The City, as its devotees object, should never be called ‘Frisco. The term offends the sensibility of loyal San Franciscans, or something classic Chronicle columnist Ralph J. Gleason must have written long ago. Similarly, stuff that isn’t classic shouldn’t be called “classic,” as does the subtitle of Akashic’s San Francisco Noir 2, The Classics.
To me, “classic” suggest a pair of standards. First, age. Second unusually distinctive quality. It’s not enough that a piece have age, nor even mere quality. Memorability, distinctiveness, adaptation to a particular readership, any combination marks the boundary between merely good old stuff and something Classic with a capital “C”.
These values might not be readily apparent, as in Mark Twain’s “The Black Hole of San Francisco,” from 1865. It’s an uninteresting satire of a courthouse so devoid of justice it emits horrible smells. Editor Peter Maravelis wisely hides this third, following two other old pieces, Ambrose Bierce’s “A Watcher by the Dead,” from 1889’s North Beach, and Frank Norris’ “The Third Circle,” set in 1897 Chinatown. They are entertaining work, not necessarily each writer’s most notable, and charitably allowing a huge stretch to comprehend including the Twain piece at all.
These are, however, old. Hence, the oxymorons “unappreciated classic” or “classic-in-waiting” come readily to mind to account for such editorial decisions as skipping ahead from Dashiell Hammett’s 1925, “The Scorched Face” to 1953’s “The Collector Comes After Payday,” by Fletcher Flora.
Two thirds of the collection comes from a roster of noted late 20th century writers. After the mid-century stop, Maravelis skips ahead 11 years to 1966’ “The Second Coming” from Joe Gores, then to Marcia Muller’s 1987 “Deceptions.”
Akashic and Maravelis have put together a worthwhile anthology, despite the less than felicitous subtitle. Two stories frame the quality well.
In his ’53 piece, Fletcher Flora reflects the machismo and incipient violence of his era. The male criminal enjoys slapping around his trophy wife. Frankie lives the 1950’s fantasy life. A 120-pound weakling and born loser, Frankie’s luck turns around completely. He gets rich, gets the girl, enjoys wealth on the seamy side until he falls for a younger woman. Frankie’s last gasp exits a .38 hole in his chest, his irony the abused wife finally finding her backbone.
By 1987, Marcia Muller has a woman investigator tracking down a missing woman, a possible suicide. But it appears a plan by a clever woman looking to continue her life someplace else. A park ranger is the victim, lured and abandoned by the missing woman. Her irony is being found hacked to pieces in an old cistern, the betrayed paramour’s revenge. The murderer himself plunges to his last gasp after pursuing the female dick to a dead end, where her lucky desperation produces the killer’s fatal stumble.
One story merits special notice, Janet Dawson’s 1998 story of children in peril, “Invisible Time.” A tense nightmare of two homeless children surviving on the streets around Union Square. Greta, a ten-year old girl takes care of her 5-year old brother Hank. Homeless after their alcoholic mother abandons them after one hard knock after another, the children steal or eat leftovers from lunchtime trash barrels. It’s a no happy endings story, truly frightening. Dawson has one of the best lines in the book, when, after expressing Greta’s growing desperation, “She was doing the best she could, but she didn’t know how long she could keep it up.” Avoiding the skid row of the Tenderloin and South of Market region, remaining in Union Square, the nicer area north of Market. Then comes a gem of pure beauty:
"Greta couldn’t remember when Mom left. A few weeks, a month, two months, it didn’t matter. After a few days, the hours all ran together, like a stream of dirty water chasing debris down the sewer grate. She only remembered that it didn’t used to be like this.”
A classic metaphor line like that more than enough compels reading more Dawson. And piques interest in revisiting the other writers, too. The familiar ones. For instance, the Hammett. Although not noir per se, I would like more readers to laugh at Hammett’s hilarious bronco buster short story from The Continental Op II.
There is one jarring note that still bugs me. There’s a story with a Chicano character, John Shirley’s 1991 “Ash.” But the Chicano’s weird. Not just a street weird-o, a Santero, or a Santeria apparition of some strange sort. I’ll be embarrassed to learn Shirley’s a nom de plume of a Mexicano a todo dar, but from the looks of this character, either I haven’t been to Frisco for too long, or Shirley needs to learn more about Chicanos before dropping one into the middle a story. Ash, a middle-class guy has been laid off due to the current recession. He meticulously plans to stick up an armored car. When the heist goes south, the Chicano appears, the crook gets tangled up with the street person, the crook plugs the guard. The murder sends the robber into a psychedelic episode that ends only when Ash, the character, ends, at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Strange ending to an odd story and a fitting final page in an excellent collection.
If only they hadn’t stretched matters and called it “Classic.”
Foto Platica at UCR – Inauguration of UCR’s Tomás Rivera Flor Y Canto Archives.
The elevator ride to Special Collections leads to Tomás Rivera Library’s top floor, but opens onto an anonymous dark hallway. A few turns and I’m at the twin glass doors. The entry corridor is lined on both sides with matted photographs mounted on the wall. (Click images to enlarge.)
The dramatic Oscar Acosta images greet me on my left. The shot of Tomás Rivera with Ybarra-Frausto and Hinojosa-Smith holds the initial space of the right wall. The photos are hung with ample wall space between them so each can hold its own focus of attention. At 19” by 13”, viewers can stand back and take in the full frame with easy comfort. Research Librarian Gwido Zlatkes has labeled each image. He smiles pointing to the photo of rrsalinas. Gwido, a research librarian to the bone, wanted to know more about these Chicana and Chicano writers. Somehow, the ex-Tecato poet has joined the family of a recent Mexican president, Salinas-Gortari. Gwido makes a quick trip to the word processor and in a moment rr rejoins his own clan.
Dr. Melissa Conway, Head of Special Collections & Archives does the introduction. I’m preceded to the lectern by Elihud Martinez, a wonderfully informative talk on Miguel Leon-Portillo’s work in Nahuatl philosophy, the term, “flor y canto” and its place in understanding chicano literature and the brief moment of the floricanto movimiento that began with the 1973 USC gathering.
After my time on the platform—the performance was videotaped—the audience adjourned to a side room for chocolate, café, pan and conversation. Doña Rivera was elegantly charming. Meeting her today, after photographing her late husband in a candid moment thirty-five years ago brought me an unexpected sense of completion.
Dr. Melissa Conway’s staff and the efforts of Professor Juan Felipe Herrera, putting on the entire conference, made the afternoon a rewarding experience for me. Sitting in on a few moments of the screenwriting workshop brought home the value of this 22d Annual Tomás Rivera Conference to the community. Ligiah Villalobos, as successful a Hollywood screenwriter as you’ll find among la Chicanada, bringing her time and knowledge to all who chose to attend, at no charge.