Forty-five years ago, the San Francisco district of Haight-Ashbury became famous almost overnight when thousands of hippies turned it into centre stage for the phenomenon known as the Summer of Love. That drug-addled summer of music, flower-power and free love is long over but in this neighbourhood, our temporary home for the month, its influence can still be felt.
The area is filled with bohemian swap-shops, record stores and so-called ‘head shops’, which sell every kind of smokable herb, along with all the smoking devices ever conceived by hippie. Young kids sit around in clusters on the sidewalk*. It’s never the same kids but always the same formula: matted dreadlocks, backpacks emblazoned with peace signs, rolled-up sleeping mats, a sprinkling of guitars and perhaps a dog.
Their parents would have been barely toddling around when Janis Joplin was walking these streets and painting the town technicolour. Yet such is the draw of this otherwise unremarkable intersection of streets that there’ll almost certainly still be a group like them, sleeping rough and strumming their guitars, long after this lot have sold out and become bankers.
On Saturday morning we clomped down the hill from our apartment, navigated around a hippie cluster and their “Need Money For Marujuana” sign and into our local coffee shop on Haight Street. As I settled into a seat with my laptop and a coffee, I noticed with dismay that Flute Guy was there. Weekday or weekend, Flute Guy is almost always there, nestled in a couch in the corner.
Dressed rasta-style, he reclines in his seat with his feet on the table, playing a staccato series of notes on a flute. Sometimes the notes are loosely connected to what is playing on the stereo, sometimes they become breathy and soft and trail into nothingness as he dozes off, only to wake again with another sharp blast. And noone thinks this is unusual. Noone else (except perhaps Stacker) wants to shove his flute where the Californian sun doesn’t shine. In any other city, Flute Guy wouldn’t last five minutes. In this city, he’s positively normal.
In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that it seems people here simply avoid making presumptions about normality; they don’t presume to have the right to tell someone that they can’t do what their heart desires, so long as it isn’t hurting anyone.
We got a brief respite from the jarring notes when a man came into the coffee shop, walked up to Flute Guy and said, in all seriousness, ‘Excuse me sir, do you happen to have any Grey Poupon.’ Flute guy initially looked confused, then, breaking into a big smile, he invited his new friend to join him on the couch.
Shortly after, yet another guy came in and sat quietly but bolt upright on the edge of his seat for a time, then abruptly got up, strode to the middle of the room and screamed – “IF YOU DON’T CHANGE YOUR WAYS, YOU WILL LOSE YOUR BUSINESS!” – before shouldering his backpack and walking out.
I started to wonder if maybe I’d inhaled too deeply when walking through the hippie-kids’ weed cloud since no-one else had even batted an eyelid at any of these events. I don’t know if it’s the remnants of the free-spirited Summer of Love, but in Haight Ashbury it seems pretty much anything goes.
In fact the very next day I would find myself in the same coffee shop, waiting in line for a coffee with a rainbow, a gladiator and a banana. Or rather, people dressed as a rainbow, a gladiator and a banana. No, I wasn’t having a break with reality. Last Sunday was host to the one day in the San Francisco calendar when half the city succumbs to their inner crazy: the annual Bay to Breakers race.
Once a year, at around 6.30am, runners start gathering in corrals at the Embarcadero, ready for the cross-city race known as Bay to Breakers. Many of them look like participants in a regular race, some of them are tethered together in groups and will run as ‘centipedes’ and some are in costume. The rest are stark naked, except for their participant number and perhaps a pair of trainers. These are the serious runners that intend to run the race.
After them will follow thousands of unregistered participants, dressed in costumes of every kind imaginable, who’ve come along for the ride, and many more will join along the way. However, these runners’ water bottles are more likely to be filled with beer and most would certainly not pass the drugs test for any self-respecting sporting event. Of course, most of them won’t actually run and a large percentage won’t make it to the end of the race but end up strewn along the course, continuing the party wherever they end up.
The event was initially started as a way to lift morale after the disastrous 1906 earthquake and has now taken on a life of its own, serving as an excuse for a giant street party.
Our plan, organised by a group of friends, was to have breakfast in the Lower Haight and then join the race at around 8am, dressed in Ghetto Chic costumes. Unfortunately we over-extended ourselves at our friend Snapper’s birthday celebration the night before and I woke up too late, dehydrated and wondering ‘now what the hell am I going to do with a fur vest and giant gold hoop earrings?’.
I was still keen to see some of the action though, so we headed down to the coffee shop and stood in line with the rainbow, gladiator and banana for some caffeine reinforcement. Next we headed to the Panhandle, a park by which the race passes and, for many, where it ends. When we got there the Panhandle was overrun with a party that was both over and in full-swing. Those who were awake were sunburned, elated and swinging from the trees (literally) as they partied amongst the carnage.
A gladiator was fighting Peter Pan on a plank of wood with a padded stick while a rainbow openly attempted to fornicate with a girl in a flowery costume. Girls played frisbee in g-strings and a large group of people danced around a rope swing that was hitched high in the trees, cheering every time someone falling from it didn’t hurt themselves.
The carnage looked less happy. A Ghostbuster and a fairy were passed out cold on the floor. Two friends were dragging their half-dead, half-naked friend under a tree while squeezing water into his throat. The results of many hours of debauchery were everywhere to be seen – and it was barely midday. There was lots of vomit, but surprisingly little trash. A few hours later, when we passed by again on our way home, the park was empty and there was not so much as a beer bottle in sight. This is California after all. I could imagine the inebriated Ghostbuster attempting to recycle his costume and wondering if metallic paint is compostable.
As we headed over to meet Snapper in the lower Haight, casually strolling behind a naked runner on his way home, we could see the remnants of the run everywhere as people continued the party in bars and fast food joints. I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming regret at having missed the biggest party of the year, an event where everyone lets loose, beyond the glare of judgement. Mingled with that feeling was an equally overwhelming feeling of relief at having accidentally saved myself from it.
* If you’re British and you object to my use in this article of “sidewalk” (pavement), “trash”(litter), “waiting in line” (queueing), “record store” (record shop) or “coffee shop” (cafe. And why isn’t it a ‘coffee store’?) then please allow me to apologize. Erm, I mean apologise.