Earlier this year Fondas Ladis from Greece was in the burg, researching a biography of John “Blackjack” Jerome. Blackjack was a Greek, who among other activities became famous as a strikebreaker, in San Francisco and around the country. Tradition has it that one of Hammett’s first jobs — if not his very first job — as a Pinkerton’s op when he got to San Francisco in 1921 was working a dock strike for Jerome.
Fondas happened on my name because I begin the neo-pulp story “Knives in the Dark” (found in Measures of Poison — the twentieth anniversary anthology from Dennis McMillan —and reprinted in San Francisco Noir 2: The Classics) with the lines “The hunt began when Blackjack Jerome swaggered into the office, looking for talk. A lusty pirate, .45 tucked into the pants belt under his jacket as usual. . . .”
From there Fondas located my current tour book, with Blackjack blurbage on pages 24 and 168, and decided I’d be worth looking up.
I’ve never done much research into Blackjack, pretty much everything I know is oral tradition, recollections I heard from Gus Konstin, owner of John’s Grill. As I say in the tour book, Gus emigrated from Greece and got to San Francisco when he was 18, in 1952 (the year I was born, by the way). His first job on hitting town was working as a busboy in Lambro’s, 315 Bush Street — and that apparently was a restaurant Blackjack had muscled in on from a nephew or something. I trust Fondas will be able to dope out the info in his book. Blackjack had fingers in a lot of pies.
So, if I’m going to help with the Blackjack research, I figure there is one essential thing I can do: get Fondas face-to-face with Gus Konstin so he could hear the stories I had heard. I didn’t think I was calling in any special favors, other than to let Gus know that a fellow Greek wanted an interview. A courtesy.
We let Gus pick the day and time, and he selected May 27 — this year, Hammett’s 121st birthday. Kind of perfect.
Given that Blackjack died in 1953, I was thinking that Gus would be the only person who actually had met his subject that Fondas would locate. But he tells me he has tracked down a few more, in America and in Greece. Very impressive.
I told Fondas and Gus to feel free to do the interview in Greek, for the fluidity and potential nuance. Occasionally they’d drop a phrase I understood, such as “Business is business.” Towards the end I could suggest some information on a name or a location, but trust me, I enjoyed the experience of just sitting in. I’ve always liked Gus, and he came through with some archly-Gus statements.
One, as Fondas probed for any info on what Blackjack may have been thinking or doing on the side: “I wasn’t hanging around asking people what they were thinking. I was working! Always working!”
And Gus told the story again, which had slipped from my active memory, about how some drunk in Lambro’s irritated Blackjack, so he just grabbed him by the collar, marched him to the door, and tossed him out sprawling on the sidewalk.
Gus looked at me and said, “You can’t do stuff like that anymore.”
After the interview Fondas and I headed down to Olivet Memorial Park in Colma to look for Blackjack’s grave, and we found it, witnessed by the photos: Top image, me at the tombstone; bottom, Fondas meets Blackjack.
And across the street from the cemetery we found a little museum for the Colma necropolis, great place. Fondas located several articles on Blackjack he hadn’t seen before, and as I was mucking around looking over the displays I was stunned to learn that Olivet also was the burial ground for no less than Arthur “Doc” Barker of the Karpis-Barker Gang, dumped into the dirt in a pauper’s grave after he was shot trying to bust off Alcatraz. (On page 41 of the tour book I mention how Doc died in the shoot-out with the prison bulls on January 13, 1939.) And while I could have looked some of this stuff up along the way, I usually let info come to me — and the info that Doc was the only member of the immediate Barker clan who was not buried in a corner of Williams Cemetery in Welch, Oklahoma had a certain poignancy.
Hammett’s birthday was working its voodoo.
Just before we were heading out, I mentioned that not only was this day Hammett’s birthday, it was also the anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge on May 27, 1937 (see the tour book, page 112) — anniversary 78 for that one. The old guy holding down the fort in the museum — a very helpful old guy — looked at us and said that he had been on the bridge on opening day and had walked across. He was just a kid then, but Whoa. . . . What were the odds?
I told him that just a day or two before I was listening to some random radio station where the host was asking for anyone who had been at the bridge opening to call in, but no one had called in. And this guy hadn’t been listening to that station.
How many people are left who walked across the span on opening day, anyway?