One of the things I remember from my 1986 trip to Soviet Armenia was Martiros Saryan’s large painting dedicated to the Armenian soldiers who died in World War II. It struck me as a beautiful way to remember them as cut flowers in jar-like vases. Humble and ephemeral, the colored plants suggest the special spark and fragility of life.
I was thinking about Jack Torossian the other day, and I wanted to draw a vase of flower that reminded me of him, particularly his spirit. He was often neatly but anachronistically dressed, and always slightly disheveled. He was my good friend, and as I got to know him I discovered he was a gay Armenian American communist, a retired mail carrier who escaped the burning of Smyrna in his mother’s lap. He sometimes told me about the red scare of the 1950s, and he’d tell me stories about Armenian Americans he knew who were turned in, often by their fellow Armenians. He ended up in the same apartment at the edge of Manhattan’s Inwood Park since 1930.
It was incredible to think he lived through 14 US President in that same corner apartment on 207th Street. I visited him every few months starting in 2001. I’d interviewed him for a series of articles I was commissioned to do about the city’s Armenian community, and we became fast friends. We were both free spirits but also community minded. We loved books, clipping articles, talking about politics, and attending cultural events.
I lived in Bushwick and I would take the train up on a Saturday to the end of the A line. It frequently took me about two hours each way, particularly when there was construction or subway repairs along the L or A trains and during that period that was frequent. He anticipated my trips, and I hated it when he tried to guilt me because I had to break my promise to visit. A few times I partied too much the night before and I had to bail, once in a while I was sick or overcome with bad allergies and I just couldn’t go, other times there were last minute emergencies, and once I just forgot, and every time I canceled the same day he would sound very disappointed and he’d hang up quickly after hearing the news.
He once told me about the time he went to Cuba with a male friend in the 1960s. He was clear to point out his companion was a homosexual. I remember it vividly, because he was more direct than usual in that moment, and he stopped to scan my face for a reaction. He was disappointed but relieved at my blank look. I really wasn’t surprised since I’d guessed he was gay by then, and often joked with some of my friends that he was my pinko commie Armo pal at the tip of Manhattan.
Once Jack took me for a tour of Inwood Park. He’d been promising me a walk through that green space for years and eventually followed through. It was important for him that he take me around to see his beloved park. He had clearly spent so much of his life there and his stories were numerous even if the way he enthusiastically told me made it hard to differentiate between them. He was around 90 when we finally walked together through the park — I was probably 35 — and he was still quite nimble, even if he was extra cautious not to fall and had no qualms demanding breaks.
At one point during our tour, he used his cane — which was a new accessory for him — to point towards a path into a densely wooded area. He told me if I wanted to get into trouble I should go that way. I sensed he was showing me a cruising spot, and when I checked with a friend who knew about that stuff, I got the confirmation I needed that it was exactly what I thought.
I remember Jack enjoyed telling me that Inwood is the only natural park in Manhattan, and he seemed proud of that, as if he had something to do with it.