I rolled in to San Francisco very late on a Saturday night following the aforementioned 7 hour drive down the coast. The sky was so dark and the traffic so gridlocked that I’m still not sure whether I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge or not. I realise that sounds ridiculous but honestly, it’s dark as funk when the whole city is surrounded by water and THERE IS MORE THAN ONE BRIDGE ONTO THE ISLAND!? Who knew?
Anyways, I finally found my apartment which was essentially a large self storage style unit decked out like an industrial Versailles, and not at all as unpleasant as I just managed to make it sound. I do love Air Bnb but I don’t think I’ll ever grow accustomed to having some random’s wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe next to my pj’s. No, before you ask I didn’t try it on. It was too small anyway.
I woke up on Valentine’s morning to a blissfully bright and warm Sunday and hot footed it to Haight Ashby. This was the nucleus from where much of the counter culture movement emerged in the 1960s. The low rents of the neighbourhood’s crumbling Victorian properties appealed to artists, musicians and drifters and for a few short years Haight Ashby, or simply The Haight became a burning core of drug inspired creativity in the midst of a buttoned up and fearful America. As with most organically occurring, unfathomable and intangible eras in popular culture the scene morphed as word spread and more and more people flocked to the region to experience the sweet nectar of the flower power movement, and within a few years the candle had flickered and died. Walking the streets I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hunter S. Thompson’s favourite and famous monologue from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I think warrants a full reading, because it’s just so good and words like these never get old:
Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
‘Scuse me, just got something in my throat.
The Haight Ashby area quickly turned to a skid row of sorts in the 70s and 80s before experiencing something of a revival in recent years as bijoux coffee shops and vintage stores attempt to bring back a sanitised and Instagram compatible version of the areas glory years. I stopped at (I kid you not) Counter Culture Coffee for an overpriced latte and headed into a mahoosive vintage store that seemed to have been there since Joplin was walking the sidewalk as did the take-no-BS owner, who roundly admonished a young couple for bringing their toddler into her store, proclaiming ‘this is no place for kids, keep them outside!’ I hastily bought a small black and blue piano shawl and beat a quick retreat before receiving similar treatment for bringing my ridiculous coffee into her place.
From Haight I walked down to the Golden Gate Park which is as lovely a sight on a warm Spring day as I have ever seen. The mellow harmonious atmosphere was amplified by the scores of couples engaging in romantical Valentine’s activities, like bike riding or joining the free tango demonstration that takes place in the park every Sunday, accompanied by wafts of jazz that float through the lush trees and rich grassy banks.
I carried on walking to the Golden Gate Bridge which I had assumed you could just wander right up to, like the Steel Bridge in Portland or London Bridge. As I neared the Presidio region I saw more and more people kitted out in hiking gear which should have been sometihng of a sign. Half an hour of up hill trekking later and it occurred to me that my ballet pumps and circle skirt weren’t the best match for such terrain and I probably should have done some research about all of this. It also suddenly made sense why there was so much public nudity going on in 60s San Francisco, that place gets hot, even in February. I passed a sign informing me that the Bridge was another mile away along a rough sea cliff path so I decided to snap some photos from where I was and then Uber my way back to Lombard Street. The long Presidents Day Weekend had made the park a honeypot for carloads of families who as I skipped merrily downhill back towards town, sweated and huffed in a nose to nose traffic queue to get into the car park.
My feelings of smugness were soon levelled off however as fifteen minutes later my own taxi got caught up in the chaos of Lombard Street and it’s 8 famous bends. I stupidly assumed that it was just a quaint wee street, where one or two people might be snapping pics of the gimikcy hairpins, which put you in mind of a claustrophobic accordion. In fact it’s a major tourist spot where a traffic officer who clearly hates his life, the street and everyone on it screams incessantly at dozy out-of-towners from Illinois as they almost get mowed down by idiot drivers who for reasons known only to God and themselves thought it was a good idea to navigate their people carrier full of hot, bored teenage offspring down the ridiculous street. I didn’t get a good picture of the street, I tried to, but nearly got taken out by an RV from Michigan in the process. Just Google it.
I carried on through Chinatown to the main shopping district around Union Square and promptly spent far too much money in Barney’s on make up and even more on some delicious sushi. Then totally exhausted headed back to my pleasant storage unit for the night. San Francsico had been good to me. I could see why so many rom-coms are set in the city, it’s picturesque in the extreme. The buildings are varied and unfailingly painted in pretty pastels or clean white with blue and violet flowers decorating their window boxes. It seems a wonderful place to raise a family, in fact I saw the most perfect family I think I’ve ever seen in my life playing in the park avec a golden retriever called Max (Max! I mean come on! It’s like they actually live in a Nora Ephron film). It was lovely, all of it was lovely. If you become immune to the crippling levels of homelessness as everyone else seemed to be, it was all very lovely. But some little itch in my psyche that I couldn’t scratch knew I’d never live somewhere like it. I’d never have a husband with white teeth and a dog called Max and we wouldn’t go jogging on a Sunday with our kids in a double buggy. I like looking at those lives, with my nose pressed up to the glass like a visitor at the zoo of life. I like to view the specimens and imagine what they think and feel and see them getting fed. But ultimately I walk past the compound and move on to the strange, unusual and sometimes ugly creature on the other side of the park.