Finding Hammett’s Falcon

On an unusually warm July evening for San Francisco, I sit in front of an antique Underwood typewriter in the room where Dashiell Hammett wrote “The Maltese Falcon.” In the former studio at 891 Post where the founding father of the hardboiled detective novel lived and worked, it is peaceful and cozy. There is a pleasantly unpretentious austerity about the place. The room is quiet and sparsely furnished. On the work desk, to the left of the typewriter, stands a replica of the falcon, defiant in his relentless surveillance of the precincts. You have the feeling that he registers everything and then reports it in detail to his patron and landlord, who has just stepped outside for a moment to go for a walk on Hyde Street.

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My first encounter with the work of Dashiell Hammett took place in Communist Romania. One night, my father took me to the apartment of one of his friends who owned a VCR and a pirated tape of “The Maltese Falcon.” I was about seven, didn’t understand the movie as we watched, but remained impressed with the seriousness of Humphrey Bogart’s face. In my untraveled young mind, the thought of San Francisco felt more alien than that of Malta; a fantasy place I was undoubtedly never going to see with my own eyes or walk through its streets with my own feet, unlike Casper Gutman or the threatening Mister Cairo. Back behind the Iron Curtain, the farthest I could dream of voyaging in black and white during those years were Poland or East Germany. Next day, I looked up California in my old atlas and was thrilled to find out that the City by the Bay did in fact exist.

Fast forward another seven years. The Berlin Wall has fallen, Communism is gone, and my grandpa gifts me a new paperback copy of Hammett’s novel for my 14th birthday. I remember starting it the same day and staying up to read under the covers, with a flashlight, detective-style. Spade’s directness and roughness were not lost in translation. He fit into my world. I felt I could meet him at dusk on a deserted street corner, nearby the medieval main square of my baroque hometown in Central Europe. He would ask about the falcon. Did the former secret service somehow manage to get it out of the country, before the 1989 Revolution? I would tell him everything I know and strive to point him in the right direction. I would not mess with him. I could fill in for his dead partner. His search was now my search, out stories intertwined.

Keep fast-forwarding another twenty years. I rest my elbows where Hammett once rested his, feeling his simplicity of purpose and purity of intent as he ponders Sam Spade’s next move. Hammett used this studio as the blueprint for Spade’s apartment in the novel. He searches Brigid O’Shaughnessy for a gun in the exact bathroom, down the hall. We stare at the same walls. When I look at the typewriter, I can hear the sound: words flowing, characters coming to life, destinies shaping. “The stuff dreams are made of.” How many people now living in the building know what took place in this room a hundred years ago? His life, his struggles, his work.

The evening light vanishes. I turn on a lamp, here in the 4th floor unit, at the top of the building. Traffic on the streets below is incessant. I peer through the window. People are pacing the sidewalks with their cell phones, talking, texting, tweeting. There is no pause or respite. No attention. I turn away and look closer at the typewriter, noticing the wear of each letter from the days and nights of work. The V still quite clean, the I almost invisible, fading. I am tempted to press a period to mark “The End” but decide against that. Instead, I gently move my hands over the entire machine.

There is movement in the hallway, over by the entrance. I think I hear the front door open and close. I feel a presence. I turn off the lamp, move back to the couch and wait. In the dark, a man enters the room, takes off his hat and coat and neatly sets them on the armchair nearby. He walks into the bathroom and I hear water splash in the basin. Quietly, he sits at the table with the typewriter and thinks. I feel I should say something, thank him, tell him that many of us still care deeply. But the typewriter slaps and rattles. The story has resumed, but they are my fingers and ideas.

The letters breathe. He lives.

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