The Haight is haunted, particularly in the mists of early morning, much the same as Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was before it was malled over. Before the skeletons of the old canneries were ripped out, I could walk alone through the low fog, down deserted sidewalks at seven a. m. Past the old barber shop, the long empty coffee shops, the shacks and boathouses. I always felt the ghostly presence of the characters in Steinbeck’s novel walking with me.
Hit Haight Street at seven a.m., as I did recently, and you may sense you’re surrounded by the spirits of the 60s. The street cleaners have just swept through, leaving the pavement glistening in their wet wake. A smattering of sidewalk sweepers, who look as though they’ve been recruited from the ranks of homeless that live in the neighborhood, quietly converse as they push broom, piling tons of trash left by teems of last night’s revelers. Before long, the haggard, hungry-looking sweepers will take a break and head, together in their newfound camaraderie, to the coffee shop, one of the few on the avenue that opens early.
Once the sweepers have disappeared, except for a few cars and a handful of citizens, jogging or determinedly dashing to work, Haight is eerily empty. Deja vu is so pervasive, I expect crowds of festooned flower children to materialize, midst raggedy ann and andy hippies, to fill the street to overflowing. Dancing, singing, smoking, making love and not war, giving each other and every passing stranger the peace sign, raising two fingers instead of one, padding down the way with bare feet, wearing layers of tie-dye, jewelry and the ubiquitous flowers. While the troubadour sang on, “When you come to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Another hippie anthem, among many. Star-spangled Jimi Hendrix was just learning how to burn his guitar. He’s gone now, but the Free Clinic is still on Cole. Maybe, if Jimi had just spent a little more time at the Clinic, he’d still be here.
Out of the present parades the past. I remember the diminutive brunette in a brown gabardine ’20s coat and cloche, early Alice Waters style, carrying a tray suspended from a strap around her neck and shoulders. The tray is filled with Saran-wrapped sandwiches. They look delicious, stuffed with tomato, lettuce, cheeses, sunflower seeds, mayonnaise, and marijuana. I bought one once, but I didn’t inhale.
Haight Street in the 60s vibrated with color, it looked beaded. Beads were everywhere, adorned everyone, made of glass or wood or semi-precious stones. Beaded curtains concealed doorways that led to dark rooms strewn with dark secrets and befloored mattresses. Bolts of East Indian prints shaded windows and wrapped female bodies. Poetry readings were as common as hashish pipes. Everyone was always laughing, even when it wasn’t funny.
Peace signs were painted like graffiti on every available space, or sewn on shirts. The seeds of protest were planted here to be sufficiently nurtured to grow worldwide.
The world was young and green. Plants were pervasive, in the Victorian and Edwardian homes and apartments, in restaurants. Where, in the ’50s there were few, plants became the things to accumulate instead of furniture. A wooden crate would do as well as a chair. Cement blocks and boards would build an adequate bookcase. Suspended from ceilings above this makeshift ambiance, beaded hemp macramé was tortured and twisted into hangar-holders for all of those plants.
And again, unlike the ’50s when, for appearance’s sake only, sex was verboten, denizens of the Haight offered it, for free, to all. The Big Fifties Lie that no one was getting any was unmasked. The word promiscuous lost its meaning. The phrase, “Let it all hang out” was born and liberally, as well as literally, interpreted. Life was too good, no holding back. The concept of “share” began with sex and became the mode of ’60s communal living. When morning came, so did Vietnam and AIDS. The dream was over. Once again, the Haight would undergo metamorphosis.
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These days, helpless homeless sleep late in shadowed doorways. Here in the Haight homelessness doesn’t discriminate. It strikes every gender at every age. Huddled, sometimes together, against the cold, they stare with eyes empty beyond despair but I doubt the numbness they need ever comes. During the day, old men with matted long hair, wrapped in blankets, walk the street with nowhere to go except maybe for a turn in Golden Gate Park. The street nowadays is more of a monochromatic gray.
It takes a while for the Haight to waken. The People’s Cafe and donut shop are what you do besides stroll before 8am. Then, a line queues up outside of The Pork Store, once an old-fashioned butcher shop, now a restaurant. Some waiting in line are still-giddy refugees from after hours clubs; some are local yuppie families with babies and toddlers; some are the sidewalk sweepers. Breakfast here is a cause célèbre.
When I opened the door, it was like walking into the middle of a tea cozy; the atmosphere is so comforting. Children are offered, before the parents even ask, custard cups of sliced fruit and warm biscuits. Waitresses are angels in disguise. Platters come laden with grits, eggs, potatoes, chops and more biscuits. My table is the size of a chess board, crowded with condiments. Catchup, S&P, syrup, a saucer of butter, hot sauce, marmalade and jam jars, sugar, honey, cream. An intense feeling of the familiar blends with the satisfaction of grand anonymity in the big city.
After the locals hoard the mornings on Haight to themselves, tourists start showing up by the busful. Delivery trucks clog the artery. Traffic in the afternoon is tumultuous.
Young men with chains and green spiked hair speed by on skateboards. Other young people gather to hang out or shop, the women dressed mostly in black nails and lips, purple hair.
Shops have amusing names: Backseat Betty, Gargoyle, Dreams of Kathmandu, Squat and Gobble, Verd’s Funk, Bound Together, an Anarchist Book Collective Bookstore. Restaurants abound. You can have Spanish tapas, New Orleans jambalaya, authentic Mediterranean gyros, French crepes, New York pizza. There is a good Vietnamese noodle house and several Mexican and Italian foodstops.
Buy anything from a Jerry Garcia doll to a chess set composed of “Simpsons” characters. There must be more shoe stores per capita than anywhere else on the planet except Italy. Not just your ordinary shoe stores, most are thick clodhoppers with high heels, some covered in silver glitter. There is more than one interesting bookstore on Haight, more than one music store, the largest of the latter is the size of a bowling alley aptly named Amoeba.
The William R. DeAvila grade school is a work of art not to be missed, covered in colorful tile, paintings, designs in different media, sculpture and writing, the exterior is transformed from pedestrian to Picassoed. Even the old-fashioned drinking fountain out front has been decorated and filled with little sculpted fish.
The Haight retains its special energy. It remains a clutter of paradoxes. Its homes and domiciles are better cared for than a decade or two ago. It’s exciting! After a couple of days cruising Haight Street, we returned home to Boonville in a state of advanced exhaustion.