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San Francisco night

January 28, 2011

Sipping martinis with the spirit of Sam Spade

Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, hung out at this gin joint in San Francisco, or so they say.

John’s Grill. It doesn’t sound “historic”. Doesn’t even sound interesting. Of all the gin joints and chop shops in San Francisco, why pick this one for a late-night martini? Because this is where writer Dashiell Hammett hung out back in the 1920s. That’s right. Dash himself had lunch here regularly. Yes, the same Dash who wrote what is arguably the most famous hard-boiled detective mystery ever.

 This is the bar and grill that Hammett immortalized in The Maltese Falcon. The creator of Sam Spade himself sat where I was sitting. Probably ordered Scotch neat. But I felt like a martini instead and with extra olives, please.

Louie, the barkeep, poured the cheap Gilbey’s into a chilled glass and speared two extra green olives before sliding in some Martini and Rossi vermouth. I saw the Bombay sitting next to the Gilbey’s but I wasn’t going to argue with him, especially since he had worked so hard to get the extra olives on a plastic arrow before using his thumb and forefinger to complete the task.

He’s been doing this job since the 1970s. He knew how to handle most any drink, even the trendy mojito despite it being Cuban and despite it being Papa Hemmingway’s favourite Havana libation. He could handle most any customer too. He learned from the guy before him who did it from the early 1950s until he died.

Louie bragged that knew many of the people whose pictures line the walls throughout the main floor of the joint. That’s Hammett lingo for place, don’t you know. Famous people, not-so-famous people. Mostly in black and white. Famous landmarks: Golden Gate Bridge, the Coit Tower, Alcatraz.  

I listen to diners’ chatter as the jazz guitarist starts to plunk out an unfamiliar tune. He plays softly, subtle riffs on the electric frets. Music to dine by, unobtrusive, soothing, almost non-existent. I wanted more. I wanted a jazz trio to start cooking with a latino beat, a Jane Bunnett soprano sax.

On a ledge around the other side of the bar sat a collection of figurines, jugs, a miniature of the TransAmerica Pyramid, probably the second most prominent San Francisco landmark. Next to it a bottle of Chartreuse near a bottle of Chopin vodka next to a Christian Brothers brandy beside a Grappa Julia.

A young woman slipped behind the bar while Louis was getting a panier of bread for a table of two lovers who had dodged the downtown street bums along Ellis St. to get here.

“Planter’s Punch. Light rum. Dark rum. What else?” she asks as two young waiters, one on his first shift and green as they come, crowd around her. “Orange juice? Cranberry juice? What else?”

“It looks right,” says one of the men, the one with soda water behind his ears.

“Rum is the key,” says the novice mixer as she whisks away with the long drink.

Louie returns just in time to pour the Gilbey’s and vermouth for me a second time. I had already used up the second martini in the shaker and was going for a third. He holds the extra olives this time. Damn! I’ll have to buy supper after all!

I might have tried a Bloody Brigid. Louie probably mixes his fair share of these babies. At $7.95 a pop you get to keep the commemorative glass. Who was Brigid? There in lies a tale, I’m guessing and I wonder if maybe Hammett used her in story.

In fact, she was the one in Falcon who “done in” Miles Archer at the end of Burritt St. just west of the overpass where Bush St. “roofs” Stockton. I went to see for myself another day and there is a plaque on the building that verifies the fact. But, of course, it isn’t a fact. It is a figment of Hammett’s imagination turned into a virtual fact for literate tourists.

I was hungry now and the Sam Spade Chop at $26.95 was way too steep for my budget. Outside on dark Ellis St., the drunks had replaced the long line of unemployed workers looking for a day’s pay or a welfare cheque. I wasn’t sure which. The winos were getting cozy for the night, snuggling up in no-rent housing courtesy of Maytag.

I strolled by them on my way to Original Joes. Slightly tight on the martinis, I needed food. OJ’s is one of the old-time café’s where you can expect a solid plate of hash. Angelo, the Dalmatian waiter, sat me next to three steak-eating sports fans. They were whining about the Giants and how they almost lost to the Braves in an 11th-inning thriller at PacPacific Park.

“Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?” Angelo shouts to a couple to my right. They ask for ketchup.

“Why are you speaking French to them?” I asked.

“Eh bien,” he begins. “They come from Tunis, this young couple, so they prefer that I speak their language. It makes them feel more at home.”

The Tunisian couple eat bread and drink Coke while Angelo tells me his life story. He left Croatia in 1957 to look for a life in Paris. He ended up in San Francisco, waiting table at OJ’s. End of story. End of life.

I ordered the spaghetti bolognaise and a glass of house red. It was the perfect post-martini meal. Noodles smothered in meat sauce. The travel book said a meal at OJ’s is a “righteous indulgence now and then.” I can see why with quantities this big.

When I finished, the sports fans had moved on to their friend Hugo. They are worried about him. He has woman problems. Angelo came by one more time to pass me the cheque. He wants to go home. It is close to the end of his shift. It’s close to the end of mine as well.I

I wonder if he ever met Hammett, but like smoke he’s disappeared before I can ask. I wonder, too, if Louie and Angelo are in one of Hammett’s books. They just might be.

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