NOIR CITY 16: The Streets of San Francisco

This is the fifth in a series of posts chronicling 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). In this post, I spend an eventful first Sunday of the festival. You may read the first four posts here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

First, though, I updated my previous post to reflect these corrections: David Hegarty’s signature tune is “San Francisco,” Annabelle Zakaluk is Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, and patrons sometimes witness Muller’s introductions but do not have time to stay for the film itself.

Picking a favorite day of NOIR CITY is like picking a favorite child. Forced to choose a first among equals, however, I choose the first Sunday. By then, I have adjusted to the time change, recovered from jet lag and settled into the rhythm of the festival. That day also provides my first extended chance to explore the city itself, meandering north from the Hotel Rex.

That Sunday (January 28, 2018), I again woke (10:24 am; all times PST) before my alarm rang, from a very sound sleep. Having the afternoon to kill (I elected to see Flesh and Fantasy at 7:30 pm and Destiny at 9:20 pm, rather than at 2:20 pm or at 1:00/4:10 pm, respectively), I donned a short-sleeved blue button-down shirt and jeans, had breakfast at Lori’s Diner (raisin bran with strawberries and bananas, wheat toast, orange juice, black coffee) and headed north up Powell[1].

Just bear with me while I briefly discuss the challenge of packing for 11 nights in San Francisco while facing the limitations imposed by airline travel. There is a tension between having sufficient “noir” dress clothes for the evenings (and Saturday afternoons) and enough casual clothes for seven afternoons. The weather in San Francisco can be unpredictable. In 2017 it was mostly cool and rainy, while in 2018 it was mostly bright and sunny—with the sun much stronger (closer to the Equator) than in New England[2]. In-hotel dry cleaning and a nearby laundromat help—particularly with my capacity to sweat (healthy, but brutal on shirts)—but I still debate with myself which short-sleeved/T-shirts and jeans (two pairs? three?) to pack.

Now back to my climb UP Powell.

San Franciscans must have the strongest legs and lungs in the country. Even though our Brookline neighborhood is a rabbit-warren of alleyway steps and steep hills (our apartment sits atop one), my 51-year-old thighs burned after scaling the first three blocks (Bush, Pine, California).

At California, I crossed and turned left, following a high stone wall one block west to Mason. Two-thirds of the way down, I heard singing. Looking across the street and up, I saw a 20-something woman in shorts sitting in her window, enthusiastically singing into a microphone—a kind of California karaoke. Realizing I was listening, her performance got even more spirited. I stood a moment to enjoy the performance, then turned right on Mason.

The block between California and Sacramento offers a short respite of flat pavement, commanded by the magnificent Fairmont Hotel,



Our eldest daughter had recently asked about Tony Bennett, so I texted this photograph of the Fairmont grounds to her.


On the northeast corner of Sacramento (photograph 2015) is the apartment building in which Kim Novak’s character resides in Vertigo.


After Sacramento, Mason plunges down through Russian Hill to North Beach and the bay.


Two blocks down Mason, at the intersection with Washington, are two of my favorite places in San Francisco (photographs 2015 and 2018, respectively):



More on them later.

Proceeding four blocks north to Vallejo—passing this reminder (just shy of Pacific) of life in San Francisco…


…I turned left and ascended the half-block to the base of Ina Coolbirth Park. Later, reflecting on the verdant climb to Taylor (photograph 2015)…


…and seeing this helpful reminder (photograph 2015)…



Still, temporary discomfort is a small price to pay for these views (photographs 2015):



As I caught my breath at the park’s entrance, a young Japanese couple crossed Taylor (from the left above, photograph 2015), unfolding a San Francisco street map. Their stylish black suit and white dress implied they had just attended a wedding. They proceeded to take photographs using Ina Coolbirth as a backdrop—mostly he of her, before breaking out a selfie stick—though the woman seemed vaguely uncomfortable, wearing a blank expression the entire time.

No thumbs on Taylor

Seven blocks to the north, I made the acute right onto Columbus Avenue, the primary North Beach artery. Two blocks earlier, I had crossed Lombard. Had I turned left there and walked two blocks, I would have reached the world’s windiest road (video 2014, voiceover mine). However, the novelty of ascending this stretch of Lombard fades after a few years.

Walking southeast on Columbus, slicing diagonally through the otherwise orderly street grid, I passed a busy Cobb’s Comedy Club (just before the intersection with Lombard). Early on a Sunday afternoon, a line of people moved through a metal detector set up on the sidewalk—proving just how dangerous comedy can be.

North Beach (like the North End in Boston, or large swathes of South Philadelphia) is the “Little Italy” of San Francisco. Amid the tempting trattorias and coffee shops (my calzone at Il Casaro Pizzeria in 2017 was delicious), it is this sign at the intersection with Vallejo that always jumps out at this native Philadelphian (photograph 2014).


Only past disappointments with cheese steaks made outside of Philly/South Jersey and red meat consumption the previous two nights kept me from entering; Buster’s is one of the best places to eat one in San Francisco.

The block of Columbus between Vallejo and Broadway is where North Beach begins to blend gracefully into Chinatown, as this gorgeous map embedded into the sidewalk on Washington (near Waverly) suggests.


Approaching the intersection of Broadway and Columbus, the marching band I had been hearing (reminding me of the Salvation Army band in Guys and Dolls) grew louder. Looking down Grant Street (shown, sans marching band, in this 2017 photograph), I suddenly saw them: a small army of musicians in black suits and white shirts slowly parading towards me. I later learned they are called the Green Street Marching Band.

IMG_2985 (2)

Arriving at Broadway and Columbus, I spied this mural on the northwest corner…


…beneath which sat these six gentlemen, performing under the auspices of A Better Chinatown Tomorrow.


I stood and listened to two songs; I could have listened the entire afternoon[3]. While I was standing there, members of the Green Street Marching Band—now silent—walked between me and the six musicians.

Turn 180° and look southeast, and you see this:


This many-layered juxtaposition—North Beach meets Chinatown meets gentleman’s clubs, marching band meets traditional Chinese music meets jazz—is just one of the many ways San Francisco seduces me.


Have you ever taken a drive, or gone for a walk, telling yourself you were just “meandering,” when you knew exactly where you were going? Many nights I have gone for a long drive, often with the Phillies game playing on my iPhone through my Honda’s speakers, knowing my ultimate destination was the Denny’s in Salem, New Hampshire (which Google tells me has closed. Arrgghh!!!).

That Sunday, I knew my ultimate destination was here (photograph texted to our bookworm eldest daughter):


Their film section, occupying a free-standing four-sided bookcase on the lower level, may one day bankrupt me. On three previous visits (2015-17), I was lucky to escape having bought only two books (plus one for our daughters), including my prized copy of Raymond Bourde and Etienne Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. This 2002 edition was published by…wait for it…City Lights Books (yes, the same City Lights).

This trip, though, nothing caught my eye in the film section. While I idly scanned the theatre books, just by the “film” bookcase, a young round-faced blonde in a white sweater sailed down the wooden stairs, three fashionably-dressed bored-looking young women trailing behind her. They were grumbling about being dragged to a book store during their vacation on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I overheard the enthusiastic one, over by the books on foreign policy, saying that she was already reading too many books about the Israel lobby.

Within a few minutes, they had started to walk back upstairs, the enthusiastic one now trailing, when a book over my head caught her eye. She walked down and over to a bookcase near me.

“Why are you looking at that?” one of her friends moaned.

“It’s called ‘Protest Politics!’ ”came the response.

Her friends had had enough; they disappeared upstairs.

Still perusing the theatre books, I grinned and asked, “Is there some reason you shouldn’t look at it?”

“Not unless you are a political science major. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I used to be one of those…a long time ago.” My voice trailed off as it dawned at me that I had graduated from Yale 30 years ago.

Without missing a beat, she asked, “A political science major…or not making any sense…or both?”

I laughed and answered, “I was a political science major, a long time ago.”

After a brief exchange about critiquing the United Nations (“don’t we all?”), she went upstairs.

That was when I noticed a small paperback called The Art of Mystery.

It seemed to promise guidance on writing my book (tentative title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity), even if the reference to the Freudian concept of the uncanny on its blurb made me chuckle; there is a branch of film noir criticism rooted in psychoanalytic theory that I find difficult to swallow[4]. I bought it (and a book for our eldest daughter), and left.

Followed Broadway to Powell to Pacific to Mason to the Gallery Café, where I stopped for a snack. My “blue jean sweater, military henley” is draped over a chair where I sat to consumed an enormous cherry danish, bottle of water and large café au lait; I sat in the blue chair. The black-topped metal table had “No Smoking” stenciled on it—twice—in yellow spray paint.


Our eldest daughter answered when I called our landline; she liked the photos I had texted her. If she sounded tired, it was because she had fallen in her rollerblading debut and hurt her wrist (NOT the one she had broken the previous spring).

She also told me our youngest daughter “really wants to FaceTime with you.” While I waited (and waited—I later learned they tried calling me for 30 minutes, though my iPhone never rang) I chatted about John Denver (“Annie’s Song” had been playing on the outdoor speakers) with the couple at the next table.

Returning to the Rex a little after 3:30 pm, I walked the six flights to my room. The small elevator had been commandeered by a family with an excess of luggage. Encountering two of the women on the second floor, I held the elevator door for them, asking if they were moving in. “Yes,” one of them laughed.

I need not have rushed, as my room was still being serviced (“15…or 10…minutes”); I sat on the carpeted steps to wait and make notes in my little black Moleskin notebook.

An hour later I left the Rex, more casually dressed than usual, chatting with Nell and the girls the entire walk down Powell. Bounding down the interior carpeted stairwell encircling the elevator, I bumped into Etsuko Tamazawa, a fellow long-term Kingpin who travels all the way from Japan for NOIR CITY.


I ate my chicken breast sandwich (whole wheat; everything except mayonnaise) on the Mezzanine before buying a rye Manhattan. In so doing, my notes tell me I had this exchange with a fellow patron (identity unrecorded):

“It’s one of those nights.”

“It’s always one of those nights here.”

For privacy, I elide many Mezzanine conversations, even the ones about “omnibus films” and Boston College professors and Korean film studies and unusual acts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Skipping the Sunday matinee screenings prevented me from reserving my favorite aisle seat (five rows from the lobby door, left hand side). This afternoon, two women occupied that seat and the one next to it[5].

Sitting a few rows behind me were two of the familiar faces of NOIR CITY: Ruby and Dave, a jazz pianist who spent time (grew up in?) Philadelphia.

Wanting something sweet and unwilling to wait in the concessions line, I draped my long gray raincoat across the sixth-row aisle seat. As I walked south on Castro, the newly-opened Castro Ice Cream caught my eye; their bakhlava proved to be overly sweet.

Another disadvantage to skipping the afternoon screenings of Destiny and Flesh and Fantasy is that I ended up seeing them in the “wrong” order.

As originally conceived by director Julien Duvivier (whose Pépé le Moko—remade the following year in English as Algiers—I enjoyed at NOIR CITY 12), Flesh and Fantasy was a single omnibus film with four loosely-connected stories.

However, Hollywood inexplicably excised the first story, making it a stand-alone film called Destiny. Appointed director Raymond LeBorg devised a clunky bank robbery plot to open the film; it is clear where LeBorg’s direction ends and Duvivier’s more imaginative direction begins. Meanwhile, a gratuitous framing device involving Robert Benchley and David Hoffman was grafted onto what remained of Flesh and Fantasy.

I love Benchley’s alcohol-soaked charm and wit (especially in the underrated Foreign Correspondent) but here it does not work.

Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, speculated when introducing Flesh and Fantasy about reuniting the two films, relying (if memory serves) upon Duvivier’s surviving notes to link the stories.


The Duffy’s kindly offered me a ride back to the Rex after the final screening.

I shared the back seat with these “art car” monsters:




One block north and one block west from the Rex (corner of Bush and Taylor) we drove past this:


Stookey’s representatives sold beer, wine and specialty cocktails on the Mezzanine throughout NOIR CITY 16.

We decided to stop in for a nightcap.


I ordered a rye Manhattan (my third in three days), Ken an “Old Pal” and Emily a non-alcoholic drink specially prepared (“pineapple juice” is all I managed to record) by Mitchell (whose evocative round-framed glasses, I discovered, were ordered here.

Much of the ambience here comes from the “rare and obscure 78 rpm” records played on this stunning 1930 Victrola, purportedly brought into the country by Holocaust survivors.



As we sat there, co-owner Aaron Cole called for the attention of the 10 people in the lounge.

He announced that it was the third anniversary of the lounge’s opening, and he was offering each of us a glass of champagne with which to toast the occasion. Ken and I accepted a glass, Emily demurred[6].

As we celebrated, I learned from another customer that this site (895 Bush) had (possibly) once housed a drug store. Dashiell Hammett (then living at 891 Post Street, two blocks south and three blocks west; photographs 2015) has Sam Spade (in The Maltese Falcon) call Effie Perine from there after viewing Miles Archer’s body.



Before I walked the two blocks to the Rex for a little fresh air and exercise, Ken and I photographed the gorgeous art deco neon signs adorning the front and sides of the lounge.



Thirty or so minutes later, I was sitting on a stool at Lori’s, enjoying a sampler plate of mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers (plus the usual beverages).

And I started to pay closer attention to the trickle of non-customers, mostly young and female, who would walk through the glass front doors, past the long counter, past the booths and tables, to the restrooms situated in the back. Five, ten minutes later, they would emerge and walk the same gauntlet out of the diner.

Spurring this observation was a beautiful young African-American woman whose strategically-torn jeans revealed a simultaneously sexy and off-putting pair of black panties.

I will write in later installments about the “networks of the night” centered at Lori’s. For now, however, I focus on the first of many pleasant chats with the primary night waitress, an impossibly upbeat woman, about our respective daughters—who seem to share the same natural empathy. “Girls with hearts” was the term she used.

Walking back to the Rex, I saw a small red San Francisco Fire Department truck (it looked like a paddy wagon) double park in front of the all-night 7-Eleven across Sutter. A man and a woman, dressed in SFFD uniforms, got out and entered the convenience store. Curiosity soon got the better of me, and I crossed Sutter to investigate.

They were only getting coffee and snacks, but I saw their heavily-tattooed arms up close.

Returning to the Rex, I could not open my room door with my magnetized key. Back in the lobby, a sleepy-looking young woman with stunning black curly hair, a long blue scarf wrapped around her, emerged from a small room just to the right of the front desk.

“I’m awake” she half-assured me.

She and I would have terrific conversations later in the week, but for now, I was beat.

My room key worked this time.

To be continued…

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

[1] OK, first I dashed into the Walgreen’s across Sutter from Lori’s to buy a green mini pencil sharpener for my Palomino Blackwing pencil.

[2] Bill Arney, the voice of NOIR CITY, went so far as to apologize for the sunny weather. The sun may set at dawn, but is otherwise stella non grata in film noir.

[3] A woman who started rocking out to the somber (albeit highly rhythmic) music broke the mood.

[4] Don’t get me wrong—having read and enjoyed a great deal of Freud (two courses focusing on Herr Doctor: one at Yale, one at Harvard), I think his role in the advancement of mental health treatment (from dungeon to doctor’s office) cannot be overstated. Nonetheless, I am not a fan of the application of psychoanalytic theory—much of it discredited—to the analysis of film noir.

[5] Emily Duffy later asked me, half-kidding, how I had survived folks sitting in “your seat.”

[6] I took a photograph of the toast, but I respect the privacy of those pictured.

8 thoughts on “NOIR CITY 16: The Streets of San Francisco

  1. I’m a traveling lover because travel is my hobby. Last 10 year I was traveling so many places and enjoying myself. Traveling can help people to fresh their mind and when the mind was fresh, people did a creative work. San Francisco is an awesome place. This country holds a nice culture. San Francisco has sweet food, nice streets and It’s a nice traveling place. I like your post.


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