NOIR CITY 16: Getting there is WAY less than half the fun

This is the second in a series of posts based upon my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). This post gets me to the start of the festival. You may read the first post here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

Unlike last year, the cab was on time on that crisp clear dark morning. In fact, it was 10 minutes early—standing in front of our Brookline front door at 4:36 am EST. My wife Nell and younger daughter watched from the upstairs bedroom window as I piled my stuffed-to-the-gills black rolling suitcase, black valet bag, black satchel and Bailey-of-Hollywood hat box (containing my prized snap-brim gray fedora, purchased on South Street in Philadelphia in May 2013).

The “noir” luggage motif is purely a coincidence.

The ride to Logan Airport only took about 15 minutes—and that included my driver not realizing the Virgin America had moved from Terminal B to Terminal C.

“Great,” I thought as we pulled up to the curb. “I have already checked my two bags and printed out my boarding pass. This should be easy.”

Given my penchant for staying awake until the wee hours of the morning, I had not bothered to go to sleep as Wednesday, January 24 became Thursday, January 25. Instead, I entertained myself by reading 2017 editions of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine NOIR CITY. So I welcomed the chance to sit quietly at the gate for 90 or so minutes, eating a breakfast culled from various stands and carts (Virgin America is a minor presence at Logan) and generally zoning out before boarding.

That was not to be, however.

Schlepping all of my stuff into the terminal, I checked the Arrivals and Departures board.


I then hunted out the Virgin America check-in counter…and my heart sank.

A mass of people was collected in front of the one open station. This amorphous blob of humanity barely budged for 20 minutes. And while at first I thought they were speaking Russian, I later learned that it was Portuguese.

Finally, I arrived at the Virgin America counter to face a young blonde woman, who was surprisingly calm under the circumstances. She proceeded, however, to make a hash of my simple check-in, believing me to be on some sort of Priority list.

I did not help matters by querying my seat assignment, which I had neglected to make in advance.

Eventually, the second person she asked for help—John, I believe—explained that literally all she had to do was scan my pre-printed boarding pass and tag my luggage.

“Sorry,” she offered. “It’s only my second week on the job.”

Luckily, the security line moved relatively swiftly, and within 15 or so minutes I was at the gate…where the mass of humanity was now gathered. I managed to snag a seat, trusting the good folks around me to keep an eye on my satchel, hat box and long gray raincoat (part of my “noir” attire, purchased at Bobby From Boston three years earlier), while I purchased a small coffee, bottle of water, strawberry Chobani and banana. This was actually my second breakfast, following a bowl of cereal around 4 am.

After I ate, I tried to negotiate my seat with the extremely patient gentleman at the gate desk. I displayed my lack of sleep with atypical aggressive impatience; later I could not apologize to him enough. I was then assigned a seat.

Seat 9B.

A middle seat.

[Expletives deleted].

When the boarding process began, I realized that someone had snagged my bottle of water when I had used the men’s room.

In the grand scheme of things, there are far worse things to lose (we writers call that “foreshadowing”).

I arrived at seat 9B—an exit row seat, meaning that at least it had more leg room—in the midst of a negotiation between the 30-something bearded man in 9C and the stunning raven-haired 20-something woman in 9A. I quietly interjected that I would be happy to take the window seat, but neither of them paid any attention to me.

Once we were seated, and I had taken off my sneakers and removed my book—Guy Bolton’s noirish The Pictures (a 51st birthday gift)—from my satchel (now shoved, along with my battered white New Balances with the re-attached right sole, under seat 8B), I noticed that a steady stream of passengers were visiting the young woman now sitting to my right. She seemed to be translating directions and signs for them.

Desultory (we were ALL sleepy) chit-chat revealed that she was one of the few English-speaking members of a “Carnaval dance” troupe (I do not recall their name—and Google is being unhelpful) from the Azores, bound for Los Angeles by way of San Francisco. After consulting with an older male member of the troupe, she informed me that 81 men, woman and children affiliated with the troupe were on the plane.

If they had all arrived at Logan at the same time, shortly before I (and the almost-friendly older couple standing in front of me) did, that would account for the immobile mass of humanity at check-in.

The remainder of the flight (2,693 miles/4,335 kilometers according to the flight tracker on the seatback screen) was uneventful, as all flights should be. I read nearly 2/3 of my book, pausing occasionally to stare sleepily at the movies silently playing on my aisle-neighbor’s screen: Boss Baby, Gifted (whose young female protagonist evoked our younger daughter) and the first half of the appalling remake of the joyous 1979 caper film Going In Style. It eventually dawned on me that the familiar-looking father in Gifted was played by Chris Evans (aka Captain America).

Evans vaguely reminds me of British actor Jack Davenport, who played Steve Taylor on the brilliant British sitcom Coupling. Because I am writing about a film noir festival, I must observe that Davenport appeared in the neo-noir film The Talented Mr. Ripley.[1]

And the invaluable Internet Movie Database informs me that Evans’ uncle is Representative Michael Capuano (D-MA). Capuano served as mayor of Somerville, MA from 1990-1999, meaning that he was my mayor for nine of the 11-plus years I lived in that adjacent-to-Boston suburb.

Everything really does connect.

But now it is time to land this plane, collect my bags, grab a cab and make my way north into the city proper (I will not dwell on the burgeoning anticipation of that ride), so that I may check into the Hotel Rex, the “official” hotel of NOIR CITY.



Well, not so fast.

It was well before the 3:00 PST check-in time when my baggage and I arrived at the Rex (it was actually sunny when I arrived, but the photograph is otherwise accurate), so my room was not yet ready.


No problem. I stored my noir-tinted baggage in the vacant eating area just off the lobby and walked the half-block east on Sutter Street (to the right in the above photograph) to Lori’s Diner, at the intersection with Powell Street. I will have a lot more to say about my favorite 50s-themed 24-hour diner later in the series.

For now, however: remember that older couple waiting with me in the slow-as-molasses Virgin America check-in line?

After sitting directly in front of me on the flight, then standing near me at the baggage carousel, they were sitting in a small booth near the door when I entered Lori’s and took a seat at the counter.

I am reminded of the moment in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island when the insurance inspector played by Douglass Dumbrille says to Sidney Toler’s Chan: “Strange we should meet again so soon. The odds are about 40 to one against travel mates meeting within 48 hours. I’ve made a study of it.”[2]

That’s me…defying the odds.

While I enjoy my turkey and ham club on whole wheat with French fries and complementary pickle, orange wedge and succulent pepperoncini, I will say a few words about my hotel (which I was calling “home” by Saturday).

The Rex is a literary-themed, seven-floor boutique hotel located just a block-and-a-half northwest of Union Square (photograph 2014)


The Hotel Rex lobby features The Library Bar. Three guesses where the name originated.


Incidentally, this kaleidoscopic view greets you when you exit the Rex (it was not there last year):


As you walk out of the narrow elevator (papered on the inside with pages from the San Francisco Social Register of 1936, or thereabout)—or reach each landing of the carpeted interior steps that snake around the elevator shaft—and look to your left, you will see a literary quote written on the wall in calligraphy. For example, this greets you on the second floor (photograph 2016):


And this quote, which seemed especially timely upon my return to NOIR CITY in January 2017, graces the fourth floor:


This eye-catching segment of Man Ray’s 1932 photograph Larmes (Tears) is affixed to every hotel room door, for reasons still unclear (photograph 2016).


This 2017 photograph gives you the flavor of the rooms I had in 2016 and 2018:


The rooms are relatively small—utilitarian even—but I am a huge fan of the large wardrobe given the array of dress clothes (this trip: four jackets, five pairs of slacks, five shirts, three neck ties and five bow ties. Bow ties are cool, as the 11th Doctor correctly notes, even if learning how to tie one of these medieval torture devices is one of the hardest things I have ever done.).

I was able to check in a little before 2 pm PST, and was assigned a room on the sixth floor. The room was surprisingly hot and stuffy, so I opened the old-fashioned wood-framed rope-pulley window to let in some cool air. The window would not stay open, however, so I braced it with a spare roll of toilet paper. Luckily there was a large wall-unit air conditioner there to prevent the roll from hurtling into the adjacent alley.

The room soon cooled to a comfortable level, but I kept the window open my entire stay.

I unpacked and took a long hot bath.

The rest of the afternoon is a bit of a blur, though I likely had my “good night” call with Nell and our daughters sometime around 4:30 pm PST. My goal was to stay awake just late enough to put me on a reasonable sleeping schedule.

That was even harder that it sounds. At 5 pm PST, I settled in to bed to watch the MSNBC weeknight lineup (Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell). The television was hung at a very odd angle to my right, over the four-drawer wooden bureau, just across from the hallway door.

I half-dozed through the breaking news about President Trump’s attempt to fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller in June 2017.

At 8 pm PST, needing to shop for room supplies (I drink kefir as a nightcap) and get supper, I dressed and walked down the interior stairs to the lobby. Exiting the lobby door, I walked east to Powell, then walked south on Powell.

Post. Geary. O’Farrell.

Between O’Farrell and Ellis Streets is the most extravagant Walgreen’s you have ever seen; I happened upon it on my first trip to NOIR CITY in 2014, and I have been in awe of it ever seen. Forget that it never closes, which is my idea of heaven. The first floor is a mid-sized grocery store complete with prepared-to-go food and a coffee bar, along with an expansive beer, wine and liquor selection. On the second floor is everything you expect to find in a drug store–and then some.

Among my other purchases, I chose pomegranate and strawberry-banana Lifeway kefir.

I then walked back up to Geary before cutting west one block to Mason. There, across from the 24-hour Pinecrest Diner and the Geary Theatre (a key location in The Maltese Falcon—photographs 2014 and 2015, respectively), is Pizza By the Slice, serving epic slices late into the night. I ordered two slices, veggie and pepperoni, and ate them there, eyes drooping. I vaguely recall getting some appreciative glances (my haircut was pretty sweet, if I do say so)—or at least that is how I interpret the “VERY POPULAR” (with an arrow pointing to it and a box around it) I scribbled in my Moleskine notebook.



By 10:12 pm PST I had finished my nightly ablutions, sent Nell her “good morning four ladies I love and miss” text and turned off my light.


A little over 12 hours later, at 11:05 am PST, I again regained consciousness.

Not for the last time at NOIR CITY 16, I was in “hurry up and wait mode.” The Opening Night reception for Passport holders would not start until 6 PM, but I like to get to the Castro Theatre early, so I can snag my favorite left-hand aisle seat towards the rear of the orchestra level.

After breakfasting at Lori’s (raisin bran with sliced strawberries and bananas, wheat toast, black coffee and orange juice—not fresh-squeezed, I regret to say, given the succulence of California oranges), I took my annual “Dashiell Hammett” walk.

As I wrote here, I first visited these sites in November 2003, while attending the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.

Walk out of Lori’s Diner and you are on Sutter Street, looking south on Powell. If you turn left and head north on Powell—or, rather, “up” Powell, as you climb it at a 45° angle—you reach Bush Street. Turn right onto Bush Street and walk ¾ of the block on the south side of Bush Street (just before the bridge over Stockton Street) to reach Burritt Alley.

San Francisco is one of the rare places that memorializes a fictional murder with an official plaque, though the “For Rent” side looming over it is unnerving, considering that The Maltese Falcon is arguably the city’s ur-text.


In this photograph, taken at the southern end of Dashiell Hammett Street (with an upsetting call to “end” Hammett), you can see the mouth of Burritt Alley in the lower right-hand corner, just in front of the white van.


Here is Dashiell Hammett Street itself, cloaked in shadows, where the writer lived briefly in 1926, when it was Monroe Street.


Looking south on Stockton from Bush, this is roughly the spot where the body of Miles Archer would have landed.


Proceed one block east on Bush Street, to the intersection with Grant Street, and you see this (photograph 2014):


Dragon’s Gate is, the “official” entrance to San Francisco’s fabled Chinatown (about more in a later post). Just to the left of the gate is the upscale antique and bric-a-brac store Medici Gallery.

I was drawn to it that Friday afternoon by this:


Our eldest daughter LOVES elephants and just received her first iPhone, so naturally I sent her this photograph, as well as these from inside the store itself (captioned “A tale of three elephants traveling through Chinatown”):



 She loved them all, but she just confirmed for me that the first was her favorite.

 When I returned to the Rex to shower and dress for Opening Night, my room was being serviced. So, after plugging my iPhone into its charger (it is one of many challenges on the endurance test that is NOIR CITY to keep your phone charged), I grabbed my collection of holiday cards and envelopes, and returned to the lobby. By the time I had written the name of each recipient on each envelope, my room had been cleaned.

 At 3:20 pm PST, dressed in my navy Brooks Brothers jacket (which I wore defending my epidemiology doctorate in December 2014), pink shirt, gray slacks and purple-flecked tie, and wearing the burgundy dress shoes I had worn to my wedding in October 2007, topped by my fedora and gray coat, I bounded down the interior steps to the lobby.

East on Sutter to Powell. South on Powell: Post. Geary. O’Farrell. Ellis. Finally, Market Street, where the Powell-Hyde cable car line ends—and is manually rotated to head north again (video 2014):

Down the narrow stone steps (where I feel I am going to topple over my long dress shoes) into the cavernous entrance to the Powell Street BART station, where I always catch a MUNI subway to Market and Castro Streets.

I walk to the machine to buy the “Clipper” card I will use for the remainder of my trip, but it refuses to accept my Discover Card. Reluctantly, I use $60 of the cash I am shepherding to purchase the card.

Through the turnstiles and down another short flight of steps to the platform.


The electronic sign displaying subway line waiting times (I need a J, K, or L train) is new this year, but I have been hearing the disembodied female voice for five years now:

“Approaching. Outbound train. One-car. L. L. In three minutes.”

One of the reasons I like to head to the Castro Theatre so early on weekdays is to avoid the press of commuters around rush hour. Some days it cannot be helped, however, and I squeeze like a sardine into a train.

Luckily it is only four stops, announced the same disembodied female voice—Civic Center, Van Ness, Church, Castro.

I shot this video in February 2017; I apologize its unsteadiness of the film and the 64 seconds I stand patiently on Castro Street, waiting for the Walk sign.

For the record, the burger joint SLIDERS (whose bathroom entry code was a vital piece of intelligence) is now a Turkish sweet shop called Castro Ice Cream & Desert.

And, at long last, this is what I saw when I walked out of the Castro MUNI station just before 4 pm PST on the afternoon of Friday, January 26, 2018, to be greeted by a handful of Girl Scouts incongruously hawking cookies:


To be continued…

[1] LISTS and POINTS scores of 5 place it among the top 9% on both metrics among the 2,171 films in my film noir database released after 1966.

[2] My wife responded to this quote just now with “Yes, but wouldn’t it depend on how many people you traveled with?” Fair enough.

9 thoughts on “NOIR CITY 16: Getting there is WAY less than half the fun

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