The Love of His Life

The Love of His Life

Johnnie Bedrosian thought his life was over when his wife died suddenly 13
years ago. Today, his down-home Armenian deli thrives on her inspiration.

By Doug Hoagland
The Fresno Bee

(Updated Monday, February 28, 2005, 6:02 AM)
Johnnie Bedrosian loved his Virginia.

He planted a rose garden — Virginia’s Garden — outside the
deli-restaurant he opened after losing her to cancer.

He hung a portrait inside of this carefully coifed woman he gave a
new Cadillac to every other year.

He nurtured a feeling that people should matter to each other at
his deli. The way Johnnie and Virginia mattered to each other.

They would have celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary Sunday.

Johnnie, a former plumber with creaky knees, found an anchor in
the deli. Now his place is an anchor in a Fresno rushing toward a
population of half a million.

The ethnic neighborhoods are gone. Some of the old immigrant groups got
rich and moved away. Freeways cut through the city, taking commuters
on journeys that never pass places such as Bedrosian’s Armenian Deli.

But some people go out of their way to a place they call an Armenian

Bedrosian’s deli doesn’t sell alcohol. And Johnnie doesn’t remember
everyone’s name. (That’s why he calls all the women “dah-ling.”) But
Bedrosian’s is stocked with enough real-life characters to rival
any sitcom. Chief among them is an 87-year-old busboy, Charlie
Antaramian. The deli is crowded and noisy and not always efficient
because Johnnie sometimes forgets to wait on one customer while he’s
talking to another.

Every Thursday, eight men from Pilgrim Armenian Congregational
Church sit at the front table just inside the front door. The table
is reserved for them.

“Even in Fresno, it can be a busy, lonely world,” says Ara Guekguezian,
senior pastor of the church and one of the Thursday group. “Many times
you feel like the world stands against you, and our lunches are a
reminder that you don’t stand alone. You’ve got friends in this world.”

Johnnie, 78, thought he had no friends after Virginia died in 1992.

“Poof,” he says. “Everybody forgets you.”

The couple met the old-fashioned way: his parents arranged it.

When Johnnie telephoned Virginia for the first time, he spoke the
truth. “My folks told me to go with you,” he said.

“My aunt told me to go with you,” she said back.

They were married three months later at St. Paul Armenian Church,
then a new church downtown, but since relocated a few blocks from the
deli in east-central Fresno. Johnnie asked Virginia never to argue
with his father. He also asked her not to spend more than $50 unless
he agreed. He said he would do the same. She said all right.

They had two daughters, Patrice and Karen, and they lived in a big
house in Fresno’s Sunnyside neighborhood, where Virginia loved to
give parties. People filled the house, and they danced because the
elegant Virginia loved to dance.

The dark-haired young beauty that Johnnie married became a stylish,
handsome woman with blond hair. He can still joke about that
hair color. Armenian women don’t go gray with age, he says, eyes
twinkling. “They go automatic blond.”

In retirement, they wanted to travel. He sold his plumbing business,
and they made their plans — then the doctor gave her a year to
live. She lasted five days.

Before the funeral, Johnnie drank a big glass of bourbon. He had
to. “I said, ‘Lord, I’m not a drinker, but you know the reason.’ ”

Then he drifted. He went to work for the man who bought his plumbing
business, he helped out at another deli and, in 1998, searching for
a sense of belonging, he opened his deli in a strip mall at First
Street and Ashlan Avenue.

There are green and white curtains, and green and white squares of
linoleum, and on the shelf against one wall sit bottles of dark red
Mideast Pure Pomegranate Juice for sale.

Taped music — show tunes and standards from the 1960s mixed with
traditional Armenian tunes — plays in the background. Red, white and
pink plastic roses fill vases on the tables. Bedrosian family photos
are everywhere.

Johnnie is a sentimentalist. A flirt, too. He teases 80-year-old Rosa
Miars, who came from Russia by way of Germany many years ago. As she
lunches, he says for all to hear: “On the second Tuesday of next week
we’re getting married.” Miars, her face colored with rouge and red
lipstick, crinkles her eyes and smiles like a schoolgirl.

Bedrosian continues to banter about Miars: “Can’t you imagine this
in a bikini?” The woman from Russia tosses her head and laughs.

He has at least 10 women he’s going to marry on that second Tuesday.

Truth be told, though, there will never be anyone but Virginia for
Johnnie. “I’ve never dated since my wife died,” he says later. “I
don’t believe in that for me.”

One woman does have some control over Johnnie, however. She is Alla
Sargsyan, the deli’s cook.

Nine years now in this country from Armenia, Sargsyan speaks with an
accent, but her words are sure and confident. So when Johnnie says
the deli’s kufta meatballs, moussaka baked eggplant and a lot of
other dishes are made from his mother’s recipes, Sargsyan speaks up.

“Johnnie, I don’t use no recipes,” she says defiantly. “You give me
ideas, and I make it.”

Johnnie insists he’s right, but he shrugs as a
what-can-I-do? expression creases his face. “When we disagree, she
gets the last word in anyway.”

At least Johnnie does get the final say on the nicknames for his menu
items, and they’re heavy on Bedrosian family connections. There’s
Brother George’s Double Steak Sandwich Hye Style and Sister Mary Side
of Pilaf and 25 other selections, each named for a relative or friend.

Ann T. Sullivan Whitehurst is a friend and regular, but she has
no menu item named for her. She is, however, nicknamed for one of
them. Whitehurst calls herself the Yalanchi Princess, so named for
stuffed grape leaves that she loves to eat at Bedrosian’s.

Whitehurst came into the deli three years ago with a friend and just
keeps coming back. She is a diva by virtue of her operatic voice,
and well-known for stage appearances around town. But at Bedrosian’s,
she is no prima donna. Like other customers, she pitches in to refill
her drink when the service is slow and clear away her dishes when
the service is nonexistent.

Whitehurst is now so at home that she waits on tables, tries to make
sandwiches and leads the singing of “Happy Birthday” to guests whether
they’re celebrating birthdays or not. Usually, they’re not.

Charlie Antaramian, the 87-year-old busboy, never sings. He works.
Antaramian is married to Johnnie’s sister, Neva. Charlie’s Sampler
Plate is named for him.

Antaramian also serves, though not always efficiently. He often brings
the wrong order to the wrong table, but it all works out eventually,
and no one seems to mind.

A few customers, though, complained to the county at times when Johnnie
had a dog on the premises. It’s against the law for most pets to be
in restaurants. So Johnnie says he stopped bringing in his beloved
champagne-colored poodle, Anoosh. She goes to a baby-sitter while
Johnnie is at the deli.

The baby-sitter works for free. So does Charlie Antaramian. “We try
to help each other,” he says. “It’s family.” Nevertheless, Johnnie
occasionally slips Antaramian a few bills to buy some cigars. And
Antaramian takes deli food home because 83-year-old Neva doesn’t like
to cook much anymore.

Sister Neva’s Lahmajoon Plate is named for her.

Neva Antaramian likes to be waited on. She sits at a small corner
table, her green eye shadow only slightly less radiant than her
blond hair, and she flips through her women’s magazines and sips the
coffee served by her husband. Neva Antaramian doesn’t work at the
deli because her feet hurt. “And I’ve got this bad rotator cuff on
my arm,” she says.

The Antaramians were there when Johnnie married Virginia, as framed
photos on the walls of the deli show. “She and I used to argue a lot,
but we loved each other,” Neva Antaramian says of Virginia. “When
she died, I was holding her hand.”

On Sunday, without the crowd, Johnnie remembered his wife on their
anniversary. He wanted to be alone, and the deli was closed anyway. He
dropped by after church for just a minute to check on the place he
created because of Virginia. She would have loved the deli, Johnnie
says. The people. The food. The laughter. The singing of “God Bless
Armenia” to the tune of “God Bless America.”

Outside in Virginia’s Garden, one of the rose bushes died this winter.
Johnnie is going to replace it. He’ll do it in time for spring,
when his Virginia loved to tend her roses.

The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559)