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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO BEAT

 
The sights, sounds, tastes and aromas of San Francisco are as unmistakable as they are unforgettable and provide a perfect setting for the fictional exploits of Brooklyn born, Italian-Catholic, Russian-Jewish, unsuccessful movie actor and marginally successful private investigator, Jake Diamond.
 
Jake is more over-easy than hard-boiled and he is more likely to be carrying a worn paperback classic novel than a firearm. Jake’s thirst quencher of choice is Tennessee sour mash bourbon, his favorite foods are those with the highest cholesterol, and the closest he comes to being a purist is non-filtered cigarettes.
         
                The scent of deep fried calamari floated in through my office window
           like an invitation to triple-bypass surgery.
 
So begins the third novel in the Jake Diamond series, Counting to Infinity, following Catching Water in a Net and Clutching at Straws.  Jake’s office sits above Molinari’s legendary Italian Market on Columbus Avenue; in the heart of the rich history and the eclectic street life of North Beach.  From Molinari’s Delicatessen to the Vallejo Street Police Station, to the Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi; the streets of North Beach are often the backdrop for Diamond’s most tense and funniest moments. 
 
During the break between my first and second year of graduate studies at the University of Cincinnati, I hopped into a ten-year-old Volkswagen bus and headed west; across the Mississippi for the first time.  Having grown up on the Atlantic Ocean, I was curious about the Pacific. 
 
I made the mandatory stops; the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and then up the coast to the City by the Bay.
 
It was love at first sight.
 
1971.  Richard Nixon was in the White House.  Vietnam was aflame.  The Summer of Love had come and gone, People’s Park sadly abandoned.  But Haight Street and Berkeley were still tie-dyed colors and long hair and civil disobedience.  The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were still thought of as local bands, and the city was a jewel still sparkling upon the turbulent sea of social change.  I was escorted to the top of Twin Peaks, as was Jake Diamond in Clutching at Straws, and the 360-degree view of the city, the bay and the Pacific was indelible. 
 
I left my heart there too, Mr. Bennett.
 
I lived in San Francisco during the closing years of the seventies; post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, pre-Reagan.
 
First, in the Fillmore, where Jake Diamond lived before inheriting the house in the Presidio.  Later on Frederick Street near Masonic, a short block from Haight Street, where the last Flower Children were fighting to hold the line, with their head shops and music stores and street performances, against the other thirty-something residents who were trying to turn the Upper Haight into a respectable neighborhood.  I worked part time at the Green Apple Bookstore on Clement, where Jake Diamond purchased paperback copies of A Tale of Two Cities and The Count of Monte Cristo.  Catching Water in a Net became a tale of San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Clutching at Straws became a tale of retribution.
 
I explored the city.  Seldom in a car.  Automobiles were impractical in San Francisco; there was no place to put them.  As Jake Diamond once noted, the only way to get a parking space in San Francisco is to buy a parked car. 
 
I explored on foot, walking up and down the city’s hills, from neighborhood to neighborhood, each with their unique personality and their own climate.  The Fillmore, Castro (the setting of One Hit Wonder, a Jake Diamond short story included in The Shamus Sampler), the Mission (where Vinnie Strings squanders his savings at the Finnish Line, a gambling hall run by two brothers from Helsinki), the Sunset (where Jake parks his cherished 1963 Chevy Impala convertible in Joey Russo’s garage), the Presidio, the Panhandle, North Beach and the Haight. 
 
I explored by bike, bus, streetcar, cable car and even sailboat.  I was taken in by the frenzied activity of small theatre, the renaissance being created in the redevelopment of Fort Mason, and a theatre rag found in every small venue lobby.  I began to write about art.
 
I took the knowledge and the passion to Denver where I founded and edited a monthly theatre magazine and placed it in all of the local theatres.  I began writing for some of the smaller independent newspapers.  I had become a budding arts journalist.  I was a professional writer; inspired by my time in San Francisco.
 
In 2000, in South Carolina, I began writing my second novel.  My initial attempt, a crime novel set in Brooklyn, was sitting unread, surrounded by thanks but no thanks form letters from an assortment of literary agents.  I wanted to try my hand at first person.  The natural, unpremeditated form was the private eye narration, and the setting could be nowhere but San Francisco. 
 
Jake Diamond was born.
 
Catching Water in a Net captured the SMP/PWA Award for Best First Private Eye Novel and a year later I was holding a hardback copy in my hand.  Remarkable. 
 
I thank the city of San Francisco.  And as often as possible I visit, preferably in the fall.
 
Autumn in San Francisco, Diamond muses in Clutching at Straws.
 
    
Late September, early October is my favorite time of the year in San Francisco.  In terms of weather, September is the mildest month.  Most of the tourists are gone and that is a great blessing.  In July and August they’re as thick as Buddy Holly’s eyeglasses.  The kids are back where they belong; the nine-week challenge of trying to find a single square inch of ground not infested by swarms of loud and reckless adolescents is finally over.  Unless you’re insane enough to venture anywhere near a school.  I can hardly imagine a better place to be in early fall.
                       Though I’ll admit, I’ll take Paris in the springtime.
 
I visit, I walk the streets, I duck into alleys, check out storefronts, and look for more magical places for Jake Diamond to discover while searching for a clue or two.