Thursday, July 9, 2015

City Now and Then

  Everyone knows it's going to hurt 
  But at least we'll get hurt trying
 - Regina Spektor, "Firewood" 

We started out in Golden Gate Park where the bands were playing. Really strange, all juicers with some grass and barbs, but even with the grass smokers everyone was just out to mess up their heads... we came back to the apartment and started playing records... even Dylan [seemed] happier before [Nashville Skyline] ... after I cried awhile [we visited some unhappily married friends.] 
 - a friend living in "The City", June 1969 
By October of 1967, the hippies who resided in Haight‐Ashbury were fed up, and chose to proclaim “the death of the hippie.” In a report to The Washington Post, one reporter describes the march that occurred on October 6, 1967, with the intentions behind the event described by Digger Arthur Lisch. The residents of Haight‐Ashbury waved flags and incense in the air and marched down the street, declaring “Hippie is dead. Now we are free.”
 - Brett Ruffenach, remembering a Panhandle Park event  
We got there and right away she decided I needed to have sex... Then ... she ... got out her stuff to shoot up drugs... I could not stand needles and... told her if she was going to do that I was leaving. 
"Shit man I helped you do your thing why won’t you stay with me while I do my thing?!"
- Country Joe, remembering an encounter just before Woodstock  

I suppose it was inevitable that I would have the Regina Spektor lyric looping in my brain on my ramble through San Francisco a couple of days ago,
45 years or so after a memorable month spent in an apartment across Fell Street from Panhandle Park. That was the same month that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair made part of counterculture history, and two years after the putative "Summer of Love" whose public watchwords the "Hippie is Dead" event sought to dismantle, even as it tried to redeem some of the initial idealism. But I'm not quite sure that I've nailed down what her lyric might mean to me yet. Did that hurt, against all odds, purchase something worthwhile?

I had four destinations in mind over the days before that ramble: Buena Vista Park, a Haight denizen view destination; the  building where I spent most of August 1969; Mandalay; and the Presidio overlook paths.   And I definitely did not want to plan the route, though I would start near the center of the S.F. thumb. I had a phone that would show me maps, so even directional ineptitude would be readily recoverable, so I was determined to just follow my nose from the garage near Sutro Tower  and only correct when I was certain I was heading toward downtown or someplace else too far off-route, then consult the phone to get back on track. I could eat when hungry, rest when tired, and see what I found.

My first view from the walkway down from the garage exit seemed to make it clear that the hill was first.
One night during my stay on Fell Street, I was restless and warm, and went walking as usual with little sense of orientation. I was 18, not very smart in many ways, but typically eager for discovery, as well as firmly oriented towards outdoors and altitudes. So I meandered toward what I later found out was called Buena Vista Park, and continued taking upward branches at each choice, until I reached a flat area partially surrounded by trees, the city lights spread out a couple hundred feet below. I saw a young black man sitting on a battered bench next to a kind of jungle gym, playing a flute, and engaged him in conversation.

In 1969, I considered myself to be inducted into a fairly amorphous group which nevertheless appeared to have a distinct identity from the society which existed in the decades before. Particularly if you were on the young and credulous side, the sort of dog whistle of words like "freak" and "head" provided leading indicators of membership. But the humor of the rapidly decaying social landscape of the subculture was almost more diagnostic; some of us had a standing joke as we discussed or pointed out wannabes or possible narcs, and it went, "Far out, Harvey Krishna, what's your sign?"

In the case of the flute player in the park, it was obvious from the first sentence that he was a fellow inductee. I don't recall anything of the conversation, only that it was typically desultory, enthusiastic, and despairing as we talked about the City, the War, music, people we knew and their affairs - I can say with pretty good confidence that these were topics, since it seemed like they were _always_ topics. You might say, "Nixon - can you believe it?", or "Did you see Santana, aren't they intense?"

The people enjoying the view earlier this week weren't speaking English, but were clearly relishing their conversation. And someone even had a ukelele.

I was ready for the next obvious stop, the Fell Street building where I stayed, no phone guidance needed there. Ours was the top apartment, with a pleasant view of the Panhandle, and I slept on cushions behind that top right window.
My hosts knew there was no great expense or effort required for furnishings, as I did - you could get Indian print bedspreads from Cost Plus (often also the source of those enameled tin mugs for tea which provided no heat insulation) which could then be sewn into a large pouch, then filled with equally inexpensive shredded foam - instant couch, instant bed. Poor longevity, but hey...

The Haight seemed about the same, at least visually, fairly worn, only intermittently gentrified, with nods to back-in-the-day like a clothes shop a couple of blocks from the famous corner.
Of course, Zillow corrects that impression somewhat; the building is almost certainly worth more than a million, and the four or five units probably generate over ten thousand monthly in rent. But discarded clothing and some pages lost from a dictionary (an immigrant learning English?)
show the neighborhood to retain the kind of neglected character I remember from the sixties.

I made my way to the Presidio, where the massive efforts by the city were on display, including the Anza Path and others encirling from west and north, lots of signage and well-designed streets. I did not make it to the Promenade on the north side, but the overlooks on the west side are alone well worth the visit even on a foggy day.
I had to reflect that, in the dozens of miles I covered that August exploring the city, I never went here, nor considered it - the military association was plenty to keep me away.

I was really ready for Mandalay, my first visit. Dry pan fried string bean with seafood, elusive to description, kind of like BBQ, kind of like blackened fish, nicely spiced.
Though it wasn't particulary expensive, I couldn't afford it in 1969 even in adjusted dollars - or rather, it would not have been a priority relative to about the same amount of money for a visit to the Fillmore to see Santana, my big splurge.

The hurt of 1969 is kind of like the hurt thinking about it in 2015. It's very abstract rather than any specific set of personal mischances that you could point to - and only very trivially negative things happened to me during that month, it took a long time to get a ride or whatever - and goes in multiple directions. Why did "straight" people react so ruthlessly? How could we have baited them so cluelessly? What did we really think was going to happen? Was this really just idealistic foolishness, like Communism or Sun Myung Moon or Merry Pranksters? Did it make the phases of sexual revolution (and hey, should the Mazda 626 be re-released to commemorate the latest?), the later labor movements, women's rights and all the rest more inevitable, or more delayed?

And I kind of think the trying, sixties style, was somehow inbred. And it does seem like progress. Particularly on the heels of that Burmese treat.

- Spencer