I cannot say that I knew the late Jim Nisbet well — went to his house in one of the alleys off Hayes and Laguna two or three times, mostly because Dennis McMillan happened to be visiting at the moment.
Hung out with him and other Posse McMillan writers Dennis talked into doing panels for the Tucson Book Fair in March 2009.
That’s about it.
But Nisbet had one tic or quirk that just burned itself into my brain, and I find it morbidly fascinating to brood over to this day.
Believe I first noticed it when I was reading his 2007 novel The Octopus on My Head, set in San Francisco — a city where Nisbet lived for years. I’m not checking the text again to get the details precisely correct, but here’s the gist of what I remember:
The main character in the novel lives pretty much where Nisbet lives, one of the several alleys off the intersection of Hayes and Laguna. He’s driving out to a location around 46th Avenue and Geary.
You can make that run pretty much in a straight shot — say, move one block south on Laguna to Fell Street, kind of a little inner city freeway. Turn right.
You can run out Fell into Golden Gate Park, drift over to Fulton Street on the north side of the park and turn right on 46th Avenue (or whatever the avenue was in the book).
You could do Fell to Masonic, turn right, go up to Geary and go left. With any number of little movements possible — but all leading like a line from Point A to Point B.
I was reading along and soon noticed that the Nisbet car has wandered over to Dolores Street, several blocks off in the wrong direction. With his characters talking all the while, the car goes out Dolores, up Clipper Street, kind of moseys around in the vicinity of Laguna Honda Hospital, and eventually goes around from the south side of Golden Gate Park to the north side, where they want to go.
Completely, totally out of the way.
I thought, okay. . . . Well, maybe Nisbet wanted time for his characters to chat for an hour or so. . . . A ten or fifteen minute trip in a straight line wouldn’t have done it.
At the Tucson Book Fair someone (Dennis, I think) mentioned that going back to California by way of Lake Havasu would involve some kind of slowdown. Road work, something.
I’ve been back and forth between California and the Southwest, and Texas, many times and don’t recall ever getting near Lake Havasu, so I wasn’t worried about it.
But then Nisbet volunteered a route to avoid any problems. I listened.
Listened some more.
He began talking about coming along Hwy 80 toward the Bay Area from Donner Pass. . . .
“Wait a second,” I said. “How did I get on the wrong side of the Sierra Nevadas?”
I can’t remember ever meeting anyone worse on directions. And the trick is that Nisbet had his own sailboat — I have to believe he got out of the bay into the Pacific on occasion, and going the right way out there just has to be harder than turning left at a corner.
Think it was in Snitch World from 2013 that Nisbet irked me the most. I got to where I could ignore the meaningless mélange of streets, as if someone who’d never been in San Francisco was knocking out the story.
But in that novel Nisbet mentions Hank’s 500 Club — a notorious black bar on the corner of Haight and Fillmore — and places it on the wrong corner!
Come on. The 500 Club. Would be at 500 Haight. Northwest corner.
When I told Kent Harrington, prolific Posse McMillan scribe who knew Nisbet well, about this post he asked that I “please do one for me.”
Kent adds, “His mistakes were chock-a-block with good intentions and even when sober he couldn’t tell the difference between Market Street and Geary Blvd.”