The San Francisco Search
by Michael Macrone
It’s one of those glorious mornings in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, when the sun burns through the fog and a breeze sweeps from the west. Panhandlers line Haight Street, well-wishing even the ungiving. A skinhead on skateboard howls by from Ashbury all the way to Stanyan, where he kicks off in a tumble down the first grassy slope of Golden Gate Park, a 50-block-long home to the homeless. Lakes, playgrounds, buffalo, palms, bocce courts, Ultimate Frisbee, windmills, lost trails, roses, congas, roller skaters, tourists and trenches sprawl out to the ocean, and the end of America.
I’m on Hippie Hill, a former open-air acid commune, watching withering, cane-wielding flower children poke past the Conservatory. As the afternoon deepens, street people sink into the recesses of the park while night people awaken to costume for the show at the I-Beam on Haight. By eleven, the dance floor will be packed. It might the Violent Femmes or Hüsker Dü or Divine or the DJ that draws the postmoderns and stargazers; though the music is a known quantity, the identity of the crowd is always indeterminate.
Across town, in the streets of Chinatown, faces are masked. Papier-mâché lion heads bob in time to an eerie cadence. Onlookers shout Gung hay fat choy (Happy whatever!) and Chinese restaurateurs crack thin smiles. Chinese New Year, like Halloween, is an occasion for San Francisco to celebrate alienated, anonymous hedonism. The lion dancers lead a parade that spills out onto Broadway, a doll-house West 42nd Street dividing Chinatown from North Beach (the “Greenwich Village of San Francisco”), where tourists who hear SF is sexy come to find out how. But they never find out.
San Francisco is certainly beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful metropolis in America. The sweep of shoreline, the panoramas, the picturesque and elaborate architecture, the Mediterranean contour, and the human scale have all incited deserved panegyrics. The popular postcard images of the city, however, belie its complexity and fundamental incoherence. The beauty is only a congenial backdrop for an atomistic, yet surprisingly tolerant, individualism.
The volatile social climate, fed by the influx of transients and displaced subcultures, occasionally catalyzes anomalous and nearly apocalyptic cultural explosions—for example, psychedelic rock and the SLA. From the first gold czar to Werner Erhard, Randolph Hearst to Jim Jones, San Francisco has hosted opportunists, refugees, robber barons, aliens, minorities, prophets, drinkers, and perpetual luminescence.
There is a feeling that anything can happen here, but once it does no one remembers what. San Francisco constantly erases its history and writes in first-person psychodramas. Although there is talk of reforming society, in the cafes one more often hears casual acquaintances narrating their relationships. The cafe culture functions as a secondary support group, an abstract confessional in which, once unloaded, all social sins are absolved, along with the need for deeper commitment.
Sister Boom Boom has hung up his habit. Once indulged by the media as a “weird” yet unthreatening representative of “(Don’t Call It) ’Frisco,” the former mayoral candidate in cloister drag is now simply Jack Fertig, contributing writer for the San Francisco Pocket Astrologer. Fertig’s old order, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, still convenes, but something has been missing for some time now.
The tenor of the Castro district, at the crook of Market Street where it turns up to Twin Peaks, has sobered. This neighborhood and the Valencia district, cultural centers for the lesbian and gay male populace (about 20 percent of the total population), have come of age. Homophobia has prevented neither the Castro’s affluence nor its relative comfort. But a less normalized outpost, the South of Market (“SoMa”) neighborhood, is beginning to disintegrate. AIDS and police surveillance have closed most of the male bathhouses. Former leather bars have become trendy night-spots where the crowds are of a decidedly mixed social and sexual orientation. Young professionals hit the dance floor at the Stud, while back across town, the San Francisco Lesbian-Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps are in the middle of the Chinese New Year Parade, just now snaking past the El Cid on Broadway, where the original marquee blares: “HE & SHE LOVE-IN.”
Meanwhile, over at Fisherman’s Wharf there’s a block-long line for the cable car downtown. I’m a few stops along the route watching a surcharged car pass me by. The tourists on board giggle, snap pictures of Alcatraz, clutch each other, and stick their butts out the side whenever the Rice-a-Ronied wagon hits a 20% grade. These are the folk that keep San Francisco in the black and the nearly 4,300 restaurants open: the vicarious population, from Marin to Montmartre, chasing dreams in this 46-square-mile Fantasyland of crazies, rolling hills and culinary innovators.
The “real people” in town have been shunted to the extremities of the city, west to the foggy “Avenues” or south toward the Peninsula, where the climate is warmer and the air dusty. In the heart of San Francisco, residents dodge tourists to beat a crooked path to a better lifestyle. The latest edition of enlightened living might include a new fern bar, mesquite-grilled seafood, or an apartment higher up the bill; Sonoma Chardonnays, another trip to Macy’s, danceaerobics, gelato, poetry readings, or Berkeley. Or perhaps a hot nightclub: the Stone for Manhattanoids, the Palladium for teenypunkers, anything on Union Street for yuppies.
But on the Ultimate Lifestyle front, progress is slow. Lines are still long at the Safeway; guilt has not been wholly eradicated from the cafes; the right drugs can be as hard to get as a reservation at the latest nouvelle-cuisine restaurant. Overall, however, the slight imperfections are insignificant. The weather’s great, the sky clear, the streets clean, people smile and say hello and hello and hello and go slowly back to their business. Things just don’t get that “intense,” except maybe in late afternoon, when the sky is streaked with reds and golds, and the fading light seems to clarify and sharpen the streets and the smiles. Downtown development and gentrification have not blocked the light or muted the city’s color. The tenderness and heart of San Francisco endure in a sort of conservative liberalism and laid-back mania.
– 30 –
First published in High Times magazine (August, 1985)