Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 1: The Summer of Love, San Francisco, 1967

I grew up in New York City and spent almost all of my life there until I started hearing about the beginnings of the hippies in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. I mostly knew about the hippies from reading Ramparts, a political and arts magazine based in San Francisco. Many issues of Ramparts brought reports on the radical experiments in lifestyles going on in the Bay Area, from the collective called the Diggers distributing free food; to the solarized, DayGlo posters for the Fillmore Auditorium’s rock concerts with the letters rippling like flames. I was hooked. I had to experience all this firsthand. 

Rock poster, San Francsico, 1960s
I was only 15, but I had a mom who was an adventurous free spirit, and it didn’t take too much convincing to get her to agree to leave New York and spend June, July, and August in San Francisco in 1967. I might be the only person who went to the Summer of Love with his mother.

My mother, my sister, and I arrived in San Francisco in early June with no clear idea of where we would stay. We found a hotel room near Union Square when we first arrived, but that proved expensive. Our search in the San Francisco Chronicle for short-term rentals did not yield any results. Wandering around North Beach one day, we happened by chance to pass the offices of Ramparts magazine. On an impulse we went inside and my mother asked the receptionist if she knew of any places for rent for the summer. It turned out the receptionist had an apartment nearby, and offered to rent it to us for the summer, while she moved in with her boyfriend. Kismet!

It turned out that the original hippie scene had pretty much peaked in San Francisco by the Summer of Love. Many of the early hippies had left the increasingly violent Haight neighborhood to move to communes in the country. Haight Street itself was bumper-to-bumper with rubbernecking tourists gawking at the latter-day hippies who were still in town, hawking copies of the Berkeley Barb alternative newspaper to sightseers. There were head shops selling posters of Che Guevara and the guy on the Zig Zag rolling papers package, who looked vaguely similar.

We went to the opening of a show by the artists of the psychedelic rock posters: Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and others—artists I idolized. By then, they were selling their work in a fancy Union Square gallery, signing posters while they yakked about what they were charging for their surrealist collages.

You could smell the pot in the air in Golden Gate Park, but beyond that, you could smell the freedom in the air. You could dress any way you liked (although the hippie rejection of style involved a style of its own), you could love anyone you liked, and you could give things away for free (definitely a no-no in the consumer culture of the U.S.A. post-World War II). At the Fillmore Auditorium, you could dance in a strange, free-form way, wheeling your arms in the air and clomping up and down, while blobs of colored oils throbbed on the walls in a projected light show. I remember my mother taking me to a gay bar on Grant Street (how many moms took their teenage sons to gay bars, especially in 1967?) and seeing two men partner dance to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” We heard the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish playing for free in the parks.

My sister briefly dated the son of Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, so a whiff of the labor history of San Francisco also reached us. We socialized with the family of Earl Conrad, a radical novelist and nonfiction writer who lived with his wife in a very urban apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood. We had met Earl in New York when he was researching a book that mentioned my dad, also a writer. 

Cover of a book by Earl Conrad, with a portrait of the author
Evenings we often took the N Judah trolley all the way to the end of the line near the beach, to watch foreign films at the now-defunct Surf Theatre, a great old neighborhood movie house from the 1920s that showed the innovative flicks of Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni. The drenching fog at night in that part of the city resembled an apocalyptic landscape out of one of those films.

That first glimpse of the West was an eye-opener for me. It wasn’t that New York was devoid of culture and liberty—just the opposite. But something different was happening on the West Coast, a new kind of freedom that made for a bubbling arts and literary scene, more open to new ideas and lifestyles and to the cultures of the Pacific Rim.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

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