them anyway because they are what you have to give them.