Friday, September 16, 2005

Day 12 - the stuff that meals and dreams are made of

Greetings from San Francisco, where there might be more homeless people per capita than any other place in the U.S. They come in all shapes, colors, gender, in wheelchairs, missing arms and legs and, sadly, too many brain cells.
They seem to be everywhere, on every street corner, in front of every business and next to you waiting for the same bus. And they all seem to be begging for money. Some sit there with signs and pets – both looking real pathetic – and some are brazen enough to confront you face-to-face. You don’t know where they’ve been or what they’ve been drinking or injecting, and, frankly, it can be a little scary.
I cannot denounce Dallas’ effort to get the homeless people off the streets. If you are trying to build up any kind of tourist base, all that solicitation is a big negative – except, of course, in San Francisco. My rule is this: you cannot be in legitimate need, if you are asking for change while sipping on a $2.49 bottle of Smoothie.
Just a few of the characters you meet in The City. Others you get to read about and … visit. Like Nick and Nora Charles and Sam Spade – the creations of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), considered one of the masters of 20th century noir detective writing. He turned San Francisco’s foggy streets and mysterious atmosphere into perfect backgrounds for his unique vision, what one writer called “dame-and-gumshoe imagination.”
He is considered one of the giants in this field, but he only wrote five novels - the most famous being “The Thin Man” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Hammett worked as a private eye for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the Flood Building on Market Street. His novels are replete with the scenery and flavor of San Francisco.
The 1941 movie version of “The Maltese Falcon” had Humphrey Bogart shedding his convict roles and providing the perfect “hard-boiled” persona for Sam Spade. This role, plus “Casablanca,” turned Bogart into a super-SUPER-star.
However, several of the San Francisco scenes were not included in the movie, as is often the case when going from print to film. One of the scenes in the book included Hammett’s favorite restaurant at 63 Ellis Street, also in the area called the Tenderloin.
“(Sam Spade) went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set aside above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to his table,” Hammett wrote. And guess what? John’s Grill is still there, still serving those chops (the Sam Spade special) and oozes with the kind of San Franciscan tradition that leapt off the pages of Hammett’s writings.
The restaurant prides itself on its food (steaks, seafood, those lamb chops, oysters and a thing called the Jack LaLanne Salad), its clientele (the walls are smothered with celebrity photos) and its appearance (dark oak paneled walls, small tables, lines going out the door). John’s Grill was chosen as one of the 10 best by Esquire and featured in Gourmet.
Upstairs, in a case, surrounded by Hammett’s books, is that dang falcon – the one used in the movie.
Hammett is as interesting as any of his characters. A dropout at 13, he worked as a freight clerk, railroad laborer, messenger boy and stevedore before the Pinkerton job. That last stop led him to write his detective mysteries with his first work getting published in 1922. He contracted tuberculosis in World War I while serving as a sergeant in the motor ambulance corps, forcing him to give up his private eye position. He then concentrated on writing.

In 1930, Hammett created Sam Spade, a rough and solitary man who worked outside of the law, and “The Maltese Falcon” went into seven printings its first year. His last novel, 1934’s “The Thin Man,” was a raving success and sparked a series of successful movies. But Hammett would publish no more. He moved to Hollywood, rewriting other people’s scripts and penning radio scripts.
Hammett joined a new circle of friends, including writers Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman, who tried to reform Hammett’s habits of excessive drinking and womanizing. However, they continued their affair for 30 years (see the movie “Julia” for more on this).
After Hollywood, he immersed himself in left-wing politics and worked as a defender of civil liberties. He actually spent time in prison for refusing to name the sources of bail money for a group of communists who jumped bail that Hammett had posted. The IRS went after him for $100,000 in back taxes and he would be haunted by the government for the rest of his life.
Hammett spent the last 10 years of his life in a small rural cottage in Katonah, N.Y., where he continued to drink heavily. He suffered a heart attack in 1955 and died of failing health in 1961. But his real hometown never forgot him.
Although Texas has its long list of literary giants, no city is so connected as in San Francisco. And you can hardly name any place in Texas, save for the bar in the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Roughriders, with such longevity. Hell, a restaurant that has been around since 1998 is considered ancient in this market.
The meal Jodie and I enjoyed was superb – perfect for our anniversary. As Spade said, and Hammett wrote, “It was the stuff that dreams are made of.”

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