In 1975, the streets of Haight-Ashbury were still lined with cafés, musicians, artists and poets–everyone who had come west following a dream. There was ambience. There was feeling. It was real.
But four years later, everything had changed.
I came to a stop in the middle of the intersection on that first day of my return and, looking around, wondered what had happened. The cafés had been replaced by tacky souvenir shops and antique stores selling lace, of all things. The street scene had changed, too. There were a few coked-out runaways; both the rich ones who could afford to be there for the experience and the ones who were genuinely starving. Vagabonds, too, and the odd, lost, tie-dyed tourist peering nervously through pink-tinted circle-framed glasses.
The only things that seemed to have stayed the same were the cracks in the pavement and the grit lodged in the corners of shopfronts where flyaway newspapers resembling ghost town tumbleweeds gathered, telling of times that continued to change, just not in the way we had thought they would.
It wasn’t honest or real anymore. It felt empty and silent. In earlier times, a variety of tunes poured out of the cafés and, mingling with the sounds of sidewalk buskers and poets, made up a new, different breed of music. Somehow it all jibed.
But without the cafés, there was silence, and in that silence the soul of the place seemed to have curled up and died. In its absence, the cracks in the road were all I could focus on.
Until I noticed the only person around who felt familiar, like the echo of a memory. His jeans and faded red t-shirt were unremarkable enough; I noticed him because he was repeatedly hitting a tuning fork on a telephone pole, then holding it up to his ear to listen. He nodded and smiled each time, his faraway look growing blank as the sound faded.
In the old Haight, strangers used to talk to each other without hesitation. “Hey man,” I said, “where have all the cafés gone?”
He shrugged and gave me some convoluted directions to another neighbourhood – left here, right there, left, right. I looked at him and frowned. This wasn’t the response I’d expected from a man who appreciated the music of a tuning fork.
After an extended silence, during which he must have been assessing my merits, his face broke into a toothy grin. “You got enough to buy me a soup and a coffee, man?”
That was more like it. We struck a deal and I followed him along his meandering route through the back streets of the city while he told me about about all the changes. The Haight had become a victim of its own personality. The people who had come for ten years and more to expand their minds, live the dream and hook up with other likeminded people had been replaced by the squares who, too late, had decided the hippie movement was cool. You can’t emulate a movement. You’re either there or you miss the boat.
In the midst of the deserted warren of streets, I heard the music first. And not just any music. Decent, far-out, creative music. Next, a flashback of odours teased my nose. The café was a perfect hole-in-the wall kind of place. A handful of musicians were playing in the back corner shadows, a big pot of soup was simmering beside a pot of percolating coffee.
It felt like coming home. It was almost like the old days, and almost was good enough.