Thank you for providing me the opportunity to talk about Dashiell Hammett, or more specifically about Sam Spade or more specifically still about Stanley Spade. It allows me, after all these years, to set the record straight. I would like to thank the good people at the CarnarsieSouth Mall for providing the room, the coffee and the delicious, if stale, pastry. I must admit, I haven’t been at the mall in years. In fact, I thought it had closed.
I’m sure you all remember my father, Stanley Spade, the renowned private detective. Because of him, I had a very privileged childhood. I got to share in the excitement that Stan, the man, generated. He radiated energy, like a nuclear reactor set just low of too high. We could do nothing else but take that lunacy aboard. There were twelve of us included in that “we.” “All boys and all boy”, Stanley would wisely say, although his syntax left much to be desired. Stanley married nine women, but never strayed, as all nine of his wives lived in a single tenement on Hopkinson Avenue, in Brooklyn, New York. His girlfriends, some jazzy gals in slinky skirts and some slinky girls in jazzy skirts, all resided in Manhattan. Women fell all over him and he was frequently and painfully black and blue. One bone in his left foot was broken four times.
It was well known in knowing circles in the know that Sam Spade, that cardboard cutout, was modeled after my old man. I have Stan’s word for that, and he could no more tell a lie than could The Lone Ranger, Batman, or the CEO of AIG. The amazing thing, of course, was that while dad was a PI in the fifties, Sam Spade was kicking around in the early 30’s. It is this sense of anticipation, and this alone, that makes Dashiell Hammett such a great writer.
Pop, as we learned to call him, was a tall thin, willowy fellow—so thin in fact that his body refused to cast a shadow and even folks that hardly knew him would call him The Thin Man. He always said that his thinness, and mine, was a Curse from his mother’s family, the Dains. He was perpetually tired, with the kind of tiredness that only a man with nine wives and fifteen girlfriends can know. I don’t believe I ever saw my father without a cigarette dangling, like an impending suicide, from his lower lip. He never lit the cigarette—a home-rolled beauty, because try as he might, he could never roll one as good.
Although he often claimed aloud to disdain them, Hismy papa carried sixteen weapons on his ninety two pound person and it was a rare treat just to watch him try to stand up. I remember a black 38 revolver, an old fashioned 97 with cigarette lighter, and a 44 Cro-magnum with a picture of Clint Eastwood engraved on the handle. He carried five or six steak knives in their original wooden case, an ice pick, a pair of tin knuckles and a few photos of his grandmother, Medusa, before she got her false teeth. When Pops moved in the sunlight, the shadow of each of those weapons moved ahead of him. (I really have no idea what I mean by that. Don’t dwell.)
I was his favorite son. He would often say, “Dave, you are my favorite son.” It made my heart swell to hear him say that, and I swear my heart would have burst had my name not been Sal. He’d often say “Come with me now, Sid, I’ve got a case.” I’d drop everything to come along, although 99 times out of a 100 my role was to loan him trolley fare, or to convince whatever woman had fallen insanely for him that he had indeed just been drafted by the Red Army or to sober him up and bring him home. He would have me sit in a motel room on some of these jobs, place a water glass against the wall to hear the “conversation” and write it verbatim into a small spiral notebook while he napped. He later published the notebooks in Playboy. (Can you believe I did not even get an acknowledgement). It was all worth it, however, as I was right there for his two biggest cases.
His biggest case of his early career—the recovery of a chicken salad sandwich from the Brooklyn Museum cafeteria in 1953— was duly recorded in the New York Daily News. The sandwich had gone missing in 1951. This was before the day of incessant TV news coverage, but today I’m sure the story would have run on CNN, FOX and MSNBC, with some blistering commentary on the lack of cafeteria supervision at the museum. It was big news in Brooklyn, as the thief turned out to be a no-account from the Bronx, with bad eating habits.
But the case this audience, if I can call the four of you an audience, would like to hear about is “The Case of the Poughkeepsie Parakeet.” The “Maltese Falcon,” though certainly earlier, was stolen almost directly from it, and went on to win acclaim, because in some (might we say, liberal) circles, Malta is considered more exotic than Poughkeepsie.
I remember it as if it were 40 years ago. I was in dad’s office, behind the barber chair at Frank’s shop, when that woman, Ima Liar, came walking in. She was wearing a skin tight outfit and little else. Her eyes were passing strange. The rest of her was merely amazing. She was balancing a statuette on her head. To my eye, it looked like a parakeet that had been painted black. From the look on her face, it must have weighed a ton, as if constructed of stone, or lead, or 14k gold encrusted with jewels. (After each paragraph, the reader should feel free to add, cigarettes were rolled, liquor was consumed, and Stanley was drugged).
Ima Liar says, “Help me tail Trusty, but I can’t tell you why.”
Dad replies, “You are a liar, Ima Liar” ( I know, I know, but I couldn’t resist)
Ima Liar says, “Yes, but I can’t tell you why.”
My father had a partner by the name of Lew Spear. Sometimes he went by name Lou Spear to throw the bad guys off. His only role, as near as I could tell, was to get knocked off early in the Parakeet case to keep the plot moving. He was a tall, greasy fellow with a bit of a mustache on the right side of his face. It was the rumored (the bookies had it at 8 to 1) that my dad was having an affair with Lew’s wife Lulu. The evidence was circumstantial—Lulu had four children, three girls and a boy, and had named each of them Stanley. Lulu’s role, in the story, was to periodically show up at Dad’s office, so that he could kiss her, slap her around and tell her what a fool she was.
Lew said, leering at Ima Liar, “I’ll do it.”
Ima Liar said, leering back at Lew, “You’ll do it alright.”
They leave, with the intention of getting Lew killed.
Lulu (who looks much like Ima Liar) enters and says, “Love me Stanley.”
She gets kissed and slapped around—this time by Frank the barber. Poutingly, (wow, I am so proud of that word) she leaves. Mr. Madrid shows up. He is swarthy, with dyed blond hair and a weak mustache. No one, least of all Mr. Madrid, knows what he is doing in the story.
Mr. Madrid pulls a very, very, tiny pistol and growls, “Did you see a parakeet,” (Try growling “did you see a parakeet.” It’s not easy. My respect for Mr. Madrid grows and grows with each growl). Stanley, quick as an arthritic cat, takes the pistol, crushes Madrid’s girly hands and says, “Everyone in Brooklyn saw the parakeet.”
The police arrive and grill Stan for 45 seconds. If we disregard the whimpering and whining, Stan is so terribly cool. The cops beat up Frank the barber and leave.
Lulu and some punk show up together. From now on we will call him The Punk (TP), to distinguish him from all the other punks. They put on a short Laurel and Hardy skit replete with “after you-s” and “I insist-s.” Mr. Madrid shows up again to fawn over TP. My dad crushes his girly hands and takes two guns off TP. He ties TP’s hands behind his back using razor strops. He makes out with Lulu for a while, smacks her, and sends her on her way (Poutingly? Perhaps). He takes two more guns off TP. A fat man shows up. (fat man vs. thin man, get it. Oh, I hope so.) Frank, the barber, gives him a lousy haircut. He asks about a parakeet in a language that is not English—possibly it’s Poughkeepsieese (the music swells).
My dad and I leave to see if Lew is dead yet, so we can identify the body. He is. Ima Liar says Trusty did it. My dad and I glance at each other and ask silently, if either of us knows why Trusty is in the story. The same cops show up. They grill my dad for 37 seconds. He looks like he might crack and tell them what’s going on. Fortunately, he has no idea. The fat man shows up again—TP too. My dad takes two guns from TP and ties his hands behind his back with his necktie (My dad’s necktie or TP’s necktie? Some riddles persist).
My dad visits his lawyer. (Does anyone know why?)
The fat man, Dad, Ima Liar, TP and I have lunch at a Chinese restaurant on 98th Street in Brownsville. (They have great pork fried rice). They all fear that Mr. Madrid may have dropped out of the story. My dad takes two guns from TP. He ties TP’s hands behind his back with a napkin and longs to crush Mr. Madrid’s girlie hands. The fat man eats all the pork fried rice, smiles a lot, and tells us how happy he is to be dealing with a man like Stanley. Stanley pouts (part of that word again) he had been looking forward to the pork fried rice.
My fortune cookie says go to Pier 34 and step on it. A tug boat from Poughkeepsie is burning when we arrive. A man, obviously the Captain because he is tall and weathered, gives my dad a package, just before he dies from 402 gunshot wounds to the heart. My dad drops the damn thing and I have to go into the murky river to recover it. I can’t find it. He pushes me back into the (murky) water.
Mr. Madrid shows up. Stan, tired of crushing his girly hands, throws him into the water. There is no splash. (the music really, really swells this time)
We meet with dad’s lawyer again. (Anything? Anyone?)
The fat man jokes. Stan takes two guns from TP and ties his hands behind his back with an elevator cable. Ima Liar disappears. Lulu appears munching an egg roll. She is kissed and slapped. The cops show up and question Stan for 23 seconds. Ima Liar disappears again.
We all meet in the fat man’s elegant (indoor plumbing) room, at the Motel 6 on King’s Highway, in Brooklyn. My father, Stan, tells the fat man, Mr. Madrid, and Ima Liar—who has reappeared—that he has the parakeet. He takes two pistols off TP and ties his hands behind his back using a roll of toilet paper. Mr. Madrid keeps his girlie hands in his pockets.
Stan says, “I have it.”
The fat man says, “I’ll pay handsomely for it.”
Stan says, “We have to give the cops TP.”
Mr. Madrid and the Fat man consult for well over three seconds then say, “Okay.”
Stan calls me in. I have the parakeet and a viral infection from my four hours in the (murky) Hudson River. I crush Mr. Madrid’s girlie hands and take two guns from TP. I tie his hands behind his back using Mr. Madrid. Money changes hands. It’s mostly quarters. The sopping parakeet statue I am holding falls apart. It is just Papier Mache. Money changes hands again. It’s only nickels now.
The fat man says, “damned Russian,” then does a double take, muttering that he has no idea what a Russian is doing in the story.
The fat man and Mr. Madrid, in tandem and in tune, say, “Easy come, easy go.”
They leave arm in arm for Poughkeepsie, like characters in a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road movie. They get all the way to the lobby before TP shoots them both, four or five hundred times. The cops grab TP, take two guns from him, and use TP to tie TP’s hands behind his back.
My dad says, “I love you, Ima Liar, but you’re a liar.”
Ima Liar says, “I’m a liar,”
They kiss. (music really, really, really swells) Stan turns her over to the police, who question her for 30 seconds. She cracks. The parakeet she has been wearing on her head falls to the motel room floor. (God only knows the last time that floor was cleaned.) All the wealth of Poughkeepsie is uncovered, but no one is paying any attention.
The cops leave with Lulu, believing she is Ima Liar.
In the confusion, I leave with the statuette for a fourth avenue pawn shop.
Life is good.