haight

Haight in Flower, 1967: The Rear View Mirror

Sweat bloomed on my face and my linen dress felt sticky on my back. I walked out of the San Francisco airport on that sweltering summer day in 1967. A short Greyhound bus ride deposited me at a familiar small-town corner. I knew the walk well from San Mateo’s quaint downtown Americana to the main boulevard of The Alameda des las Pulgas. I walked past the five and dime, beauty parlor and butcher with a resolute attitude as I lugged a small white suitcase.

San Mateo was where my grandma Clara lived. The town is an idyllic northern California suburb, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. Pastel stucco houses line the streets with carefully kept lawns behind white picket fences. Flower gardens droop with succulents, cherry, camellia, and hydrangea bushes. Families settled into the town around World War II and a small downtown area blossomed and thrived with local merchants. There was the friendly postman, faithful milkman, who carefully deposited wire baskets filled with cream-top glass bottles of milk, bricks of butter and baskets of eggs at least once a week at Grandma’s back door. Chatty neighbors of Grandma’s included the famous baseball player Willie Mays whose house was just over her back fence. Up the street, at the crest of a hill, lived an anonymous Russian opera singer with his wife and teenaged kids.

In the 1950’s and early 60’s I spent the occasional summer in San Mateo with Grandma and made friends with some neighborhood kids my own age. On summer eves a few of us girls took that short walk into the little downtown. We crossed the busy thoroughfare of The Alameda de las Pulgas (Avenue of the Fleas) to search out adventure, buy candy, a bit of makeup, comic books, maybe even see a movie. We were carefree and happy, promenading the streets, giggling.

Suddenly, I was 18 years old. I felt so relieved that day I arrived after leaving my parents behind in Santa Barbara. It was way overdue for me to be escaping although I didn’t think of myself as a runaway. That summer afternoon I approached Grandma’s house at 2410 The Alameda, stepping along her red painted walkway that overflowed with lush blue hydrangeas and pink camellia bushes. I rang the front doorbell. I did not go to the back kitchen door where my parents and I commonly entered when we arrived from long journeys, in the past. This time I was all on my own. The dog, Micki, a black and white French bulldog barked excitedly.

Grandma Clara opened the door and embraced me in her signature cloud of lavender. I stepped onto the thick carpet and inhaled the comfort of a sweet-scented living room with no lingering smell of cigarettes. Another wave of relief passed over me. My mother was a chain smoker and frequently drank iced glasses of gin or vodka. Grandma and I sat down at her round oak table in the dining room with walls that had recently been painted a garish shade of fuchsia. As she set out two plates of tuna sandwiches scattered with a handful of stale potato chips, tall cool glasses of lemonade sweated in the sunlight. After lunch, we ate almond roca candies, her favorite.

Grandma recited her social plans for the weekend, meetings with friends and how she wanted to take me with her to the Christian Science Church in the neighborhood. At the time, she had been a healer (practitioner) for almost 50 years.

“And of course, we should take a shopping trip. Do you need new underwear, socks from The White House or City of Paris?” It was the classic, fancy San Francisco department store from which she would send me cream-colored gift boxes full of pretty pastel lingerie, pajamas or socks sometimes for no special holiday or reason.

“That sounds great,” I said. “And we’ll buy ourselves corsages of violets and eat See’s Candies….”

That first day, we arrived back at her house well before dark after having spent a full day of fun in The City, eating and shopping. She sent me off to bed early so she could prepare her Sunday prayers and meditations.

Over the next few mornings, as I stayed in her house, I woke to aromas of coffee, butter and eggs. Grandma had important work to do, and she directed me to sit on her feather filled Victorian couch. I looked at magazines and read while she sat in her stiff wingback chair, studying her notes and marking passages from her Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the indispensable text of Christian Scientists.

In the cool twilight of those first few nights together in San Mateo, Grandma and I watched TV and absorbed the beginning images of the Vietnam War. Local news segments also covered what was happening on the streets of San Francisco.  They showed energetic, colorful street scenes. The commentary and images spoke of unruly young people wreaking havoc and practicing something called “Free Love.”

“What’s happening here?” the reporters would ask.

“These youngsters seem to be on the verge of something – out of control – no respect for authority, morals gone, revolutionary; too many with nowhere to sleep and not enough food.”

Bystanders shown on street corners shrugged, as if to say, “I don’t know.”

Still, others flashed smiles for the cameras and held up their fingers in the ubiquitous peace sign.

That first week’s visit with Grandma proved taxing. I was getting bored and restless. She was getting tired. In my mind I started conjuring up a new story and told her that I had recently connected with a high school friend, Susie, who was now living in San Francisco. I assured her I was going to visit Susie in San Francisco for just a few days.

About two days later, I started to pack my suitcase. Grandma gave me some money and asked me to sit with her while she prayed and did her daily readings and meditations. She seemed to be delaying me, taking too long with breakfast and coffee and her lavender scented toiletries. I was so impatient. Finally, she kissed and hugged me and made me promise to call. She stood at her dining room’s bay window as I waved from the sidewalk. With a parting smile I fled, crossing The Alameda, free as a bird. (SONG “And this bird you cannot chainnnn).

Actually, I had a kind of plan. I would take a Greyhound bus into the heart of San Francisco that morning and find my way to Haight Street.

~~

When I stepped off the bus, I stood on a corner of Market Street, and gazed up and down my boulevard of dreams. Down the street, I could see where the grey Ferry Building stood.  Looking up, I could see San Francisco’s landmark Twin Peaks, two pointy hills that rose steeply, like a mother’s bosom. There was a salty chill in the air that combined with a shroud of windy, swirling fog. My own internal fog of confusion and fantasies would form shortly. This view of San Francisco was nothing like the looking-glass experiences I had when accompanied by my parents and Grandma on day trips. This was my new worldview.

I felt excitation, a vibration in my bones as city colors and sounds assaulted me. All were welcome as I started briskly, fearlessly walking in the direction of the hills.

 

Propelled by wind and fog, I knew exactly where I was going. I needed to see for myself what was real. I knew that Haight Street started at Market Street and continued to the edge of Golden Gate Park at Stanyan Street. It would be a long walk, about 3 miles. I was determined to walk the entire length of Haight Street.

~~

Looking down at my map, I pulled out my red wallet and made a mental note of how much money I had. Was it enough? Where would I get more if I needed it? Would I know the way back to the bus station if I wanted to change my story? But – NO – I couldn’t change my story without digging more lies for myself. I let myself be pulled and pushed along with no thought of where I was going to eat or sleep that day/night.

 I set off in a pink and black hounds-tooth sheath dress I had sewn for myself, black patent leather pumps and a burgundy lambskin coat without a belt. I carried my purse and suitcase.

The Victorian houses I passed along the way were a kaleidoscope of color. Not being a passive passenger in the backseat of my father’s car, I took the time to observe. I noticed the carvings, gingerbread embellishments and gracefully curved bay windows. When I paused to stare into the windows of one particularly ornate home, I saw heavy drapes and antiques.

Suddenly, I was startled back into reality by a gravelly voice.

“What Yo afraid of?! Yo own shadow? Ha ha!” a man called out to me from a stoop. He seemed very happy, his dark face beaming.  And he was right. I was afraid but not sure of what. I smiled but said nothing and trudged on up the street. I was completely naïve. My heart beat faster as I wrapped my light leather coat tighter and let the fog and wind whip me along.

What I hadn’t counted on were the steep hills and the tiresome weight of my suitcase and how uncomfortable my shoes became. When I reached Stanyan Street, and entered the park, maybe two hours after initiating my walk, I heard music, particularly the beat of drums. I took in the colors and smelled pungent, sweet incense and an acrid unfamiliar scent—definitely not my mother’s menthol cigarettes. I was tired and allowed myself to be pulled by sounds. I plopped myself down on a soft rise of lawn and began to chat with other young people. We shared stories, where we were from, how long we intended to stay. Everyone seemed very happy. We all seemed to be about the same age in our late teens. My own story seemed unremarkable. Others had traveled from all over the U.S. and world. As that first day wore on, a group of newly formed friends decided to go and find something to eat.

“Do you have some spare change?” someone said. “Moola? Man I’m so hungry! I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday. I’ll pay you back. Promise. Meet me here tomorrow.”

Eager to belong and be liked I said, “Sure. OK. Yeah. I can loan you some money. And I’ll see you here tomorrow, right? Same place?”

As the afternoon waned and the sky darkened, someone in the group asked me where I was going to spend the night. I came up blank.

“Where do you and all these people go at night? Yeah. I guess I need a place to stay or I could take the bus back to my Grandma’s in San Mateo?”

The answer came quickly,

“No! Don’t do that. You’ll be fine. Stay with us.”

And, of course, I remembered what I had told Grandma. That I was going to visit my friend Susie. Even though I had heard Susie had left Santa Barbara after high school to come to San Francisco, too, I had absolutely no idea of how to reach her.

“Just follow us!” one particularly friendly guy said. “We know a cool place on Waller Street. We can smoke, score acid. Good people. They’ll be happy to meet you and they share their food and everything. Come with us.”

By this time, my anxious fog had settled in as the city’s evening fog rolled out along the streets. I was caught. But a sense of thrill crowded out my doubts. Maybe this was where the love and acceptance was? All the smiles and good feelings were making an impact on me. And I liked it. Adventure made my heart beat a little faster.

I followed this merry troupe of new-found friends. We giggled as we made our way up some dark steps into a Victorian apartment a couple of blocks off Haight St. A woman with long curly hair, dressed in a bright caftan welcomed us into her living room. Inside was a shroud of smoke and the room was furnished with very deep and soft furniture. Suddenly so tired, I kicked off my shoes and sank into a sofa. A particularly friendly guy draped his arm around my shoulder and handed me a joint. Red wine was passed along in paper Dixie cups.  I sipped gingerly. Then someone yelled,

“It’s here!”

“What’s here?”

“Purple Haze – Dr. Owsley’s stuff – enough for everyone.”

After some joints were passed around with laughter and lots of red wine, I felt warm, safely surrounded and accepted by these new friends. And the deep soft cushions were so warm, and the friendly guy was getting more friendly. So, I stayed.

When some tiny purple pills were passed around and one was placed in my hand, I looked to the others who smiled, and assured me I was safe. I swallowed the pill.

Within a short time, everything in the room magnified. The sounds, voices and music pulsed and swelled. I stared at a bare light bulb as it grew with each heartbeat and each of my breaths. I heard myself speaking. That friendly guy with his arm draped around me asked to kiss me and I was swept away. Later that night we walked out into the night, sat on the front steps and listened intently to the fog horns. What comfort we took from the enveloping fog and lullaby of fog horns.

End

This story was previously published in Every Day is a Chance: An Anthology from Shakespeare & CO 2019-2020. Creative Writing Workshop.

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