1/21/2009

Summer of Love

I turned fourteen in August, 1967, when the Summer of Love was flowering on the hilly streets of San Francisco. As I write these words, in the summer of 2007, four decades have passed since the first hippies who gathered on Haight Street were deemed, by the press and the public, to be the hairy harbingers of a peaceful revolution. The accepted opinion of that period tended to regard the hippies with equal measures of jealous fear and envious curiosity, but I felt a distinct kinship to them, and I was strongly drawn to many elements of their amiable philosophy.

I was growing up in the Bay Area in those days, living out my teen years in the stale confines of a quiet suburb that was an hour away from San Francisco, and I remember, with a fond clarity that has never dimmed, going across the Bay Bridge to get a good look at the exciting happenings in Haight-Ashbury. My friend, Sam, and I got up early, taking a Greyhound bus into the city and arriving downtown at the main terminal in late morning. We knew where we wanted to go within the city, but we did not know how to get there, so we were somewhat uncertain of what to do next. When we happened to see a young man with long hair walking down the street, we decided that we might as well follow him. We hoped that he would lead us to our chosen destination.

We walked closely behind the young man with long hair for a number of blocks, until at last we came to a neighborhood that was filled with throngs of other young people, all of whom wore colorful attire and whose heads were covered with an abundance of hair. We saw men dressed in paisley shirts, denim jeans, velvet jackets, and leather boots, and women wearing flowered dresses, strings of beads, headbands, and sandals. The streets of the neighborhood were lined, on both sides, with a collection of shops that sold jewelry, clothing, posters, incense, books, and records. Clusters of grubby idlers sat on doorsteps, lazily enjoying the sunshine as they strummed guitars and begged for money. Most of the young faces that we encountered on that day seemed friendly and unaffected.

My friend and I did our best to appear unmistakably hip (although I must admit that we mostly failed in that regard) as we sauntered along, endeavoring to act as if we actually belonged there. We were not full-fledged hippies ourselves, but we did not want to be thought of as a couple of squares, and we certainly did not want to be taken for mere tourists. At the end of the afternoon, after we had seen everything there was to see in Haight-Ashbury, and had soaked up as much hipness as we could hope to soak up in one day, we boarded another bus at the main terminal and returned to our suburban homes.

Owing to my own youth at the time, I was not able to clearly perceive the fatal defects that marred, and finally destroyed, the amiable dream of the hippies. I saw only what I imagined to be an appealing life of freedom and tolerance. Unfortunately, their frail vision of a new community that was peaceable and loving, a community in which the usual concerns of money and possessions were accorded less value than human and spiritual considerations, was inevitably doomed by an unwholesome combination of drugs, recklessness, and exploitation. It was, in many ways, a noble and well-intentioned undertaking, pursued by people who generally were gentle and honest and kind, but it also was an undertaking that could not sustain itself.

Sam and I also made regular visits to the nearby city of Berkeley, where things were much the same as in San Francisco. In Berkeley, however, the general tone was more clamorously radical, with an overall feeling of coming upheaval. Revolt of all kinds was loudly promoted at wild rallies and vigorously discussed at learned symposiums, and bold posters that starkly extolled the questionable virtues of Maoism were on display everywhere. I was inclined toward a certain degree of rebellion, and I enjoyed the lively mood of overt disobedience, but I was never going to count myself among the ardent followers of Chairman Mao. To me, Mao was merely a fat dictator with an oversized estimation of himself.

We spent a number of long afternoons in Berkeley, quietly strolling up and down the length of Telegraph Avenue and loitering on the extensive campus of the adjoining university, both of us feeling glad to have broken loose, if only briefly, from the petty constraints of our usual lives. We also were quite happy not to be given any trouble in regard to the length of our own hair, which now was getting longer and had therefore become a frequent cause of difficulty for us in the suburbs, where total conformity still was the rule. Having the look of a hippie was not much of a problem in Berkeley or San Francisco, but it could be troublesome elsewhere.

It was an extraordinary time in many ways, filled with a wealth of open thinking, random opportunities, and singular experiences, but it could not last. When the prevailing air of radicalism in Berkeley was tainted by a constant overflow of street people and a rampant plague of dangerous narcotics, the mood on the dirty sidewalks became ugly and dark. The joyous proclamations of peace and love quickly faded, leaving a host of bittersweet memories, and as 1967 gave way to 1968, a rougher period of aimless unrest and random violence ensued. On the streets of both cities, Berkeley and San Francisco, the groovy days of flower power came to a wretched end.