Ostensibly, the whole idea was for Mike (whom I’ve known since high school) to get
some pictures of various San Francisco sites relating to Dashiell Hammett for his
website. It also gave us a chance to escape from Butte County. We were gone from
6:30 am on Saturday to about 11:30 pm on Sunday. That was the extent of the big
Me 'n Mike had a great time in the City. We had some extra time, so first we stopped
in Old Sacramento. Everything's been preserved the way it was in the 1880's. But
all the little shops have modern stuff in them like movie memorabilia. That's where
we saw a figure of the Maltese Falcon, supposedly made in 1941 for promotional purposes. The
only thing we had from the 1880’s was the free saltwater taffy.
When we got to the City, we first stopped in at the Cartoon Art Museum. I was disappointed
that they no longer have the bathroom stall from the first museum, the one with all
the graffiti and cartoons from R. Crumb and other cartoonists. I sketched some Disney
stuff and Mike sneaked a photo of a Dick Tracy original (he has the published version).
On the way back to our car (Mike insisted we get a rental), we passed St. Patrick’s,
an old brick church (with an actual flying buttress!) A wedding was spilling out,
with pretty hispanic girls all standing around waiting for the fat bride to toss
them the bouquet.
We drove around looking at a few things before we went to the hotel. And at one
point we found ourselves at Jones Street, on the top of Nob Hill, and we needed to
Suddenly we became aware that this was the edge of the world. It had to be the steepest
hill in all of San Francisco. And that’s pretty damn steep! Mike started screaming,
and looking down to make sure his seatbelt was actually in place—not a terribly reassuring
gesture when one is a passenger, let me tell you.
We made it to the bottom (where someone decided to put a stop light!) and I took
the opportunity to wipe the sweat off of my palms.
Then we parked the car, and went to our room at the Dakota Hotel. Going from the
parking garage to the hotel took two trips because Mike had a big icebox full of
food, and another bin of food, plus two suitcases of clothes and a few other pieces
of luggage. He had like five coats and (I swear!) eight pairs of shoes! There are
women that don’t own that many pairs of shoes!
The eight-story Dakota was built around 1914 and the hallways are really tiny. We
were in room 404. The staff is Asian, so the cowboy motif is kinda silly, but they
bent over backwards for us. The elevator was one of those old birdcage-style ones
where you open the outer door and then you open the inner door. You gotta watch
out or you can lose a finger! The bathtub had lion’s feet and the curtain hungs
from a metal ring overhead. There was also a bay window, a common feature in old
buildings in the City.
Mike opened his suitcases and unloaded all his clothes into two of the four drawers. Into
another drawer he unloaded all his cans of food and loaves of bread. I pointed out
that since we were only going to be there overnight he would save a lot of work by
leaving all that junk in the original containers. He agreed with me, … and then
continued unpacking stuff into drawers.
Well, as soon as we dumped our stuff, we headed out to get pictures of various places
that Dashiell Hammett lived. There are several of them in this part of the City,
and all involve walking up and down a lot of hills. Mostly I admired the Victorian
architecture that is so prevalent—beneath the skyscrapers.
Then Mike led me down to tiny Dashiell Hammett Street, which is really just one block
long. But Hammett lived in an apartment in one of the buildings in 1926 or so. Mike
got some pictures and we started to leave. But then I spotted this tiny alley going
along the south side of the building. There was a gate and some steps going down
to it and at the end was this pile of bricks that must have fallen from one of the
surrounding buildings. Well, the gate was unlocked and no one was around, so I decide
to quietly check it out. The first thing I notice is a big square inset in the bottom
of Hammett’s building, where a big outcropping of the rock under the building was
left exposed. Why is still a mystery.
I had to see more. I went on, lured by the pile of bricks. That’s when I caught
sight of the back of the building. Here was another, larger, outcropping of rock,
hidden behind the building, and a sloping “wall” of concrete connecting it to the
corner of the building behind it. At the top of the wall, I could just barely see
that it dropped down into a hole in the dirt.
“Mike!” I called, “Come here! I found a great place to hide a body!”
Mike, who had been safely (and legally) watching me from the street, finally decided
to join me. He took a picture of me holding one of the bricks. Then I scrambled
part way up the steeply-sloped wall a barely got my nose over far enough to see more
of the hole. Just as I declared that we could hide a bunch of bodies here, we noticed
a woman looking down at us from her balcony on the back of the Hammett building.
She was friendly, and when we told her what our interest was, she mentioned having
spoken to the landlord, trying to find out exactly which apartment Hammett lived
in. Apparently no one remembers anymore.
Then I climbed to the top of the concrete “wall” and saw that the “hole” actually
was a slope down to another, even tinier alley, where there was a door there to the
back of the rear building. (This entire town is made of nooks and crannies.) Mike
had to get a shot of me sitting on the top of the wall. We thanked the lady and
Just a block away is Burritt Alley (of which more will be said later) and the Stockton
tunnel. It’s a street that runs underneath another street and it’s noisier than
Soon we were back at Jones Street, with Mike videotaping cars vanishing over the
edge. By then I had noticed the colossal concrete edifice known as Grace Cathedral. Except
for the building material, it’s right out of 12th century Europe. There’s even a
central bell tower with bronze gargoyles. I couldn’t tell if the bellringer had
a hunched back, though.
Almost next door is the Flood Mansion, the only mansion on Nob Hill to survive the
1906 earthquake and fire. It’s now the Pacific-Union Club. The butlers were standing
around outside, and the maid was lighting huge candles along the steps, so I guess
they were having a party. There was another party going on across the street at
the Mark Hopkins hotel.
On the way to Chinatown, I insisted he take a picture of a cable car in the sunset
on Powell Street. Then we finally made it to the ornate gates of Chinatown, which
Mike pointed out was a gift from Chairman Mao during the Nixon administration. Mike
has a big interest in Nixon, for some reason.
I swear the Planning Commission’s regulations must require that each block of Chinatown
consist of the following: a Chinese restaurant, an over-priced knick-knack shop,
two more Chinese restaurants side-by-side, a “family association” office, three Chinese
restaurants side-by-side, an acupuncturist or herbalist, and four Chinese restaurants
side-by-side (with the occasional Vietnamese or even Italian restaurant thrown in
by mistake). Well, we each picked up a knick-knack, and eventually had a nice, reasonably
priced dinner (I had shrimp and onions and bell peppers in sweet & sour sauce, with
steamed rice and hot Oolong tea), but we were on a mission. Mike had to photograph
sites from the Hammett story, “Dead Yellow Women”.
This took us to two or three tiny, out-of-the-way alleys that normal tourists avoid,
even by day. And it was plenty dark by then. Halfway down one alley, I spied an
open door. Naturally, I gotta take a look inside. A sweatshop was going full tilt,
probably manufacturing clothing 24 hours a day.
Down the alley, there was another open door, just barely. Before I could take a
look, I heard the rattle of many small objects. So even before I saw groups of middle-aged
Chinese men around tables, smoking and shuffling tiny pieces, I knew I was looking
into a Pai-Gow house.
Some folks might have considered it amusing to yell “This is a raid!” but I had no
desire to end up as an ingredient in Chop Suey. Pai-Gow is a perfectly legal game
until money starts hitting the table. Which, I have no doubt, was the case.
Just outside Chinatown, Mike took me to the former McDonough Bros. building. In
the 1930’s, the McDonough brothers operated a bail bond business here, but they also
apparently had undue influence upon City Hall. Nowadays, the place is a porn shop. Anyway,
Mike has a picture from about 1930 of the building, with a cop standing on the corner,
looking very self-important. Mike wanted to update the picture with him standing
where the cop stood seventy-some years ago. But it was too dark at that time.
We hit City Lights, a crazy three-story bookstore where the architecture was more
interesting than the reading material, passed the outside of the Hustler club with
“Larry Flynt For Governor” signs, and the Transamerica building (the “pyramid”).
Then, while heading back to the hotel, we stumbled upon an Asian flea market or street
fair going on in Portsmouth Square —that was the kind of cultural immersion I was
looking for. They had live music and concessions. Most of the stuff for sale was
junk, but I picked up a Japanese DVD and a Chinese good luck charm.
Back at the Dakota, Mike crashed immediately. I, however, am not used to city noises
at night, and I got almost no sleep.
Mike went on an early morning excursion to get more pictures while I was still contemplating
whether to get out of bed or not. I could still taste the garlic from dinner the
night before. I finally breakfasted on instant oatmeal (the room had a microwave
as well as a mini-fridge), and went for a coffee run. I later found out there was
free coffee in the lobby!
I packed up, and when he returned, Mike returned all of his clothes and food and
accessories into their original suitcases, and we checked out of the hotel.
We picked up the car from the garage and returned to the McDonough Brothers building. Mike
had me take his picture in front of it, and he again took more pictures of the nearby
Transamerica pyramid, even though he says he doesn’t even like the Transamerica pyramid.
Just before noon, we got to the Civic Center, a wide expanse between City Hall and
the old library (now the Asian Art Museum). It’s an interesting place, with a little
bit of everything, from playing children to sleeping bums, from Japanese tourists
to bare-butted Leathermen.
There we met up with Don Herron, who would lead the Dashiell Hammett tour. He was
dressed in a trench coat and fedora. Come to think of it, so was Mike. O.K., I
was wearing a fedora also, but only because Mike’d generously given it to me, and
it was a windy day. Sometimes Don will have twenty to almost 100 people on the tour,
but this day it was just me, Mike, and a pair of transvestites.
Don began his tour in front of the old library where Hammett improved his Junior
High School education on his own time. From there we walked to various Hammett apartments
and heard various Hammett stories.
Here’s something really crazy. At one point Don stopped in front of an apartment
building to casually mention that writer Fritz Leiber once lived there. Then the
owner, an Indian man named (what else?) Patel, came out and invited us in and asked
Don for some info about Leiber and he told us that Leiber not only wrote Our Lady
of Darkness while living here, but that the building was also the model for the building
in the novel. (How embarrassing. Leiber was part of the original Lovecraft circle,
and I’ve read some of his works, but never Our Lady of Darkness, despite having owned
a copy for years! I plan to soon rectify that oversight.)
Mr. Patel’s son said that a year or so after Leiber moved out, they found a snake
slithering around on the fifth floor where he lived.
The tour is four hours long, so we stopped for a snack break before continuing. At
one point we returned to Burritt Alley and Don tells the story from “The Maltese
Falcon” of how Brigid O’Shaughnessy lured Miles Archer into this very alley and shot
him dead. If you don’t believe it, there’s a bronze plaque on the wall confirming
Then Don begins to act out the scene. Suddenly he pulls out a gun and shoots me
in the sternum!
The plastic dart bounced quietly down the alley, then lay as dead as Miles Archer.
We go on to the St. Francis Hotel, where Hammett claimed to have worked on the infamous
Fatty Arbuckle case. Don even pointed out the top-story room where it all happened.
Finally, we end up at John’s Grill (“Home of the Maltese Falcon”) where Sam Spade
sometimes ate a meal. Hammett certainly also ate there since it’s next to the Flood
Building, which at the time housed the offices of the Pinkerton Detective Agency,
which Hammett then worked for. When the tour was over, I of course suggested to
Mike that we try to sneak into the building and see what it looked like. We did,
and the security guy let us take some pictures. It’s all marble and bronze and columned
and echo-y and very cool.
From there Mike wanted to walk through what was suddenly the very crappiest and rundown
part of the City. Two blocks later, everything was upscale again.
At that point I suggested it would be a good idea to actually go back to the hotel
we had already checked out of and return the room key.
By this time I was getting a little winded. “Why couldn’t Dashiell Hammett have
lived in the flat part of this city?” I bemoaned.
But there was one last thing we had to see. Because Mike is a friend of Bill Arney,
who lives there now, we were able to go inside and visit Sam Spade’s apartment! Usually
it was part on Don Herron's tour, but he skipped it today, since we were going there
It’s as tiny an apartment as you can imagine, and Dashiell Hammett lived there up
until he moved to New York. It was here that he wrote The Maltese Falcon. And based
on various statements in the novel, it’s obvious that Hammett based Spade’s apartment
on his own.
Bill has tried to restore the place as close to the novel as possible. He’s salvaged
the original doors and has a table with props from the book, including a replica
of a certain black statuette. The living room converts into a bedroom via a Murphy
bed. And he has several clippings from the novel pasted throughout the apartment,
giving Hammett’s descriptions of Spade’s apartment next to those same architectural
Besides Hammett stuff, Bill has a TV, a computer, stacks of books, a collection of
old hats, and a collection of swords.
Leaving the apartment, I noticed something in the lobby that has been described as
looking like a “Greek temple”. Around the top there’s a design with alternating
symbols. One is just a circle. The other is a stylized cross, not unlike that of
the Knights of Malta. Coincidence? Or inspiration?
On the way out of town, we drove by the place where the drive-by shooting in “The
Whosis Kid” takes place (part of which has been demolished and replaced by a modern
building), then the house where my Aunt and her husband lived years ago.
Finally we stopped at the nearby place where Mike lived and worked when he was in
the Army. It was then a military intelligence facility, but now it has been abandoned
and the windows are all broken and graffittied, and overgrown with weeds. Mike found
this hilarious, no doubt because he spent his entire stay there keeping the place
We then crossed the Golden Gate Bridge under the oncoming fog, and headed north to
(Perry Lake is an accomplished cartoonist, as well as a writer of both fiction and
non-fiction. He is the creator of Cassiopeia the Witch, and has contributed to Strange
Bedfellows and other comic books. He lives in Paradise, California. And it was only
two coats and five pairs of shoes.)