NOIR CITY 16: Stage Fright?

This is the sixth 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 debut on the Castro stage. You may read the first five posts here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

The first thing I recorded in my little black Moleskine notebook for Monday, January 29, 2018 was:



I had slept fitfully the night before, feeling dehydrated and waking often to urinate, so I opted for a quiet morning and afternoon before heading to the Castro Theatre to watch Conflict and Jealousy.

For variety, I ate breakfast at the Pinecrest instead of Lori’s; their once-massive plate of yogurt with granola and fruit (photograph 2014) had shrunk considerably.


By 2:15 pm (all times PST), I was settled in the lobby of the Hotel Rex to finish The Pictures, get updates from my wife Nell about our eldest daughter’s sore arm (hard fall the day before during her rollerblading debut) and her own flu-like symptoms.

On the analogous Monday two years earlier (anticipating two Humphrey Bogart films[1] that evening—hold that thought), I spent the afternoon conferring with Nell about what turned out to be her emergency gall bladder surgery; I took a red-eye flight home to Boston that night.

Our eldest daughter, a left-handed highly active bookworm, told me she had a “buckle break,” or torus fracture, of her left forearm. The possibility of a second six-week stint in just under a year trapped in a cast (no basketball or swimming, ice skating uncertain) had her feeling blue.

Nell, meanwhile, had a nasty bacterial infection requiring antibiotics…but there was no need to cut short another sojourn in NOIR CITY.

“Oh heavens no. Not for this,” she laughed when I suggested it.

[Ed. Note: our eldest daughter, thus far, has not required a cast, though she will need to wear a brace for two more weeks. Fingers crossed.]

At 2:41 pm, I was still sitting in the lobby. Looking up, I saw Ms. NOIR CITY 2017, Greer Sinclair (resplendent in black jacket, skirt, stockings and ankle boots, carrying a yellow travel bag, black sunglasses perched on her head[2]) walk up to the front desk.

“Yo Sinclair!”

Smiling, she turned to face me. “Fancy seeing you here.”

She was rushing to an audition…or a rehearsal, or something…across the street, allowing her little time to talk. I watched her cross Sutter then sat down to finish The Pictures.

Reading must make me hungry because I next wrote:


After climbing up and down the six flights of stairs (a carpeted stairwell winds around the Rex elevator) to my room to exchange The Pictures for The Art of Mystery, purchased the day before at City Lights Bookstore, I walked outside.

I meandered as follows: East to Powell then north. Two blocks to Pine, then east the half-block to Dashiell Hammett Street. One block down to Bush. West, one-and-a-half blocks to Mason. South two blocks to Post, where I turned west.

Bingo—Café La Taza.


Rejecting an almond croissant and with none of the sandwiches calling to me, I ordered a 16 ounce cup of fresh brewed coffee.


Then I noticed the “Soup of the Day” board.

Vine-ripened tomato basil & vegetables.

Bingo again.

Seeking something for after my soup (which I recommend), the young man behind the counter—sporting a cropped near-mohawk and stubble, black-rimmed glasses and gray-patterned black sweater—gave me a tour of the plastic-wrapped pastries on display next to the register.

Is this banana bread?

Yes, and this is pound cake.

And that?

A citrus cake.

Citrus cake please.

He selected a “better” slice from the rear of the display.


I sat at a small table, with the glass street door just in front of me to the right. Standing on the hard brown floor just outside was a large black plastic trash container. As I ate, a disheveled young man in a long dirty coat started to rummage through the container. What looked like a doorman from a neighboring hotel—elegant in a medium blue jacket—shooed him away. He then gave a pleasant wave inside the café.

“Thank you,” someone behind me said.

Soon after, our eldest daughter texted me about this lobby photograph I had sent her earlier that afternoon.

“Really! I want one.”

It was just past 3:30 pm.


Two hours later—dapper in a navy suit jacket, blue-and-white-striped shirt, olive green chinos, light blue argyle socks and blue and green bow tie (easily tied, for once)—I was standing in front of Castro Coffee Company; a man told me “You look great. Really, you look great.”

I thanked him and walked around the corner to Orphan Andy’s for supper, where I ordered a spinach and feta omelet while a live version of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” played over the speakers: a terrific combination.

I posted a photograph of all 12 NOIR CITY 16 marquees on Twitter (@drnoir33). Oddly appealing German synthpop played through the Castro Coffee Company speakers while I posted this (“Day 4. Humphrey Bogart and one of the seven deadly sins. A match made in noir heav…well, somewhere.”).


As I typed, a young man–dirty army blanket wrapped loosely around his naked black shoulders—approached me for some change. Handing him a dollar bill, I noticed he had breasts. He wanted more money, but I declined.

Back inside the Castro, I checked on my coat, draped over my favorite aisle seat (left-hand side, five rows down from lobby doors). Annabelle Zakaluk, Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, was practicing a song on the Castro stage.

Wandering up to the Mezzanine, I chatted for a time with a younger couple I had befriended the previous year, followed by a brief exchange with Imogen Smith, whose casual mastery of English vocabulary floors me.

And then I was talking to the woman who oversees the Name That Noir sign-up sheet (and raffle table). She grew up in Brookline, where Nell and I are raising our daughters, so we often compare elementary school notes.

Tonight, however, she urged me to sign up for that night’s game (a contestant joins Czar of Noir Eddie Muller and Ms. Zakaluk on stage and is given up to three clues to name a film noir).

I had been hesitant to sign up because I thought I would be rejected as a ringer.

Now, given the opportunity, I had a new fear: that I would walk onto that stage, the eyes of 1,000 fellow film noir aficionados fixed on me, and I would promptly forget every film noir I know.

In fact, I expected to go full Ralph Kramden:

She and Daryl Sparks, Film Noir Foundation (FNF) Promotional Director/Associate Producer, were very persuasive though, with Ms. Sparks wanting someone “reliable, with good stage presence” and both telling me to “do it for your daughters.”

I reluctantly agreed.

Before Muller introduced Conflict (relaying that Bogart, locked in a marriage with Mayo Methot dubbed “The Battling Bogarts,” did not want to make a film about a man killing his wife) Ms. Zakaluk sang “Laura” accompanied by guitarist Nick Rossi.

There was one small hiccup, though. When Muller and Ms. Zakaluk left the stage, the microphone stand, chair and amplifier remained behind. After a few moments, Executive Showrunner Richard Hildreth, a quietly-efficient gray-haired man with mutton chop whiskers, strode onto the stage. As he carried the last of the items off stage, he was greeted with resounding cheers and applause.

He paused and took a gracious bow.

Nervous during Conflict, I needed fresh air once it ended. Walking up to the Mezzanine afterward, I was met by a female volunteer who walked me back down to the auditorium, where Ms. Sparks was sitting, waiting, in the first row of seats, stage right.

We sat and chatted amiably, putting me at ease, and she told me simply to follow Muller’s lead.

Finally, out came Muller and Ms. Zakaluk…and up I went.

I reminded myself: I have given 20 professional talks in my career, and every single time I had been just as nervous—until I started talking. Then I was fine.

Sure enough, once I was actually standing on the stage—seeing nothing but black, with a few white dots (those spotlights are wicked bright)—I was myself again.

It started with Muller asking my name.

“Matt Berger.”

Where are you from?


And how long have you been coming to NOIR CITY?

“Five years.”

Is your family with you?

“C’mon, this is a vacation.”

(Audience titters)

“That’s what Edmond O’Brien said in D.O.A.: ‘I’m just on vacation.”

“Yes,” I countered, “but this is not The Bigamist.”

Muller vamped on my “pulling out obscure Edmond O’Brien films,” that I was “a guy who knows his stuff.” We mused about how many questions I would need—and how much suspense to build.

Then, with Muller’s hat hiding the sheet of clues from me, Ms. Zakaluk said, “Clue number one. Chicago reporter named P. J. MacNeal.”

I grinned and started to nod my head.

“Do you know what it is?”

Rather than drag it out, I said, “Call Northside 777.”

“That’s right.”

Loud applause and cheering.

I had my own small hiccup when I was handed my prizes, a DVD copy of Conflict and a four-film Bogart collection (on Blu Ray; I never did tell them I do not have a Blu Ray player—excepting this computer, presumably). I fumbled to locate my reading glasses to read the titles on the Blu Ray set.

Exit stage right.


I remember little of the entertaining Jealousy beyond some excellent point-of-view camera sequences.

Walking down to the men’s room at its conclusion, my 15 seconds of fame began.

“Man are you lucky.”

“You’re the guy that won!”


“What was that movie again?

Back up on the Mezzanine, I basked in more congratulations. Having explained to a man standing with FNF Director of Communications Anne Hockens that I was a “noir geek” with “a database,” he said that I had “internalized” it.

High praise, indeed.

My favorite encounter, however, came a few moments later, when official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne looked me in the eyes and said, “Yeah, you don’t know Eddie.” (Muller would later thank me for “playing dumb.” Well, I’ve had 51 years of experience, I replied).

Following Hearne’s good-natured rib, I left the Castro.

As I waited on the Castro station platform for a K, L or M MUNI train, a young woman, dressed to the nines in vintage black (her long black satin gloves were particularly entrancing), walked up to me.

“Hey, you won the contest tonight.”

We introduced ourselves (Melissa) then chatted for a few stops, discovering a mutual love for baseball; her Oakland A’s were once the Philadelphia A’s, though I grew up in a Phillies family.

She disembarked before I did, affirming “I’ll see you around.”

NOIR CITY excels as a place to meet people and make friends. I am selective about who I “friend” on Facebook; fully 23 (9.2%) of my 250 Facebook friends I met through NOIR CITY.

Alighting at the Powell MUNI station, I went directly to Lori’s, where I ate a tasty BLT with avocado on whole wheat and a side of onion rings.

While I ate, a cab pulled up in front of Lori’s. A squat older woman dressed in a loose-fitting pink and orange jacket, white t-shirt and gray sweatpants climbed out, clutching some shopping bags. When she settled into a small table against the wall behind me, I noticed she had very few teeth.

This dental deficiency provoked a lengthy debate with her waitperson over what soft thing to order. Settling on their French toast (which she barely ate), she arrayed some pill bottles on the table, talking to herself the entire time. After a follow-up debate, she ordered a coffee milkshake.

Back in my hotel room, I was asleep within minutes of my goodnight text to Nell.


An unknown iPhone caller from Massachusetts (no message) woke me at 10:03 am on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.  Looking at my phone, I had seven texts, including a conversation between my aunt and her two adult children.

By 11:37 am, I was back at Café La Taza, savoring their seven-grain oatmeal with bananas and berries, plus orange juice and black coffee.

After breakfast, I took Post one-and-a-half blocks to Stockton then walked north two blocks to the entrance to the Stockton Street Tunnel. I climbed the dim stone stairs on the left to Bush.

I followed Bush one block east to Dragon’s Gate (photograph 2014); just inside the gate, on the left-hand side, two women and a man were promoting Falun Dafa.


The colors and sounds of Chinatown quickly engulf you[3]. Never mind that this unexpected juxtaposition is one of the first things you see.


This artistic menu and accompanying mural is on Vinton Court, between Pine and California on Grant.



This is the intersection with California (photographs 2015).



Many antique stores—and even more tourist-oriented gift shops—line this stretch of Grant. Ever on the lookout for family souvenirs, I spun revolving plastic stands displaying small California license plates with first names embossed on them; no luck finding both daughters’ names.

Then a display of white panda dolls just inside one particularly expansive store (New Peking?) caught my eye; I entered for a closer look. The boxes of “Chinese Health Balls” fascinated me; I almost bought one. The gorgeous silk ties ($19.50, 3 for $50) also called my name. The resigned-looking woman behind the counter, short with center-parted dark hair, assured me “there were more patterns upstairs.”

In the end, I only bought one panda doll, dignified in his blue silk gown.

My photographs chart the rest of my time in Chinatown. This wall mural is at Grant and Clay, two blocks north of California.



Looking south on Grant, at Clay.


These window-laundry shots are one block west on Clay, at the intersection with Stockton.



Same intersection, looking east on Clay.


I must have followed Clay east to Waverly, then turned north, because this stunning bronze map is embedded into the concrete where Waverly ends at Washington.


Finally, I walked one-half block east to Grant then followed it three blocks north to Broadway:


A short walk to the east (right) took me to Columbus.

The need to urinate was growing urgent. Ultimately, despite considering “many trattorias” and the chicken restaurant Il Pollaio, I held out all the way up Columbus to Mason, then down Mason to Washington.

You may ask Nell whether I am stubborn.

Arriving just in time at the eclectic Gallery Café, I “ducked” into the rest room.


Having recovered my equilibrium, I ordered a tuna melt on whole wheat with a bag of Lay’s potato chips and fresh squeezed orange juice. While I munched contentedly at an indoor table (a conversation table, not one intended for studious folks with books and/or laptops), I enjoyed the music playing in the background—a seamless blend of southern-fried blues, Ike and Tina Turner, and Dixieland jazz[4].

The music provided an incongruous soundtrack for the black-and-white Japanese horror movie playing on a screen behind the ordering counter.

I also watched the young Asian woman who had taken my order bustle around the nearly-empty café with what I later called “efficient friendliness.” She wore a San Francisco sweatshirt (purple, I think, our eldest daughter’s favorite color) and her dark hair was pulled back from her open face.

Speaking of our eldest daughter, I took these contextual photographs for her.




Looking south on Mason.


It was 2:25 pm when I bused my table and walked outside. I was meeting Ms. Sparks at the Castro at 5 pm to begin training to run the merchandise table for NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).

I had just enough time to visit the gift shop of the Cable Car Museum across the street; parenthood duties still beckoned.

The Museum is cable car “ground zero.” You can see where the cars turn into the building (photograph 2017).

IMG_2973 (2)

And inside, you see the cables loop continuously around the wheel, pulling the cars.



I bought a shirt for our youngest daughter; they did not have the right size in purple for our eldest daughter.


I was at the Castro by 4:45, dashing in the outfit I wore to defend my doctorate in epidemiology (Boston University School of Public Health; December 2014):


The auditorium was completely dark when I deposited my long grey raincoat and books on my favorite seat. The upstairs was eerily quiet; plastic covered the tables.

I filled my water bottle from the ornate green water fountain just outside the women’s rest room before chatted again with super-patron Linda Martinez. Acquiring one of my business cards, she called me her “interesting new contact” in Boston (which she may visit this summer).

Ms. Sparks and her husband (the latter dressed—in his words—in “rabbi gangster”) arrived at 5:18 pm. A key volunteer was sick, so it was some time before she was could start training me. In the meantime, I sat quietly on one of the sofas, scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook—and witnessed the conversation about how much wine to pour[5].

A short time later I was officially inducted into “Intrepid Audience Members” by the gregarious Jason (a tip of the fedora to special needs teacher and film festival connoisseur Amy Sullivan for arranging this honor).

There are no dues or officers, just a nifty lapel pin.

IMG_3713 (2)

I will elide my training session and jump to The Blue Dahlia and Night Editor, which was being screened for the fourth time at NOIR CITY, a new record.

Sloan de Forest’s business card describes her as “Actor/Writer/Film Historian.” She attended NOIR CITY 16 Tuesday and Wednesday nights, researching a book on women in film noir. Her book on science fiction is due out in May.

She also snagged the seat next to mine just in time to catch The Blue Dahlia, though she moved one seat to the left for Night Editor.

Your guess is as good as mine.

While it remains a classic, The Blue Dahlia is now probably best known for inspiring the nickname bestowed upon 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, whose mutilated body was found in an empty lot in Los Angeles on the morning of January 15, 1947.


I place flowers on this marker in her hometown of Medford, MA every January 15.

Between films, Ms. Hockens and I discussed how upset she was about Ms. Short’s portrayal on American Crime Story. As someone who strives to distinguish Beth Short from her “noir” reputation, I sympathized.

Following the second screening, I met two earlier Name That Noir winners (Saturday and Sunday).

The rest of the night was uneventful. I was craving a banana split, so I ordered one at Lori’s. While I sat there, a man in a pink sweater noticed my Phillies cap (noir-attired by evening, plain-clothes Phillies fan by…well, the rest of the time). A fellow Philadelphian (Cherry Hill, NJ), he now lives in Atlanta.

Inevitably, our conversation turned to our underdog Eagles’ chances in the upcoming Super Bowl against the dynastic New England Patriots.

He was clear about who was going to win.

“The Eagles have all the cards.”

When a Philadelphia sports fan expects one of our teams to win a game, you know something special is brewing.

To be continued…

[1] In a Lonely Place and The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

[2] I happened to have my little black Moleskine notebook with me, so I recorded everything.

[3] Meandering north on Grant, I stood out in two ways: I was a good head taller (5’10”) than nearly everybody around me, and I was a white European.

[4] I would later write JUST LIKE SF ITSELF.

[5] “There was still some free booze—including on January 30, when they poured Purple Pachyderm pinot noir from Claypool Cellars—owned and operated by legendary bassist Les Claypool.

Earlier that Tuesday evening, sitting on those sofas scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook, I overheard a conversation between Stookey’s Aaron Cole and Daryl Sparks, FNF Promotional Director/Print Production, over how much wine to pour for each patron. Cole was advocating for the alcohol equivalent of a shot of liquor, while Sparks wanted a smaller portion. They eventually settled on a mid-point: roughly one-half of a clear plastic cup.”

5 thoughts on “NOIR CITY 16: Stage Fright?

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