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May 27, 2008


A prayer for Saint Samuel

It’s hard for the City of San Francisco to get a fair shake these days, either in the media or among the general American public. Its image precedes its reality. And that image, as we who live here know all too well, is misleading.

San Francisco has its share of unusual people — “fruits and nuts” used to be the customary appellation. New York and Boston have plenty of eccentrics of their own, but they appear on the city’s stage as sweet “characters,” not weirdos. And the oddballs who wander around Capitol Hill in Washington somehow acquire an aura of normality.

Despite their economic prowess, despite their technological know-how, despite their political leadership, the people of San Francisco are usually depicted as grown-up flower children, singing “Kumbaya” and naively sticking daisies into rifles. Images of the Summer of Love die hard.

You can blame it on the hippies. But I blame it on Saint Francis.

Much of Saint Francis’s fame today rests on his sweet interaction with members of the animal world. It was Francis who preached to the birds, who eagerly listened to his sermons. It was Francis who concluded a pact between local dogs and a hungry wolf, so that the wolf was pacified and no one in his town was hurt.

Yet this was the Catholic friar who founded one of the most powerful religious organizations in the world. Imagine that the Dalai Lama had created a cadre of sub-lamas who fanned out over the globe, forming a vastly influential economic and cultural network. And then imagine that the world still insisted on regarding the Dalai Lama as an avatar of peace and harmony. The thought turns the mind topsy turvy.

So why do we continue to allow the distorted reputation of Saint Francis to cloud the image of San Francisco? It’s time for a new patron saint. And I have one in mind.

Let me describe him to you:

[His] jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down — from high flat temples — in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.

A blond Satan. Or perhaps a something more worldly:

The looseness of his lower lip and the droop of his upper eyelids combined with the v’s in his face to make his grin lewd as a satyr’s.

Recognize him? Meet Sam Spade. Amazing — he doesn’t look a thing like Humphrey Bogart.

But Dashiell Hammett’s private detective taught Bogie a thing or two. When necessary, he could adopt an air of zen-like detachment:

Spade, propped on an elbow on the sofa, looked at and listened… impartially. In the comfortable slackness of his body, in the easy stillness of his features, there was no indication of either curiosity or impatience.

That’s on good days. On bad ones, he became an avenging angel:

Blood streaked Spade’s eyeballs now and his long-held smile had become a frightful grimace. He cleared his throat huskily…. He no longer either smiled or grimaced. His wet yellow face was set hard and deeply lined. His eyes burned madly.

Sam Spade also had an image problem. But it was the opposite of Saint Francis’s. It was intentional.

“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be,” he said. “That kind of reputation might be good business — bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”

Sounds a little like Rick Blaine, discussing his dealings with the Nazis in Casablanca.

In other words, Spade taught Bogart everything he knew.

He could teach the rest of the world a few things as well. About loyalty. About a hard-headed sense of reality. About standing up for what’s right.

And about having fun.

When you get right down to it, Spade is far better qualified to be our patron saint than any old Italian guy. And when the chips are down, he would take the job very seriously, because he was familiar with this city from top to bottom.

Spade’s eyes had lost their warmth. His face was dull and lumpy. “I know what I’m talking about,” he said in a low, consciously patient, tone. “This is my city and my game.”

Wouldn’t you want him on your side? I would.

Dashiell Hammett set the standard for modern crime fiction when he introduced Sam Spade in
The Maltese Falcon (Knopf, 1929). On May 4, the Chronicle ran a piece by Eddie Muller on San Francisco mystery writers. This posting is the third in an occasional series on the authors that Muller discusses.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008