One of the small delights of travel is the discovery of oddball items that escape most of the guidebooks and travel stories. I’m reminded of how an old London friend liked to show his American visitors a bit of their own history just off St. James Street: A small brass plate next to a door on a minor mews that reads “Republic of Texas” and marks its unofficial embassy during that state’s brief fling as an independent nation, 1836-46.
But my favorite is a slightly larger plaque in San Francisco, which I rediscovered on a recent trip. It’s probably the only historic marker in the city that commemorates a fictitious event. As one among the millions who have seen Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade in the classic noir movie, The Maltese Falcon, I found something charming in the simple inscription you can see high on a wall at the entrance to a nondescript alleyway. Mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett was known for evoking great sense of place, and he wrote The Maltese Falcon with his customary precision, moving the plot through real San Francisco buildings and streets.
Warning, DO NOT READ FARTHER if you have never read or watched the Maltese Falcon, for the plaque mounted on the wall where Burritt Alley meets Bush Street reveals the plot:
“On approximately this spot Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaugnessy.” That’s all. No attribution, no reference to Hammett or the Falcon, not even a credit to whoever put up the plaque. Just a sly cultural touchstone for us millions who know the story. It hangs in the private club where truth meets fiction, and we are all members. — Geotourism Editor Jonathan Tourtellot
Have a favorite hidden cultural touchpoint? Let us know in the comments.