San Francisco

Walking the streets of Hammett and the beats.

There’s enough to do in San Francisco that some people actually spend a lifetime there. If you only have a weekend, though, you have to be particular. You could try visiting the city’s literary sites, except so many writers have lived in San Francisco that even a literary tour must be limited. I suggest a closer focus: the bound worlds of the beat generation and Dashiell Hammett, the great detective writer. Not only will you visit the haunts of some of the country’s greatest writers and troublemakers but you won’t have to go across the bridge, you’ll see areas of the city that you might not see otherwise, and you’ll feel as if you’re part of the life and history of the town.

Of course, you’ll want to stay in a charming but reasonably priced hotel. San Francisco has a multitude of them, but my personal choice has always been the Queen Anne (1590 Sutter Street). Built in 1890 as a girls’ school, the Queen Anne is an elegant Victorian relic with comfortable rooms. In the morning forgo the hotel’s free continental breakfast and go directly to North Beach. Few places on earth are as pleasant in the morning as this traditional Italian neighborhood. Have breakfast at one of the many coffeehouses on Columbus Avenue or Grant Avenue and watch the former nerve center of the beat generation come slowly and calmly to life. Then head to 576 Green Street, near the northeast corner of Columbus and Green. This boring bank building was once the location of The Cellar, the most famous club of the beat era, where poetry readings and jazz flourished. A few doors to the east is Gino and Carlo (548 Green Street), itself a famous bar from the beat days. Walk a few steps farther east to 1353 Grant and the Lost and Found Saloon, formerly the Coffee Gallery. The club hasn’t changed much at all over the past forty years—its small stage still hosts bands (all day on Sundays) and readings. In 1967 I saw Creedence Clearwater Revival there when they were still playing for tips.

A short walk south, to the corner of Broadway and Columbus, lies City Lights bookstore (261 Columbus), the intellectual center of the beat movement and its great surviving institution. The store has expanded since the early days, but it still has the same tiny room and cashier just inside the door and the same narrow, creaky wooden steps down to the basement. Near the cash register pick up a copy of The Dashiell Hammett Tour, by Don Herron. It’s a delight to read and a great source of information about Hammett and the San Francisco of the twenties.

Outside City Lights, walk east down Broadway and through the heart of the famous topless dancing craze of the sixties. Some tired sex sixties. Some tired sex clubs still remain. At 1010 Montgomery Street, on the corner of Broadway and Montgomery, is a large white apartment building where Allen Ginsberg lived when he wrote Howl. There is a fine view from here of downtown San Francisco in one direction and of the bay and the Bay Bridge in the other. Pause for a moment to reflect on such a despairing poem being written in such a pleasant setting. Back down Broadway you might want to stop for lunch at Little Joe’s (523 Broadway)—cheap, easy, and savory Italian food.

North Beach gets crowded and less pleasant in the afternoon, particularly on Fridays and the weekend. This is a good time to visit some Hammett sites. First head to 891 Post Street, at the corner of Post and Hyde. Hammett moved into the left corner apartment on the fourth floor facing Hyde in

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