Long Time Passing

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 The cafés had been replaced by tacky souvenir shops and antique stores selling lace, of all things.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.




12 thoughts on “Long Time Passing

  1. Wow. The image of the tuning fork against the telephone pole is such a great detail — it says so much about both characters without telling. Your rich narrative is so evocative. I’ve never been to Haight Asbury but I could picture it, both in its previous state and the story’s present. Nostalgia, loss, and discovery.

    • Meg, thank you so much! I have to say that your words about writing what we need to write, what burbles to the surface, rather than worrying about the response we might get was perfect for me this week! I’ve had this story in my drafts for months – I initially drafted it when a friend came to dinner and told us the basic nugget of it. But I could never make it go anywhere and I could never find the “so what.” The sound prompt this week finally took it where I wanted it to go. And your thoughts on writing for ourselves were the final push. So, thank you 🙂 Next week, a cento!

  2. I visited Haight-Ashbury in the late 90s and I feel like it was just starting to commercialize. I imagine there are Starbucks and Wal-Marts there now with tie-dyed signs out front. You captured the deflated balloon spirit really well. My only cc is that it felt like it fell into exposition a few times. Where the plot felt like telling instead of showing. Examples: Fifth par.: It wasn’t honest or real anymore. It felt empty and silent. Eighth par.: In the old Haight, strangers used to talk to each other without hesitation.

    • Ugh, your view of HA now is depressing…because it’s so likely. Thanks for the cc, as always. I was concerned I would tell rather than show because this started out as someone else’s recounting of an experience they had. But these two examples were were purely from my imagination. They were intended as reflections on how disappointing it had become from the narrator’s pov. I’ll have to reflect on your comments some more. I like that you made me really stop and think. Thank you 🙂

  3. This story reminds me of the Sonic Highways show that Dave Grohl did – going back to where music history started, finding little hole in the wall bars full of memories to play and record in. It was a show with a really great vibe, and this story feels like it should have been one of its chapters. Very, very cool.

    • Having once been completely obsessed with Nirvana, I take this as a huge compliment! I would love to think that my little story is in some way comparable to Dave Grohl’s very cool show.

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