Saturday, July 25, 2009
Tom's San Francisco: Hippie Hand-Me-Downs
Traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco makes you acutely aware of California as a place: the differences in distance, space, size, weather, and topography all draw into focus the geographical dimensions of the state.
Where LA is huge and sprawling, San Francisco is compact and traversable. You can walk from Northeastern North Beach, where I'm staying, to Haight Ashbury in the Southwest, in a few hours. A comparable LA journey would take a day, if it were possible, which I doubt.
And while the heat and yellow air in LA are by all accounts ubiquitous, San Francisco varies by the hour and by the suburb. As a woman tells me from behind the counter at what must be California's most tightly-focused retailer of kitschy sunglasses and handbags, San Francisco is like Wellington in that the best way to ensure it's sunny is to go out with an umbrella. (Maybe in Koreatown I was mistaking the cause for the effect).
But just as stark are the similarities and differences in the cities' mythic presences. It's not until walking San Francisco that I realise - and I know how trite this sounds - just how much mythic baggage both cities carry. LA's history is that of migrants and chicken farmers who decided to try storytelling and changed culture forever. San Francisco is a gold-rush town, a spark that ignited into a city, an exodus of gamblers and prospectors and Oriental labourers that turned into a culture.
LA is where the Mob snuck into movies and pop music and vice and tax dodges and drugs-to-the-stars, where even the water is implicated in nefarious history. San Francisco is where immigrant populations and folks with no history anywhere else were squeezed together into steel-band neighborhoods so tough the flatfoots were paid extra to walk their streets. LA is where they worked out how to perfect the art of artifice so neatly that all storytelling is compared (more's the pity) to Hollywood cinema. San Francisco is where the Beats happened, Kerouac and Ginsberg and Kesey and their shamanic trips and brilliant/culture-redefining/nonsensical-bullshit ramblings.
LA is where young kids go to become Discovered and become Lost: disappearing into porn or drugs or cut in two and left in a public park. San Francisco is where the Zodiac Killer was never caught. LA is where the Manson Family prowled the hippie scene for new recruits, hanger-on kids who dug the mission statement of the New Age cults but would never have the high-status glamour of a Jane Mansfield or (reputedly) Steve McQueen. San Francisco is where canny carnie Anton LaVey made his home base, promulgating Randian Objectivist selfishness from behind a veneer of occult notoriety, roping in the same kids who couldn't make it down to the Yucutan where former Scientologists had got old-time religion horribly wrong.
I went to the Museum of Comic Art, which features an exhibition on hot new movie Watchmen. Their biography of fictional supervillain Moloch reads pretty much exactly the same as that of LaVey offered by a Book On Deadly Books I thumb through at an alternative bookstore at the bottom of Haight. I go to the Public Library, where they have facsimiles of the original manuscript for Howl. Child-eating greed-demon Moloch rampages through those pages too. If the Age of Aquarius has left any impression that I've picked up, it's that the hippies knew Fearful Symmetry better than we care to remember.
On Lower Haight, a poster in an upmarket restaurant window proclaims the imminent age of Maitreya. A fly caught between the poster and the glass buzzes frantically. I chat with an old feller in a 60s-curio store. I ask him how long he's been there. He looks at me for a long time before nodding, "Long enough, don't you worry."
Haight Ashbury is where a coffee shop promises "The Best Coffee On Haight Street". It is actually the best coffee I have ever tasted. Strong and spicy and nuanced and kicking like a mule. It propels me further up Haight, through the centre of the hippie movement, now preserved in small boutiques selling Grateful Dead knick-knacks and Ken Kesey tchotkes. They're dwarfed by American Apparel stores and record chains and import retailers and a million off-brand Hot Topic clones. I chat with a longtime area resident, who looks for the word to describe the area, makes a face like he's forcing out a malformed turd, and finally lets the Big G - "Gentrified" - fall out of his mouth. It's a relief to hear someone else say it first. Moloch has been usurped by Mammon, paid tribute by swarms of angelheaded hipsters.