photog Opines on Valentine’s Day

Every happily married man has to have an opinion on Valentine’s Day.  And being in that category (most of the time!) my opinion is well known to Camera Girl.  Being a very wise woman, she pretends that Valentine’s Day is of no concern to her.  But that is a façade.  The point is for me to show her that I have a way of making Valentine’s Day a useful ritual within our domain.  In this way she doesn’t have to seem to be dependent on this odd gift receiving dynamic while I can demonstrate my romantic aptitude and at the same time rightly honor her importance in the whole male/female dynamic.

Wow.  That was weird.

Anyway, I’ve long ago given her all the jewelry she needs or even wants.  I usually check to see if she wants any perfume but she’s pretty well stocked there too.  So, this year I said I’d take her out to eat.  And at first, I thought we had a plan.  But at the last minute she changed it.  We were supposed to have the grandkids over for a luncheon of delicatessen food.  But someone got sick so we postponed it.  But apparently Camera Girl was in the mood for pastrami, which, as everyone knows, is the most sensual of the salted cured meats.

So, her idea for Valentine’s Day was pastrami sandwiches at home.  She is a thrifty woman.  And I should be more grateful for that than I am.  So today she served up pastrami on Italian bread with melted Swiss cheese and tons of brown mustard.  There was egg potato salad and dill pickles on the side and a giant mug of very good, hot coffee.  Afterward there was a big slice of apple pie with three big scoops of premium vanilla ice cream.  Now that is what I call a Valentine’s Day celebration.

It reminded me of that scene in the Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade serves corned beef on French bread and coffee with brandy to Brigid O’Shaughnessy as they warily circle each other in their dance of murder and passion.  And after all Camera Girl is a femme fatale.  Her allure has side-tracked me from my intended career as a classical philologist by, as far as I can reckon somewhere on the order of forty five years, give or take.  And there has been many a night that I suspected she was contemplating smothering me in my sleep.  I have no incontrovertible evidence for this.  But for someone who knows her moods all the signs were there.  But I digress.

So, the key to a successful Valentine’s Day gift or celebration is buy-in from the woman.  There has to be an effort by the man to imbue the ritual with some special significance for the pair.  And to do that requires good will on both sides and for an established relationship the desire to break the monotony of a settled routine with something different and in some way exciting.

And exciting doesn’t have to be the Hope Diamond or a trip to Bora Bora.  The excitement is breaking the routine.  It’s talking about different things.  It’s putting a little more of your personality into your presentation than you normally do.  And, of course, it doesn’t hurt if you drag her off to bed to consummate the proceedings properly.  But, just like Sam Spade, remember that she may be hiding a revolver under her side of the bed so sleep with one eye open.  Especially if she has two or three aliases.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day

Of Femme Fatales and Food

Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the love interest and principal suspect in Dashiell Hammett’s, “The Maltese Falcon.”  Whenever Sam Spade attempts to extract any sliver of truth from Brigid she fills the air with pheromones, lies and histrionics.  But perhaps the only slice of normal human interaction between them occurs the night of and the morning after O’Shaughnessy ends up in Spade’s bed.  Before and after this offstage sexual encounter we see the two of them sharing meals.

“Post Street was empty when Spade issued into it. He walked east a block, crossed the street, walked west two blocks on the other side, recrossed it, and returned to his building without having seen anyone except two mechanics working on a car in a garage.

When he opened his apartment-door Brigid O’Shaughnessy was standing at the bend in the passageway, holding Cairo’s pistol straight down at her side.

“He’s still there,” Spade said.

She bit the inside of her lip and turned slowly, going back into the living-room. Spade followed her in, put his hat and overcoat on a chair, said, “So we’ll have time to talk,” and went into the kitchen.

He had put the coffee-pot on the stove when she came to the door, and was slicing a slender loaf of French bread. She stood in the doorway and watched him with preoccupied eyes. The fingers of her left hand idly caressed the body and barrel of the pistol her right hand still held.

“The table-cloth’s in there,” he said, pointing the bread-knife at a cupboard that was one breakfast-nook partition.

She set the table while he spread liverwurst on, or put cold corned beef between, the small ovals of bread he had sliced. Then he poured the coffee, added brandy to it from a squat bottle, and they sat at the table. They sat side by side on one of the benches. She put the pistol down on the end of the bench nearer her.

“You can start now, between bites,” he said.

She made a face at him, complained, “You’re the most insistent person,” and bit a sandwich.

“Yes, and wild and unpredictable. What’s this bird, this falcon, that everybody’s all steamed up about?”

She chewed the beef and bread in her mouth, swallowed it, looked attentively at the small crescent its removal had made in the sandwich’s rim, and asked: “Suppose I wouldn’t tell you? Suppose I wouldn’t tell you anything at all about it? What would you do?””

I notice the gun that Brigid is still carrying.  Spade notices it too.  I think she’s trying to make up her mind whether to hook Spade or kill him.  But I also notice the meal.  Rich meaty tastes and rich stimulating drink.  This is comfort food for the damned.  Sensual pleasure for killers.  It’s late at night and Spade is still trying to figure out whether O’Shaughnessy killed his partner Miles and whether he wants the Falcon for himself.  And he’s most certainly trying to figure out whether Brigid will be in his bed that night.  He’s playing a very dangerous game with the most dangerous of the players in it.  He can deal with Gutman, Cairo and even Wilmer’s trigger-happy temper.  But Brigid is very dangerous because she distracts Spade while she plays her various parts.

He did not find the black bird. He found nothing that seemed to have any connection with a black bird. The only piece of writing he found was a week-old receipt for the month’s apartment-rent Brigid O’Shaughnessy had paid. The only thing he found that interested him enough to delay his search while he looked at it was a double-handful of rather fine jewelry in a polychrome box in a locked dressing-table-drawer.

When he had finished he made and drank a cup of coffee. Then he unlocked the kitchen-window, scarred the edge of its lock a little with his pocket-knife, opened the window–over a fire-escape–got his hat and overcoat from the settee in the living-room, and left the apartment as he had come.

On his way home he stopped at a store that was being opened by a puffy-eyed shivering plump grocer and bought oranges, eggs, rolls, butter, and cream.

Spade went quietly into his apartment, but before he had shut the corridor-door behind him Brigid O’Shaughnessy cried: “Who is that?”

“Young Spade bearing breakfast.”

“Oh, you frightened me!”

The bedroom-door he had shut was open. The girl sat on the side of the bed, trembling, with her right hand out of sight under a pillow.

Spade put his packages on the kitchen-table and went into the bedroom. He sat on the bed beside the girl, kissed her smooth shoulder, and said: “I wanted to see if that kid was still on the job, and to get stuff for breakfast.”

“Is he?”

“No.”

She sighed and leaned against him. “I awakened and you weren’t here and then I heard someone coming in. I was terrified.”

Spade combed her red hair back from her face with his fingers and said: “I’m sorry, angel. I thought you’d sleep through it. Did you have that gun under your pillow all night?”

“No. You know I didn’t. I jumped up and got it when I was frightened.”

He cooked breakfast–and slipped the flat brass key into her coat-pocket again–while she bathed and dressed.

She came out of the bathroom whistling En Cuba. “Shall I make the bed?” she asked.

“That’d be swell. The eggs need a couple of minutes more.”

Their breakfast was on the table when she returned to the kitchen. They sat where they had sat the night before and ate heartily.

“Now about the bird?” Spade suggested presently as they ate.

She put her fork down and looked at him. She drew her eyebrows together and made her mouth small and tight. “You can’t ask me to talk about that this morning of all mornings,” she protested. “I don’t want to and I won’t.”

“It’s a stubborn damned hussy,” he said sadly and put a piece of roll into his mouth.”

So, after climbing out of bed with Brigid he leaves and breaks into her apartment searching for the Falcon and any clues he can find.  Then he heads back to his apartment and cooks breakfast for his lady love.  Oranges, eggs, rolls, butter, and cream.  It’s domestic bliss.  A man and woman in love waking up to a bright morning with a hearty breakfast.  But there’s that gun again.  Always right at the edge of their love affair is Brigid clutching a pistol and seeming to endlessly oscillate between reflexes for homicide and passion.  And as he once said to her out loud, “Now you are dangerous.”

And Spade is a creature of passion and his appetites are for food, drink, smoke, action and women.  And Hammett does an admirable job portraying these things within the constraints of his time.  But to me I think he succeeded best with food.  There’s a zest in the type of food his character likes and I respond to the food and it seems to chime in with the moods he draws in those scenes.  I think they add to the story admirably.  A nice master class for any writer to consider when his characters have to eat.