A distinguished magazine asked me to write about San Francisco's irresistible attraction for hippies and beatniks. I declined the offer for two middling good reasons. First, in the manner of the most distinguished magazines, the fee offered would not exactly put me on the sunny side of Easy Street; and second, I'm damned if I know why San Francisco has been Mecca for so many round pegs in a largely square world. It's a puzzlement, as I believe Square Old Alice said in her Wonderland days, little knowing that the Mary Janes she wore would become a euphemism for pot.
However, in the interest of research, I put on my eight-button, double-breasted Brioni jacket, tight pants and my fruit boots and went to the drogstore on Haight Street, looking more odd than mod. The pants were so tight I could inhale only, a situation not devoutly to be desired in the drogstore. To the sound of splitting seams, I sat next to an adenoidal young man.
"You new on the scene?" I asked. Examining my duds, he inquired, "You from the fuzz?" "No, man," I replied, "I am a journalist from the overground press, seeking truth." He grunted. "I want to know," I continued, "why you came to San Francisco." "Because this is where it's all happening," he replied. "What is?" I asked. "Everything," he shrugged. "You know. The whole scene."
"Well," I ventured, "would you say you came to San Francisco to protest the sterility of middle-class morality and the Puritan ethic that has been so inimical to the mental well-being of mid-60s America? And if so, do you feel that total alienation is a viable stance vis-a-vis the military-industrial continuum?"
He looked at me for the first time. "You crazy?" He said. "I came out here like everybody else -- to get a girl and to get high." Only he didn't say "get a girl," exactly. I laughed, feeling that perhaps there was less to this story than we had been led to believe.
However, still searching, I consented to participate in a panel discussion. The subject was, naturally, the hippies, and I threw in the question, "But why San Francisco?" The answers were remarkably articulate. "Because this is where the winds of freedom blow." "Because there has been an atmosphere of abandon here since the Gold Rush." "Because this city has always taken the oddball and the alienated to its heart -- the care and feeding of characters is tradition."
And so on, round and round, and where it ended up was nowhere, as usual. Several obvious untruths were spoken such as "the hippies are anti-establishment and so is San Francisco." Actually, San Francisco is very much an establishment city; it makes just as much sense to say that that's why the hippies are flocking here -- the "enemy" is so visible. I also think it's a mistake to look upon the hippies as characters in the sense that Emperor Norton, Oofty-Goofty and even the beatniks were characters. Norton and his ilk were establishment characters, more than willing to play the role of court jester to the condescending lords. Even the beatniks, especially the talented writers and artists, were not averse to the rewards that only the establishment can bestow. The hippies are an entirely different pot of tea.
Except in their music, they couldn't care less about the approval of the straight world. And as for the fond notion that there is something especially alluring about the San Francisco tradition, forget it. Our police are more sensitive and understanding? "Fuzz is fuzz," said one of the hippies.
A hostess at a polite dinner party the other night wailed: "How did this hippie thing happened to our lovely city?" All I could think of was the reply of the Vassar girl found working in a house of prostitution: "Just lucky, I guess."