Ghosts in the City of Fog

During a recent visit to San Francisco, I decided not to join my colleagues in a business dinner and opted instead to strike out on my own for a walk around the city. This unexpected free time filled me will a mixture of excitement and dread. Excitement, for having the chance to walk around and explore and dread because I only had a few hours. Many times in cities that I was not familiar with, it takes some time to find a great walk, or a great place to eat. Sometimes I think it is a curse to have only a few hours of free time because I don’t want to waste them in the wrong part of town.

I have visited San Francisco about half a dozen times over the past two years, yet, I still felt unfamiliar with the city. Each time I had visited it had been for business and my time was so packed that all I saw was the airport, the hotel and the studio. Only once had I a chance to explore Chinatown for a few hours but found it mildly disappointing compared New York’s. Part of the reason for this might have been because I set my expectations unrealistically. San Francisco has always existed as a dark, foggy city of the 1930’s and 40’s. The image of the black and white city of detectives, sultry blond dames and murders seemed out of step with the modern city. Vestiges of that city could still be found in hotels like the Mark Hopkins or The Seranio, where I was staying. But these remnants of the old city are difficult to find with just a cursory glance. You have to look deep to find the cities golden past.

Although the San Francisco I was seeking only existed primarily on celluloid, this particular night there is still a film noir quality in the air. A steady drizzle threatened my exploration, but I was not going to be deterred. I asked the concierge for a dining recommendation. I explained that I wanted something American…seafood maybe. Within walking distance I said with a subtle nod to the weather. He looked at me for a moment, summing up my requirements and finally said “Johns Grill. It’s not really American, but it is very San Francisco.”

I followed his simple directions thru the wet night for a few blocks up O’Farrel street to left on Powell and right on Elis to No. 63. From the moment I saw the “John’s Grill” neon sign glowed green and white through the rain, I knew this was a bit of the San Francisco I had been searching for. I walked through the swinging wooden doors with porthole-windows and almost literally inhaled the nostalgia. Only a few couples and groups were scattered around the wood paneled dining room. The walls were covered with pictures of the famous and not so famous that had dinned there. The desk clerk had told me that there was live jazz every night, but when I walked in the strains of Margaret Whiting’s “Moonlight In Vermont” floated on the aroma of steaks and bread. The recorded tune only added to the excitement that raced through me.

After perusing the menu in my tucked away corner, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was what I considered typically American food Steaks and seafood. I ordered the “Johns Steak” figuring I couldn’t go wrong with the signature entrée, and a pinot noir. After all, I was on the west coast. Turning to the back on the menu, I found the story of the restaurant. It was heavily featured in Dashiell Hammett’s story “The Maltese Falcon.” Now I have to admit that although I have seen the film countless times, I have never read the novel. The menu went on with atmospheric excerpts from the story.

“Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab. San Francisco’s night-fog, thin, clammy, and penitent, blurred the street.”

This is what I love about places like Johns Grill. A complete feeling of appreciation and nostalgia without any gimmicks like “Dashiell Hammett wrote ‘The Maltese Falcon’ sitting at this table” plaques. Although, I would like to think that maybe he did sit here, maybe not exactly where I was sitting, but two seats down so I could look over his should to read what he is writing.

Johns Grill played a heavy role in the story, written in the late ’20’s. So much so, that, in 1977, a club of Hammit enthusiasts and writers had formed a “The Hammett Mystery Society” and met regularly, using the restaurant as their venue. I asked the twenty-something waiter about the club. He looked puzzled, almost as if he had not read the history, but had been told about it, in case someone like me asked. “I don’t think it is the same one, but some group meets here. I don’t know exactly when.” I waved off he suggestion of asking the manager, maybe because I didn’t want to be disappointed. I liked the romantic notion of a gathering of Dashiell Hammit fans gathering once a month to…well, be fans.

A low roll of thunder played across the constant drizzle as a jazz guitarist began his rendition of “In The Still of the Night.” The coffee and pecan pie was finished, the check paid and I reluctantly left the warm embrace of the dining room and ventured back into the night. In full 1940’s gumshoe mode now, I looked up at the sheet of mist that glowed blue in the streetlight, raised my coat collar against the damp night and started back to the hotel. The diesel growl of a city bus faded into the strains of a piano trio. Across the street, the neon lure of “Live Jazz Nightly” called to me. Inside, the band of three played to an empty house, but they played as if it were Carnegie Hall. They played with the abandonment that came from the joy of playing to the empty tables. I wanted only to listen, not to buy the perfunctory drink, so I took refuge in a side doorway, still within earshot of the music. The velvet trumpet echoed off the black wet street pieced by the staccato notes of the piano. The electric signs danced on the black puddles, painting an electric mural on the street. I listened to a complete set, then the start of another. As I walked away, the sound of free jazz was swallowed by the sounds of the city at night.

Some ghosts never give up their city. I would like to think that there is still a little Hemingway in Paris and a bit of Dickens in London. And on a wet drizzly night in San Francisco, I would like to think that Dashiell Hammett is still making his way back home.

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