Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label San Francisco. Show all posts
Showing posts with label San Francisco. Show all posts

Monday, November 21, 2016


If you’re walking in San Francisco, more or less in the Union Square area, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll walk past Burritt Street, just off Bush Street, and if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll see this plaque:

 This is a real plaque commemorating a fictional murder that takes place in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.  Is it the only plaque of its kind in the world?  I assume not, though I don’t believe I’ve ever seen or heard of another. (Actually since I wrote the above, well-wishers have made me aware of a plaque to Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street).

Now, not so very far from Burritt Street (inside The Mystic Hotel – yes, it’s really called that) you’ll find the Burritt Room and Tavern, which claims to be “heavily influenced by film noir.”

I’m not sure that Dashiell Hammett or any of his characters would have had much time for the Burritt Room’s craft cocktail menu, and gawd knows what he’d have made of the cocktail dedicated to Lemmy of Motorhead, the Ace of Spades:­ “Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, Smith + Cross, Wormwood, Complimentary Cigar Bitters

.”   Nah, I don’t know what “complimentary cigar bitters” are either and I wasn’t motivated to find out. 

Anyway, one of my companions had something called Snake Eyes “Gin, Pear Liqueur, Cactus Syrup, Absinthe, Lemon, Seltzer” (that's it on the left, below) which was declared to be a girly drink, without any bang for your buck whatsoever.  It was a “girl” who said this.  But the martini was perfectly serviceable

And you know me, whenever I wander the streets of San Francisco, even when not slightly bagged, I always seem to see a thousand and one martini signs.  This one, I think is, possibly the least promising I’ve ever seen:

This one is certainly among the best I’ve ever seen, although the place is a dive (in a good way) and I dare anybody to go in there and ask to see their craft cocktail list.

Dashiell Hammett by all accounts was a bad drunk, insulting people, falling down in the gutter, and as far as I can see he wasn’t all that much of a walker (though there are certainly walking tours of Hammett’s San Francisco).  However, I did just find a couple of anecdotes, one about drunkenness, one about walking, in Diane Johnson’s Dashiell Hammett: A Life. 

According to Hannah Weinstein (a political activist, film producer, and one of Lillian Hellman’s best friends) Hammett was once in a restaurant with her in Chicago, and was giving the waiter a hard time.  When the waiter asked what he wanted to order he replied, “How do we know till we’ve tried what you have?”  And then he ordered everything on the menu.  “I could have died of shame,” said Weinstein.

Dorothy Nebel (wife of the author Frederick Nebel) tells the story of Hammett and a group of his drinking pals in a bar in New York discussing the “the indifference of New Yorkers.”  “Someone said he could probably walk down the street naked and no one would turn to look.”  Well, Hammett didn’t try that, but he did reckon that nobody would notice if he walked down the street with an open umbrellas on what was then a beautiful clear evening.
Not the severest test, I’d have thought, but anyway he and his pal Fred walked from from the bar, up Lexington to 42nd Street over to Fifth and back to the bar “and not a single person turned to stare.”

Actually I’m not sure whether this is a mark of indifference or respect.  The typical New Yorker would surely be thinking, “Hey pal if you want to walk under an umbrella when it’s not raining you go ahead, it’s nobody’s business but yours.” Though of course he wouldn’t say it aloud.  In San Francisco it might be different, though I suppose the picture below actually shows a parasol.

Dashiell Hammett had a comparatively short career as a writer of fiction – five novels published between 1929 and 1934, although he wrote a lot of short stories that were repackaged in various forms, not least the Dell “map back” editions: nice pulp covers on the front and maps on the back so you could, if you chose, walk the route taken by Hammett’s characters.  There’ll be plenty of places to stop for a drink, too.

Sunday, November 6, 2016


I was in the city by the bay and I went to the newly refurbished San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  The thing I really wanted to see was the exhibition by Sohei Nishino titled New Work.  It consisted chiefly of what Nishino calls “Diorama Maps,” a kind of photo collage. 

Image - Michael Hoppen Gallery

The method, as I understood it, is that he chooses, or gets a commission to photograph, a city.  He goes there, explores, and takes thousands of pictures.  Much of this exploration is done by walking the streets and most of the photographs are taken at ground level, though some are obviously taken from much higher viewpoints.

Nishino prints off contact sheets, cuts out single frames, and assembles them into large-scale collages that looks somewhat like a map, somewhat like an aerial view of the city.  These collages are then rephotographed and printed large scale, and this print is the final product.

I didn’t absolutely understand all that before I went, and I found myself just a little disappointed by the size of the works on display in the exhibition.  Having seem images like the one below, I’d imagined they might be as big as a gallery wall.

Still, it would be churlish to complain that the prints weren’t big enough, so I’m not going to do that.  Like real maps, these works by Nishino allow a dual perspective – you see them from a distance and they give an overall sense of the city but then you need to look closer at all the details.

Image - Michael Hoppen Gallery

Nishino has been making the diorama maps for the best part of fifteen years but lately he’s started a series he calls Day Drawings.  He tracks his own movements via GPS, brings them up on the computer screen, places a piece of paper over the screen and punches holes in the paper tracking his route.  This then becomes a kind of negative.  He shines light through the holes onto a sheet of photographic paper, thereby again forming a sort of map. 

Photograph - Ivan Vartanian

Nishino cites the great artist, walker and mapper Richard Long as an influence (well, how could he not?) and a work by Long titled “Autumn Circle,” 1990, was situated in the museum conveniently close to the Nishina exhibition. Thus:

You may already know that I once had a job guarding a stone circle by Richard Long in the Tate Gallery in London (I was a security guard – long, not very interesting story) and I spent hours on end walking around it.  This was not long after there’d been some controversy about the Tate acquiring Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII” otherwise known as the bricks.

People would come up to me as I was pacing around the Long piece and say, “Is this the bricks?” and I’d take great delight in saying, “No it’s the stones.”  How we laughed.

Meanwhile elsewhere in San Francisco, at the Paul Smith store on Geary Street, the window-dressers (do we still call them window-dressers?) were showing a certain disrespect for the printed map – I mean, really.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


And so, I went up to San Francisco and headed for North Beach to walk along Via Ferlinghetti, the street named after Lawrence of that ilk, poet and begetter of the City Lights Bookstore.

It’s a short street and it’s a dead end.  Compared with the orgy of street art in Kerouac Alley, Via Ferlinghetti is an oasis of calm and restraint, and also seriously lacking in glamor, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It looked like this from one end:

And this from the other:

And like this in the middle:

A stroll along Via Ferlinghetti was not the greatest walking adventure, but on the way there I walked past Kenneth Rexroth Place.  

 I'd never heard of that, and I can’t say that Kenneth Rexroth is an open book to me, but I do know he was a poet and probably a “good thing,” though until I came to write this post, I’d never read any of his poetry – I thought it was time I did.  His poem “The Silver Swan” contains the lines:

… I go out 

Into the wooded garden 

And walk, nude, except for my 

Sandals, through light and dark banded

Like a field of sleeping tigers.

Personally I’d say that if you’re going to walk nude you should probably ditch the sandals, but I can see this is a personal matter. 

 Kenneth Rexroth Way looks like a reasonable place to walk (that's it above) but I don’t suppose many walk there given the heavy gated arrangement (below). 

Go to the website for Zephyr Real Estate and you'll discover there's a two bedroom condo for sale there, for $1,186,00 which for all I know may be a bargain by San Francisco standards. "Walk score of 100!"
And then drifting around the area I came to Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard, named after what they say is the world's longest-running musical revue.  It’s a hard name to live up to, obviously.

The show looks a good deal livelier than the street.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


 I was in San Francisco, a great walking city so they tell me, and a few people had said I should go down to the Mission District and walk along Clarion Alley, a short, narrow, traffic-free alleyway running between Mission Street and Valencia Street – both pretty good streets to walk down - the latter the home of all manner of hip enterprises, the former full of old fashioned pork and fish stores.  Clarion Alley, I was told, was a kind of street art paradise, or at least theme park, where some high quality artists had gone hog wild on every surface, with amazing results.  Off I went.

As I walked down there it occurred to me that San Francisco is so awash with street art and graffiti and murals, that the idea of having a special place for it is slightly superfluous.  Still, as a Hollywood walker I was extremely taken with the sight below; not only the art on the surrounding boards but also the name.  There’s nothing like attaching the name Hollywood to your billiard hall to give it a bit of class, though that may not be enough to keep it in business.

But anyway Clarion Alley did prove to be very much as advertised and was full of street art and also full of people looking at the street art, and people photographing the street art, and people having themselves photographed standing in front of the street art.

Most of the art was pretty good, some of pretty great, and most of it excessive and intense and hit you in the eye, and of course much of it was tagged with the marks of much less accomplished wannabes, or maybe just vandals. My favorite by some way was this terrific homage to and recreation of the art of Moebius. 

As regular readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of what I call “feral furniture,” chairs or beds or TV sets that look as though they’ve escaped from people’s homes and are now living on the street.  There was an armchair where you could sit and have Moebius’s work looming over you.

I gather that the art changes all the time in Clarion Alley, works fall into neglect, disappear, get painted over: all is flux.  But right in the middle of this artistic mayhem were the two garage doors below, absolutely free of art, graffiti or anything else.  

I wonder how often the owner has to go out there and paint the doors to preserve the integrity of this color field.  However often it is, it’s worth it.  Minimalism had never looked so good.

Monday, September 27, 2010


A couple more things about walking and San Francisco. First, this place:

It’s a section of Lombard Street, in Russian Hill, known as the crookedest street in the world, eight hairpin bends, necessitated by the 27 degree gradient. It’s a great tourist attraction (and it must be absolute hell to live there).

Quite a few people simply drive their car down it – it’s one way - very slowly and with great care, which is understandable but surely it takes all the fun out of it. Doing it carelessly, at high speed, after a couple of drinks, would surely be the way to get the best out of it. But most people approach it on foot, having arrived by tour bus or cable car.

Some honest souls do walk up from the bottom and then walk down again. A few, I’m sure, do it the other way round. But far more people design a route so they can approach from the top, walk down and then go on their way, which seems a bit like cheating to me. And a considerable number just stand around at the bottom taking photographs of other people walking up or down, which is just sad.

Of course, having some claims to be a walker, I felt I had to walk up. I’d actually walked there from Union Square, but I’m not trying to show off. I intended to count the steps, as I made the ascent, but frankly I got distracted. Actually they’re beautifully easy steps, many of them just half steps so the ascent is made as gentle as possible. But it was a warm day and what with having to avoid all the other people coming down, by the time I got to the top, I’d lost count, didn’t in fact care much about counting at all.

Sources tell me there are 250 steps, which I can believe, though as I say most aren’t very big steps. And of course, being an LA resident, I was reminded of the line in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely after Marlowe’s climbed two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street in Montemar Vista, “It was a nice walk if you like grunting,” Marlowe says. I didn’t do much grunting but I did a fair bit of sweating. It was nice to have the descent to look forward to.

Another, recent discovery about walking, with some relevance to San Francisco, although the event itself took place in Bolinas, concerns Richard Brautigan. That’s him and his daughter Ianthe below, in North Beach, San Francisco, photographed by Vernon Merritt III. 

Brautigan, incidentally was a non-driver, a very good thing given how much he drank, but it obviously became quite a problem when he moved to Montana, though that isn’t the story.

Ianthe Brautigan wrote a strange and moving book about her father, titled “You Can’t Catch Death.” In it she tells the story of when he moved to a big, scary, Arts and Crafts house set back in a steep hillside in Bolinas. Huge trees grew around the house and although Brautigan paid to have the dead branches cut off, he wouldn’t let them touch any of the live foliage. Consequently the house became shrouded in gloom and at night it was so dark it was hard to find even the doors of the place.

Then one day, “in broad daylight” Ianthe says, Brautigan was walking from the back door to the front of the house and fell and broke his leg. Ianthe says she expected a dramatic story of how it happened, but Brautigan simply said, “I just tripped on a tree root.” Good for him. As I know all too well, the stories of authors who break their limbs while walking are best kept simple.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I was recently in San Francisco, a walker’s town, though only for those who like a bit of intense aerobic exercise as they plough up the killingly steep inclines. I’m not sure I enjoy it exactly but I tell myself it must be doing me good. And of course once you get the lay of the land you do become able to find routes that leave out the worst of the ascents. I'm better than I used to be, but I still find I'm the only person pounding up streets that everybody else is walking down.

One way you can tell San Francisco is a real walking town is because the pedestrians don’t obey the traffic signals. People cross the street any time they can, regardless of whether or not there’s a signal telling them they’re allowed to. I don’t think it’s that San Franciscans take delight in being scofflaws: they’re just using commonsense: walkers are supposed to have plenty of that.

In LA we’re a far more obedient bunch. If the don’t walk sign appears we stand and wait right there on the sidewalk even if there’s no car anywhere in sight. Of course this is partly because we know that LA cops like to hand out tickets for jaywalking but it seems to be more than that. I think Angelinos obey the lights because the lights are part of the traffic system and they know traffic is all powerful, and must come first in LA. This isn’t because we love the system, it’s because we fear it intensely. If we step out of line we’ll be crushed.

Anyway, in San Francisco I walked in the footsteps of Buster Keaton. Thanks to a wonderful book by John Bengtson, called Silent Echoes, this is surprisingly easy to do. It’s even easier in LA, but probably more of that later. Bengtson has done some amazing detective work to track down exactly where Keaton shot his movies, not least that scene in The Navigator (op cit) where Keaton thinks a walk will do him good. The street he walks across, it turns out, is Divisadero, between Pacific and Broadway, in Pacific Heights a very ritzy area, then and now, still full of mansions, though much more tightly packed than in Keaton’s day, and there are some wonderful apartment blocks too.

I walked most of the length of Pacific, which is like the spine of San Francisco, a long thin, rising line, with the land running away steeply on both sides, so that if you look down the side streets you have gorgeous panoramic views of the city in both directions.

But Keaton didn’t show any of this. Because the crossing of Divisadero at that point is a sort of flattened peak, and because of low camera angles, the mansions in the movie appear completely isolated with nothing around them beside. Below is a still - you'll need to click on it to see it properly. This gives the scene a storybook, stage set feel which is appropriate to the story. But what an act of self-denial on Keaton’s part, not to show those fabulous views. It only made me love the man even more.

The mansion that Keaton’s character lived in is gone now, but the house he crossed to and walked back from, his fiancée’s mansion, is very much still there and major renovations were being done, as they were to quite a few of the houses in the area. I happened to be walking there at the very time Mexico were playing France in the World Cup, and Spanish commentary blared from every construction site. Not a bit of work was being done anywhere. Who could blame them? Mexico won 2-0.