San Francisco's
Noir Nirvana
SATURDAY, MAY 6, 2023 -- I caught the tail end of the 1960s in San Francisco as a college grad. I trekked north from Los Angeles, met a buddy who lived there and we went to love-ins and be-ins, saw free concerts in Golden Gate Park, stepped over zonked-out hippies sprawled on Haight Street and whiffed marijuana that floated freely in the crisp Northern California air.

It was an American Fellini scene, drenched in decadence, with countless flower children flitting about. Twenty-five years later, I moved to The City. The hippies were mostly gone and a civilization called techies had invaded from Silicon Valley and were taking over San Francisco.

But San Francisco was still a Bohemian hamlet. Locals sipped lattes while lapping up three-dot news bits in a column pounded out six days a week by a congenial chap named Herb Caen. Conventioneers and other business travelers loved the place for its endless beauty, smart hotels, creative chefs, friendly bars, rampaging entrepreneurship and just the right tinge of wickedness.

Nearly forty years later, the party has been proclaimed over. Not a day goes by without some national or global news outlet writing--and illustrating in full color--San Francisco's obituary. From homelessness to crime and grime, to high prices, costs and taxes, to the boarding up of once popular addresses, to locals and entire companies bailing on the town.

What the obit writers might want to do is pick up a new book called Cantina Psalms. It's subtitled a "San Francisco Noir, a collection of short stories, vignettes and snippets" and it cleverly recaptures the drumbeat of the city in the late 1980s when it was, to the best of my addled mind, at its most enjoyable.

The author, Thomas Shess, knows his way around town. He landed here as a business writer for the San Francisco Examiner when it was the flagship of Hearst Newspapers and a place that gave reporters and writers space to write. He also was editor of one of the many versions of San Francisco magazine.

Cantina Psalms is not, however, an encyclopedic non-fiction history of the city. The characters are made-up people who closely resemble real folks bearing weird, but somewhat familiar, names. Shess has always had a thing for names like café owner Holden DeMayo and crime reporter Huntington Peck.

I know this for a fact. Full disclosure: I labored as a scrivener for Shess, my editor at San Francisco and other publishing ventures. He also gave me a most enjoyable gig: saloon critic for an airline in-flight magazine that he edited.

In those days, Shess had to be somewhat pristine in his choice of headlines and prose. He couldn't ruffle the feathers of airline passengers or actually yank out the feathers of San Francisco in a city magazine. He came close though.

But noir is a different breed of book. And Cantina Psalms, described by its author as "retro urban noir," is a get-down-and-grab it gritty read where Shess brings his fictional characters to life. Quite a few of Shess' sketches take place in bars, saloons and thirst parlors--both civilized and dives--where you can practically smell the whiskey spills that have seeped into the plank. Ironically, Shess no longer drinks--but he demonstrates with his novelistic prose that he still has a good memory for the ambiance.

If he cranks out a second book and a third, Shess could be the Elmore Leonard of the West Coast. Like Leonard, his style is punchy, profane, colorful and captivating. Leonard always seemed to replicate familiarity in his books; you felt as if you were in the room with him. Shess has that gift, too. He and Leonard share the same penchant for short, single-sentence paragraphs that grab attention and don't bollix you up in wordy rambles.

One example: Tom treated being alone in his flat as a house arrest. He called it being bored, but lonely would better describe his mood. Someone once told him drunks hate staying home alone. Probably someone who criticized his drinking and someone who he chose never to see again.

Shess' yarns also are a tour of San Francisco and its buildings without, mercifully, being a guidebook. I recognized plenty of places that gave me something of a warm glow--or perhaps it was the libation that I associated with the joint that lit me up.

For his maiden voyage, Shess manages to steer clear of the shoals of libel and pens a tome--make that noir--that anyone who cherishes a vintage San Francisco will find fascinating.