Sunday, July 19, 2009

Up in Sam Spade's Room

Bill Arney still remembers that day, watching the building manager’s key slide into the lock, seeing the door open into a narrow hallway, and then that hard left into apartment 401.

Bill couldn’t believe his luck at being here in this very top corner room, overlooking the siren-haunted Tenderloin jungle on Post Street in San Francisco. It was in this 275-foot square studio that Dashiell Hammett, one of genre fiction’s trailblazers, lived from 1927 to 1929 and wrote three of his masterpieces: Red Harvest¸ The Dain Curse, and The Maltese Falcon.

Sixty-four years later, on a day in 1993, it became Bill Arney’s home.

Of Hammett’s novels of crime and intrigue, it's the Falcon that has a direct link to apartment 401. With some re-jiggering, Hammett re-imagined his own place as private eye Sam Spade’s digs, the claustrophobic set for the final confrontation between the gang of murdering schemers and gamy dreamers who await the treasure they believe (except for knowing cynical Spade) will mark the triumphant end of their quest.

When I first saw it in 1994 during one of Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett tours, shortly after meeting Bill at one of the many parties celebrating all things Hammett at John’s Grill (where I also met Hammett’s surviving daughter, Jo Hammett), I was nonplussed at its smallness. It was far short of the quasi-palatial spread Spade occupies in the John Huston-Humphrey Bogart 1941 film version.

Bill told me the story of how he found this obscure but essential corner of San Francisco literary history via e-mail and during a couple of the informal farewell cocktail parties he’s been holding there during July:

“I came to San Francisco from Illinois with a one-way plane ticket, two suitcases, and one job interview. I was staying with an old college friend in Menlo Park for the first months. I got that job and began work in September of 1981.

“That winter of '81–'82 was very rainy. So, I was typically seen on the city streets in a fedora and trench coat. A friend at work introduced me to Dashiell Hammett's writing, and I began reading his short stories. In the summer of 1982, I discovered the Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, conducted by Don Herron. One of the stops on the tour was the corner of Post and Hyde Streets, where Don pointed to apartment 401 at 891 Post as the place where Hammett had written his breakthrough work, The Maltese Falcon.

“Eleven years later, in November of 1993, I was breaking up with a long-time girlfriend. I needed a new place to live—fast. One evening I was coming down Hyde Street in a taxi, and I recognized 891 Post Street from the walking tour. There was a ‘For Rent’ sign on the building. I made the cabbie pull over so I could write down the phone number. Apartment 401 was the first unit showed me by the building manager. I took it for $525 per month. I was there for Hammett's 100th birthday on May 27, 1994. In his honor, I woke up hung over that morning.

“It wasn’t until that next summer that I found Don Herron again. He was across the street with another of his batch of tourists. I ran down to join the group and told Don that, if he was there again the following week, I would have #401 cleaned up for his tourists to visit. I've been hosting Don’s tour groups ever since.”

When Hammett moved here, the building was still fairly new. “I have a copy of the building plans,” Bill says. “The drawings are dated 1917, so the building must have been erected in that year or shortly thereafter.”

To Hammett, who returned only a few times to San Francisco once he departed in late 1929, apartment 401 may have been only been another of the many places he lived in San Francisco, but in the world of literary mystery, the place he lived in and re-imagined is a something of a sacred space (though not to its landlords).

Little is thought to have changed since Hammett moved out eighty years ago, according to Bill: “As far as I know, the only remodeling was done in the kitchen: new cabinets, stove, refrigerator, and counter. Everything else was just paint. Also, the west windows were originally like the north. The entire set on the west for the whole building eventually rotted out from the afternoon sun and were replaced with aluminum sliders. The old spots for the original window hardware are still visible.”

Bill’s years as caretaker of this site may be drawing to a close. Thanks to this crumbling economy, he’s been laid off from his architecture job and with few immediate prospects on the horizon, the day may come soon when he’ll walk out the door of 401 and lock it behind him for good; another of those pieces of the past that makes the present worth living may be lost.

He was originally set to leave at the end of July (off to the rural life in San Rafael with wife Laurel), but a generous neighbor covered an extra month’s rent. Still, while Bill (and others) are mulling over schemes for keeping the apartment intact, he’s not optimistic:

“When I leave the place, the building management will no doubt do what they do to every vacant unit: They’ll paint all the woodwork I’ve stripped over the years. Worse still, they’ll remove the Murphy bed, the Murphy bed door, the original toilet, and the original claw-footed bath tub. All these they’ll throw in the trash. I’ve made some unanswered inquiries with San Francisco officials, hoping to protect the unit with some kind of landmark status, but it never came to anything. The rent will jump from the current, rent-controlled rate of $680, to at least $1,500, based upon my observations of other vacant unit pricing in the building.

“It’s been a golden era in my life. Most of Hammett's surviving family members have visited the place over the years, and I count them as friends. It was designated a Literary Landmark, complete with plaque, by the Friends of Libraries, USA, in 2005. I try to be happy that it happened, rather than sad it's over. None of it would ever have happened but for Don Herron's Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour. Don is a great tour guide and a dear friend. There are not enough guys like him in the world.”

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