Reaching waaaaaaaaaaay back before this blog even existed: March, 2007. This was written for an NYC friend’s zine, and I honestly have no idea whether it was ever published, or whether the zine even existed past its first issue…
In September of 2006, I moved back home for a temporary, painful stint in Cleveland. The job market was crap, none of my friends were around, and the whole four months I was there I was stricken by a longing to return to the city I’d left behind: San Francisco. Like Journey, I composed mournful ballads in homage to the city by the bay; unlike Journey, I resisted both a mullet and the impulse to make any such tunes public.
But I did get back to the Bay Area as fast as I could.
San Francisco looms large within the American cultural imagination — the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, streetcars and the Transamerica building are all iconic. But that’s just tourist crap. What is the substance of contemporary SF? Is it really, as some aging radicals will tell you, a sellout town of yippies and Silicon Valley money? Or is it, as Bill O’Reilly would have you believe, still the bastion of liberal thought in this country, all Birkenstocks and acid?
Eh, a bit of both. The Internet explosion may have priced pretty much the entire Bay Area real estate market out of ownership range for anyone not a millionaire, but the technology sector also ensures a population of young, progressively minded intellectuals; these engineers may have bigger bank accounts than their hippie forefathers, but the sense of personal hygiene is about equal. And it’s the only major American city our current president has yet to visit — the Republicans have given up altogether on even making an effort here.
I would love to wax rhapsodic about Bushman, a permanent fixture at touristy Fisherman’s Wharf who would jump out from behind branches to scare tourists, but — as much as he represents the stereotypical Northern California free-spiritedness — he’s retired, so that will be of no use to any NYC’ers planning trips this way.
No, the best place to recapture the sixties spirit is Golden Gate Park. It’s on the west side of the city, the non-hip and predominantly Asian side, and thirty-nine years ago it was host to many Summer of Love festivities. To go there now, you’d think it’s all gentrified, art museums and arboretums and Japanese Tea Gardens. But on the western edge, hidden behind a bocce ball field, is Hippie Hill. And Hippie Hill is where the sixties will never die.
Hippie Hill is not the actual name of the place, but if you’re wandering around the park looking for it, you can be assured you’ve found it by several measures. Frequent drum circles provide auditory clues, and a pervasive odor of marijuana is omnipresent. If you find a field meeting those criteria and are still unsure whether or not you’re in the right place, you can further verify your location by checking how many people around you are either (a) barefoot or (b) appear homeless. I had a long conversation there once with a man known as Bag Lady Betty, who was a college friend of Robert Zimmerman at the University of Minnesota (which Mr. Zimmerman left before becoming known as Bob Dylan). Bag Lady Betty got a PhD and was a professor at Berkeley when he got kicked out for dropping too much acid, which of course begs the question: How much acid was too much acid at frickin’ BERKELEY in the SEVENTIES? It blows the mind to contemplate, and judging by Mr. Betty’s new hobby of collecting cans, it blew his mind as well. On a related note, if you’re wandering through Hippie Hill and find yourself suffering a sudden hankerin’ for the reefer, pretty much anyone will share with you. The ol’ hippie spirit of communalism still lives on, right alongside the drug culture and the drum circles.
And from Hippie Hill, on the western edge of Golden Gate Park, it’s just a short few blocks to the corner of Haight-Ashbury, where you can wander into the Gap and buy corporate, sweatshop-produced clothing to your heart’s delight. It’s definitely a dichotomy. The good news, though, is that if neither of those options — barefoot stoner-hippie, limousine liberal — sound appealing, you can always just pick up a wetsuit, a surfboard, and hit the beach. Or some hiking boots, maybe a mountain bike, and head for the trails. Outdoorsiness not your thing? Well then, how about Chinese culture? We’ve got the highest concentration of Asians outside of that continent. Dim sum doesn’t sit so well? How about burritos? You can’t go a block down the Mission District without tripping over a taqueria (and, in a special note to the New York readers — good Mexican does not exist east of the Mississippi. I know you’d like to believe otherwise, but our burritos are the best burritos. Trust me. I am a burrito connessouir!). And if none of this is working for you, you can visit America’s most infamous prison at Alcatraz, or, alternatively, drive up to Napa and get shitfaced at wine tastings. Because I’ve waited until the end to tell you the very best part of life in Northern California: being so close to hoity-toity wine country might make for some of the most expensive (and best) restaurants in the world, but Pinot Noir comes cheap enough to chug. Similarly, since the coastal corridor from San Francisco north to Vancouver is generally considered the best weed-growing climate in the world, the marijuana is both potent and inexpensive. And really, whether it’s rich techies getting drunk in their wine cellars, or dirty hippies smoking up with some smooth Humboldt County ganja, intoxication is one thing that everyone in this city can agree upon. And isn’t that what matters most?
Ha! Remember when I could afford to rent a place in San Francisco?? Or was able to eat glutenous burritos? Oh, naive youth… (I did make a fun video about Hippie Hill — and the ease with which one can procure pot there — in 2009. Watch it here.)