If you want to see San Francisco in the sixties, just come swimming with me.
Every morning, I pick up my friend and drive to Aquatic Park, where we change into swimsuits, take a deep breath and plunge into San Francisco Bay. Yes, it is cold, and, yes, some say there are sharks. But here is my San Francisco: the waters of the Pacific rushing from the Golden Gate Bridge out past the lighthouse of Alcatraz and the old, tall-masted ships in the harbour; turn around and the city is backlit by dawn – the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower in North Beach, cable cars dropping down before us where already people are lined up for a coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe – nowhere can you see Google, or Facebook, or Apple. Gone are the changes of modern San Francisco. From here, you can see the city as it was 50 years ago. When hippies changed the world.
It started with the Beats, that bohemian generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg. They were the ones who gave the hippies their name: too young and giddy to be the jazz “hipsters” the Beats admired, they became mini-hipsters: “hippies”. The Beat generation lived near Coit Tower in North Beach, where Ginsberg’s Howl made a sensation in 1955; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that poem’s publisher, was a key presenter in 1967’s “Human Be-In”, the event that inspired so many young people to attend the Summer of Love.
It was at this event that Timothy Leary told people to “tune in, turn on and drop out”. Word soon spread across the country; young people were quitting school, quitting jobs, leaving home and travelling to the place they thought would have the answers. The city was hardly prepared; despite pleas for assistance from local groups, the police force instead proclaimed it would kick any youngsters out, which only fanned the fires of rebellion; upwards of 100,000 people came to a city with a population of only 740,000. So, of course, that summer belonged to the hippies.
In many ways, it feels like they never left. If you joined us after our swim, we would head to Haight itself (we rarely call it Haight-Ashbury any more) and stop in the Pork Store Cafe to warm up at the counter. Over biscuits and gravy, you can talk to the waitress about the day and, behind her, read the posters for events in the Haight that show the unending influence of those times: the Haight Street Fair, “420” Celebrations, workshops for “laughter yoga”, free music festivals, and so on.
All around, young people still dress in tie-dye and peasant skirts, and still head up to Hippie Hill to join the drum circle that has possibly never stopped since 1967 – and if it’s more of a teenage phase than a movement these days, well, they are still welcome. Why does nobody dress like a Beatnik and bang a bongo drum? Because that moment passed; the hippie one never did. We forget the problems that came after 1967: drug use, homelessness and more violent forms of revolution. To most San Franciscans, there was something sweet about the hippie time, about being young in this city. In the American imagination, we never want to let it go.
It was, of course, a perfect storm of the cultural and political: the Vietnam War was taking its toll on the country, particularly among the young men who were drafted; the Civil Rights Movement was opening a generation’s eyes to the inequality of life in America for African-Americans; suspicion of government was running high; and a gathering of like-minded people must have seemed essential to those who felt alienated, misled or unheard. And so, of course, the Summer of Love, with so many tens of thousands congregating, had many different stories, and the influence on San Francisco was by no means all good – particularly because everybody came: vacationers, teenagers, even military on furlough. The experience of the Human Be-In became diluted into a free-for-all that overwhelmed the quiet Haight neighbourhood. It is natural for any movement, if it becomes popular, to lose its way: by the fall of 1967, disenchanted San Franciscans were already throwing a “funeral” for the hippie movement. But it had stuck; the hippie way of being became entrenched in the American imagination. Here in San Francisco, despite the funeral, it has never left.
There was, of course, another San Francisco in the sixties. Maybe it’s because the hippie culture is so pervasive here – and God bless them – but I am nonetheless charmed by the Square world they were protesting against: that Hitchcock world of Vertigo and The Birds. Those days of commuting by cable car downtown, working in what must have seemed like a tall building, heading out to lunch at John’s Grill (still there) where the martinis were already lined up on the bar, shivering in their glasses. Watching the fog roll in at three, mystifying everything, then slipping down Grant Avenue for a mai tai at Li Po (still there) and meeting a date for spaghetti and meatballs at Sodini’s (still there) and catching a show at Bimbo’s 365 (still there) where the tiny mermaid Dolphina swam in a fish tank (an optical illusion, but still there). Then catching the cable car home. In my first days in this city, I once had a few martinis downtown one foggy night and heard the cable car coming along, jumped on board (as you used to do, not waiting for it to stop) and felt like I had slipped into another time.
This was the Square world the hippies were against: lunch at John’s Grill, the martinis lined up on the bar
And there was another day in San Francisco, when I went looking for an apartment with a friend. We saw an ad for a room in the Haight, in an old Victorian, for a very reasonable price; we went to visit and found a beautiful old house filled top to bottom with plants – and not just house plants, but banana trees, Australian ferns and vines dangling down the stairway. It was like entering a greenhouse. We were met by a woman in her sixties with long, straight black hair and an afro’d man in a wheelchair; at once I recognised them: these were the old hippies. The ones who came in 1967 and never left. Their names were Willow and Alfred; they made a living from leading tours of the Haight to tourists, showing them the old Grateful Dead House, Janis Joplin’s flophouse, that sort of thing – and from renting space in this enormous mansion. Though my friend did not take the room, I remember how truly lovely they were; Willow pressed my hand in hers and wished me “a beautiful life”. How could I not be charmed by such joy and innocence, so long preserved?
So, as they might say, there is a yin and yang to the hippie influence on our city. Ours has always been a place of freedom; even the Gold Rush days were ones of independence, when eccentrics were admired far more than aristocrats (such as mid-19th-century Emperor Norton, who proclaimed himself ruler of all the Americas). The Beats came here because of it, and because of them the hippies came, and because of them the artist community thrived, and because of them the Burning Man Festival was born; I desperately hope the line of weirdness and liberation and love has not come to an end. Surely there is some later generation willing to be inspired; to revolt against the towers and condos and app lifestyle presently in vogue in our city. I can’t wait to meet them.
But, until then, tonight, join us for dinner. And while we could enjoy a meal at Ananda Fuara, where “neatloaf” is still served by robed followers of the spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, and where you are offered “fresh rainwater” at your table, that’s not really where you’ll find the old hippies from the sixties. Instead, let’s take the staircase down from Chinatown’s Merchant Street into Alfred’s Steakhouse, which has been open since 1928. Here, we are back in a scene out of Vertigo: well-dressed couples in red-leather booths, surrounded by red walls, cutting their red-rare steaks. Your Manhattan will be ice-cold, with leftovers kept in the shaker for you to add. They will make your Caesar salad table-side. You can imagine Jimmy Stewart entranced with Kim Novak in her long green gown. I love the peasant dresses and flower-crowns of the Haight, the singing and drum circles; but this is also the timeless San Francisco I adore. And let’s be honest, what do you think happened to the hippies? Do you think they sat in that drum circle forever? Look around: they are here, laughing over steak and wine, enjoying life. In their seventies these days, they became San Franciscans after all, now in their Autumn of Love.