My Dirty Love Letter to San Francisco in TELL NO LIES

TNL_coverGregg Hurwitz, 17th September 2013

On my tour for TELL NO LIES, I read this little rant about the City a few times. In a way, it’s a counterpart to the imagined journey Drew Danner takes across Los Angeles in The Crime Writer. I’ve been asked about it quite a bit so I thought I’d share it with readers here.

People talk about place as character. And that’s always a little vague. But I think a place serves as a character when you have a story that could only take place there. Imagine Mystic River if it wasn’t set in Boston. Or LA Requiem taking place in Portland. When it came time to write this novel, I had a scenario flirting with me that dealt with class and race, which function differently in San Francisco than anywhere else. And as this notion evolved, I realized it was finally the story that would take me home.

If there’s one city that can go up against LA for being steeped in a crime-fiction tradition, it would be the city in which I was born. San Francisco. Since moving to LA, I’ve adopted it in every way—except I kept the Giants, which was a wise move up until about two months ago.

I’m annoyed that wherever I travel, I have to defend Los Angeles against accusations of smog and silicone implants, materialism and quinoa diets—but San Francisco, that’s a city everyone loves. I grew up in the South Bay, so I knew San Francisco from a bit of a distance—day trips here and there, longer outings on occasion. But for Tell No Lies, I finally went back and reacquainted myself with—as we called it growing up—the City. As someone once said, if you get tired walking around San Francisco, you can always lean against it. And I spent lots of time driving and walking and leaning.

My hero, Daniel Brasher, comes from one of San Francisco’s richest founding families, and he’s just been injured and pulled into the midst of a horrific murder that gives him pause and forces him to see the city through a different lens. Let’s pick him up on his drive home:

The sun broke across the horizon, fanning a sheet of gold through the iconic skyline. Daniel was weary, half asleep behind the wheel, the early morning haze of the city a match for the early morning haze muffling the steady throb in his head. He cut past the Castro, where Latina drag queens in fishnets and feathers paraded the sidewalks, strutting past bars with inventively uninventive names—The Lonely Bull, The Missouri Mule, Dirty Dick’s. He kept on, skirting the edge of the Haight, where painted VW buses and druggie runaways littered the curbs, in search of a lost decade. During the Summer of Love, Janis Joplin strummed her Gibson in a one-room flop pad here, a tambourine throw from where the Grateful Dead commune tuned in and dropped out. Relics of each era endured, strata-layered in store fronts, charting the evolution from beatniks to hippies to yuppies to fauxhemians.

Forging north, Daniel sliced through Alamo Square, its picket row of pastel Victorians basking in the first pink-tinged rays of the new day. Beyond their fanciful gingerbread gables rose the green-copper dome of City Hall, where ousted Catholic and local sandlotter-made-good Joe DiMaggio said I do to Marilyn, and where, a couple of decades later, five hollow-point bullets cut down Harvey Milk in the corridors of power. So much glory and shame. So much beauty and horror. A city that burned to the ground six times before its first decade flamed out, yet rose from the ashes again and again, a boxer who wouldn’t stay down.

He let his imagination soar across the rooftops to the Tenderloin where dealers in saggy pants palmed baggies into skeletal hands, and tranny hookers batted improbable eyelashes and held cigarettes to their smeared lips, smoking off the night’s work. Mere blocks to yet another ecosystem—capitalism-clean Union Square on perennial high polish, ornate Christmas displays already gleaming in the vast picture windows, Neiman and Chanel, Saks and the ghost of I. Magnin. Coppola shot the conversation in The Conversation here, but even his surveillance camera couldn’t capture the dead-end alley where Miles Archer met his fictional demise or the Palace Hotel, where President Harding was felled by an enlarged heart or a poisonous wife.

A Peter Pan drift took Daniel to Russian Hill with its manic slalom descents, its vertiginous tumble over the brink of Filbert, its manicured floral gardens cupping the curves of Lombard, the second crookedest street in the city. Steve McQueen’s Mustang scorched these slopes in the world’s greatest car chase, the fleeing Charger losing an unlikely six hubcaps in the process.

Then on to North Beach in all its gaudy Italian glory. There perched City Lights Bookstore, where Ginsberg howled, the wedged façade gazing nobly across the intersection at the world’s first topless bar, if the historical plaque is to be believed. Carol Doda bared her double-d Twin Peaks here at the Condor Club, a skip from Green Street where Philo T. Farnsworth lived up to his madcap inventor’s name and conjured into existence the world’s first TV. And overseeing all this squalid, soaring history, the fluted column of Coit Tower, the candle stuck in the cupcake of Telegraph Hill.

All those tales of the city. All those separate lives. Misfits and dreamers, transplants and immigrants, victims and outlaws, packed full of hidden fears and sordid impulses, inflated fantasies and rageful desires. They’d come heeding the siren’s call, seeking haven, to this sanctuary city thrust into a swirl of ever-shifting tides and mist. A peninsula draped over seven hills, twinkling and glorious, with jutting heights and precipitous drops, a labyrinthine fog-veiled confusion of one-ways and narrow alleys, shadow and light. A microcosm of the human psyche in all its splendor and horror, its seething, brilliant, hideous capabilities.

So many places to hide. So many ways to disappear. All those masks, imagined and real.

And beneath one of them, a killer.