Autumn in the Haight: Where Has Love Gone?
November 30, 1967
San Francisco — The season changed, and the moon thrusts of the Autumn Equinox preoccupied the many people in Haight-Ashbury who chart by planetary movement. Others participated in the Equinox celebration, a pleasant event which has become a tradition here in the past few seasons. This celebration was of special note, because two traditional American Indian medicine men decided at the last minute to attend. The medicine men, Rolling Thunder and Shaymu, came to the Straight Theatre on Haight Street and helpers hurried to the street with handbills reading “QUICK INDIANS WANT TO SEE YOU.” The natives came, and, in front of the Straight, Rolling Thunder met Shaymu, and Shaymu said, “Let us adopt these people, who are called hippies, as our children. They have been disowned.” Rolling Thunder agreed, and the Indians and many of their new children went to the country to dance all night around a fire on a beach.
The vast majority of the younger residents of Haight-Ashbury just hung around the street, aware of neither the Equinox nor of their new family. Most were unaware because they didn’t care. They had more pressing problems: to find some bread to get home, to find a place bread to crash for the night, or to find some speed so they could forget about the night. Haight Street was lined with people with problems. Behind the scenes, there were only more problems.
Most of the tourists were gone, and with them their funny money, which really didn’t matter because they only clogged the streets and not much of the money filtered back into the community anyway. But the community was certainly short of bread. The Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic, which had given free medical treatment to 13,000 people since June without any financial or moral support from government or foundation sources, finally closed its doors, defeated and depleted, on September 22. The Digger Free Store was in debt and the proprietor threatened to split to New York unless the $750 in back rent materialized. The Switchboard, which maintained a volunteer legal staff of 30 lawyers and had found crash pads for up to 300 pilgrims a night, was doing fine until it received some contributions. They spent the money before the checks bounced, and needed $1000 to survive. Most of the communes in the country still depended on outside support, and even the free food in the Panhandle, which began to resemble a bread line, threatened to fold without any more funds.
Haight-Ashbury had survived the Summer of Love, but it seemed mortally wounded.
It could have been worse. Estimates in the spring had doubled the estimated 50,000 saints and freeloaders who came to the Haight seeking the love and free life that the papers had promised. The subdivided flats in the bay-windowed houses-the rule to Haight-Ashbury as tenement apartments are to the East Side stretched to accommodate guests. There were no hunger riots, and the now defunct free medical clinic kept the threatened plague and pestilence in check. The pilgrims were fed and housed — with occasional free music and drugs thrown in and the panhandlers on Haight Street were still asking for quarters in October.
As I arrived, there were kids on many corners with packs on their backs and thumbs stuck out trying to leave. The people I met, many of whom had been here before the Human Be-In and the Summer of Love (some of whom had coined the words), were exhausted and dejected, rather like a bartender counting unbroken glasses after an all-night brawl. Yet they were counting broken spirits and their new veteran friends who had not yet split for the sanctum of an un-publicized commune in the country. They were the hosts of the Summer of Love and now, after the Autumn Equinox, it was time to clean up.
There’s not much reason now to go to Haight Street unless it’s to cop. The street itself has a layer of grease and dirt which is common on busy sidewalks in New York but rare in San Francisco, a film that comes from bits of lunch garbage and spilled coke ground into the cement by the heels of Haight Street strollers. It is not a pleasant place to sit, yet hundreds do, huddled in doorways or stretched out on the sidewalk, in torn blankets and bare feet, bored voices begging tor spare change, selling two-bit psychedelic newspapers that were current in the spring, and dealing, dealing, dealing. The dealing is my strongest impression of Haight Street. The housewives with their brownie cameras miss the best part of the show.
It’s not hard to cop in the Haight. It you look remotely hip and walk down the street, a dozen anxious peddlers should approach you to offer their goods. It is something that may happen once a day on St. Mark’s Place. Here I am asked several times on each block whether I want to buy, or occasionally sell, grass, acid, meth, kilos, lids, matchboxes or, in the case of one ambitious (and, I think, mad) merchant, “Owsley tabs, mescaline, psilocybin coated grass, or anything, anything you want.” The merchant was young, fat, owlish-looking, perspiring and unshaven. He had an entourage of several pre-adolescent kids swathed in Army blankets. “I know the stuff is good,” he said. “I try it all myself.”
The pace of dealing picks up at night, when the dark provides some protection. Walking down Haight Street at night, the offers are whispers in the shadows or in the crowds. Mostly its acid. But the street acid is usually a combination of a taste of acid fortified with anything from methedrine to strychnine. There have been a lot of bad trips here lately, because there has been a lot of bad acid.
Even in October some new stores are opening, latecomers for the leftovers of the poster and bead market, but it should be a rough winter for the bead game with no assurance that next summer the circus will come to town again. Enlightened natives have spread out all over town from Haight-Ashbury. Anyone curious about hippies can pick up a hitchhiker or find some on his own block. Unlike Greenwich Village, the shops are not an attraction in themselves. The same goods are sold in more attractive shops all over town.
I did find one merchant who wanted nothing to do with the psychedelic market. I needed some matches so I went into a liquor store on Haight Street off Clayton and, rather than hassle the thin, white-haired man at the counter, I bought a pack of cigarettes, which he gave me with a pack of matches. Then I asked for an extra pack of matches.
He eyed me severely.
“You got matches, right here,” he said, tapping the pack of matches with the nail of his index finger.
“I’d like an extra pack” I said. “I’ll pay you for them”
He shook his head. “No,” he said, “you got matches right here. One pack is all you need. One pack of cigarettes. One pack of matches. What do you need more for?”
I pulled out my other pack of cigarettes. “For these,” I said. “That’s what I came here for.”
“What happened to the matches you got with those?” he shouted, triumphant with the evidence, finding me guilty of all the dope fiend-marijuana-puffing sins that the mind of a liquor store keeper could imagine. Even after the hoards, he was holding his hill. He was doing his bit.
The street is the heart of the Haight. It is where everyone first realized that they had company on their trip. It is reality — a hard fact to stomach when you’re 15 and strung out on meth and it’s midnight and you’ve got no place to crash except a doorway. Without the coffee houses and bars of the beats, the street is the scene, a hell of a scene, with tourists and runaways and dealers and burners and the holy Angels with their bikes and the gaudy stores as a backdrop.
A schism exists between the street and the elite in Haight-Ashbury. The same is true in New York. The elite of the Haight-Ashbury scene are more aware of it, and they have occasionally tried to bridge the gap, without much success. Chester Anderson began the Communication Company over a year ago, hoping to keep the street in touch and control with an “instant newspaper” of enticing handbills. The handbills fascinated the fringes but bored the masses. Anderson was finally purged and split several months ago for Florida. The Diggers tried harder, attacking the needs of the neighborhood with free food and free stores and free theatre and free thought. They convinced Jay and Ron Thelin, pioneer proprietors of the Psychedelic Shop, to foresake free enterprise and just be free. The shop became a lounge for the street and finally died October 6 with the proprietors in debt, in love, and enlightened. On that day, the elders decided to put an end to it all.
The idea was kindled at a meeting earlier in the week at Happening House, a beautiful Victorian mansion just off the Panhandle on Clayton Street, which opened at the end of the summer to serve as a community center. The idea was to have a three day funeral for the death of hip — or the death of the Haight — and most of the meeting was spent trying to determine just what had died. But all agreed that a funeral was a good idea. “The idea of a few people going down Haight Street,” sighed Oracle editor Allen Cohen. “The idea, the symbol goes through walls, through windows, through air, through mountains. Through the media, it will hit millions of people.” The media giveth and the media taketh away.
“I’m going to be driving the truck all day,” a Digger said, “and I’m going to be talking to people.”
“What are you going tell them to do?” someone asked.
“I’m gonna tell them that everything’s out of control. That they’re free.”
And then someone read the surrender speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and the meeting was adjourned.
After the meeting I walked with several of the talkers to the house of the Grateful Dead, where Rolling Thunder, the Shoshone medicine man, was staying while he visited Haight-Ashbury. It is a four-story Victorian townhouse glowing with stained glass windows, which clings to the hill on Ashbury Street and houses the Dead, their entourage, and the offices of the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization. Rolling Thunder was sitting in the parlor.
Had it not been for his turquoise headband and heavy necklaces, which he said were given to him since he arrived in Haight-Ashbury, Rolling Thunder would hardly have looked like an Indian, let alone medicine man. His skin is light and his face bears the hard lines of the harsh weather in the country of the Western Shoshone, which is Eastern Nevada. His hair is short and combed back and he wore the simple clothes of a rancher. He is soft-spoken, with a slight Western drawl, and loves to talk, making him the most candid prophet one could ever hope to meet.
Rolling Thunder, who is chairman of the traditional Tribal Council of the Western Shoshone Nation, came to San Francisco to join 32 traditional Indians who were about to embark on a caravan to circle the country to protest a bill pending in Congress which will allow Indians to borrow money on their lands. He believes that the bill is a trick to deprive the Indians of their remaining land.
But the real threat of the bill before Congress, Rolling Thunder explained, is that it endangers the lands of the Hopi, which have always remained intact. “The Hopi are the keepers of our religion,” he said. “As soon as we found out that the white man was taking everything, our sacred tablets were hidden with the Hopi.
“I was praying for my people,” he recalled, “and I had a dream. I was in a Kiva. I saw a fire — blue and green — in the dark at the far side. I knew it was a presence. I know it was the supreme being. He was covered with eagle feathers. He had a beak like an eagle and a body like a man. He said and to saw look to the left. I looked and saw stone tablets with pictographs. He said, look there and you’ll find an answer.
“A few days later I was in Hopi land, and they brought out the stone tablets, and I read them.
“They said, in the last days, the Hopi would be the last to go. That’s happening now, so we know the time is close.”
The caravan is intended to fulfill the prophecy which speaks of two stars in the sky. “For hundreds of years,” Rolling Thunder said, “the large star followed the small star across the sky. And the Great Spirit said, when the stars reverse, the time is right. That happened two months ago. He also said that we should go out and meet people, to see who is true and who is not true. And that is what we are doing.”
The prophecy also speaks of destruction, that after the stars reverse a “gourd of ashes” will fall from the sky, destroying the people who are not true. “It’s written on the rocks,” Rolling Thunder said, “and when that comes people will come to the wilderness to seek refuge with the Indians and they’ll try to buy their way in, but their money will be of no value. We will know who is true and who is not true.”
Thelin explained the idea of the funeral. “We’re really trying to sabotage the word hippie,” he said. “It’s really fucking us up. It’s not our word. It has nothing to do with us. We’d like to substitute ‘free American’ in its place.”
Rolling Thunder smiled and nodded. “That free American term sounds a lot better,” he said. “I’ve asked several people what they call themselves, and they couldn’t give me an answer. Now maybe they can give me an answer.”
The medicine man sat on a large desk, and a dozen people sat around him on the floor. “I saw this before it ever happened,” he said. “This is a direct prophecy from myself. I wondered it the white man could ever live in this country and eat the food and still remain a hashed-over European. And I saw these people with the long hair. These people will be the future Americans.
“What you people are going through is the same thing that we’ve gone through. You’re just getting your training. We’ll help you in any way we can.”
Hidden Medicine Men
“There will also be people among you who will be medicine men. He will know protection. He will know what areas will be safe. There’s one among you already. He doesn’t know it. I’ve talked to him and he will be coming to my country to learn. But, until you have your own, you can borrow one once in a while.
“It’s going to be rough,” he warned. “It’s going to be violent, especially in the cities. The spirit told me tostay away from that violence. I think that might be good advice for you people. Violence is not the way. There’s something more powerful than that.”
“In the last days, they will throw everything at you to destroy you, and that’s what’s happening now. And now the medicine men are coming back. When those stars reversed — that is when the power of good took over from the power of evil. Many young people are becoming medicine men. So now your people, who are living like Indians, you see what you’ve let yourselves into.
“They may prosecute and jail people. They may do everything, because they are fearful. But they won’t succeed.”
Someone asked about the Shoshone way of facing death.
“Death?” the medicine man asked. “There is no death. But if you kill yourself, you displease the Great Spirit, and you may be reincarnated as a worm.”
Rolling Thunder’s daughter, who was with him, said that she was walking down to Haight Street, and asked if there was anything she could do for him.
“I’ll tell you one thing you can do,” he said. “You can go down to the Psychedelic shop and get some of those ‘”We Shall Overcome’ buttons. Those will be very popular in our country. Can you get them wholesale?”
“They might for you,” someone said. “They should know you.”
“Then I guess I’d better walk down myself.”
The next day was a day of preparation and press conferences. I walked into the Psychedelic Shop in the late afternoon to find CBS News waiting in line behind a local television station to interview Ron Thelin in his tiny office at the back of the shop. A tiny enameled American flag hung from Thelin’s freshly pierced ear.
The funeral notices had been printed. They were small stiff cards, bordered in black, reading “HIPPIE. In the Haight Ashbury district of this city, Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media. Friends are invited to attend services beginning at sunrise, October 6, 1967, at Buena Vista Park.”
And there was a handbill, which read in part, “MEDIA CREATED THE HIPPIE WITH YOUR HUNGRY CONSENT. BE SOMEBODY. CAREERS ARE TO BE HAD FOR THE ENTERPRISING HIPPIE. DEATH OF HIPPIE END. FINISHED HIPPYEE GONE GOODBYE HEH PPEEE DEATH DEATH HHIPPEE. EXORCISE HAIGHT ASHBURY. CIRCLE THE ASHBURY. FREE THE BOUNDARIES. OPEN EXORCISE. YOU ARE FREE. WE ARE FREE. DO NOT BE RECREATED. BELIEVE ONLY IN YOUR OWN INCARNATE SPIRIT. BIRTH OF FREE MAN. FREE SAN FRANCISCO. INDEPENDENCE. FREE AMERICANS. BIRTH. DO NOT BE BOUGHT WITH A PICTURE, A PHRASE. DO NOT BE CAPTURED IN WORDS. THE CITY IS OURS. YOU ARE ARE ARE. TAKE WHAT IS YOURS. THE BOUNDARIES ARE DOWN. SAN FRANCISCO lS FREE NOW FREE THE TRUTH IS OUT OUT OUT.” And, at the bottom, according to the prophecy of October 6, 1966, the day the California LSD laws came into effect, the Declaration of Independence was re-declared.
Saturday morning the little windows in the parking meters up and down Haight Street were all painted white, and the faithful gathered before dawn at the top of the hill in Buena Vista Park to greet the sun. The sun rose on time, and they rang bells and breathed deeply and exhaled OM, the first sound in the Universe. Then the pallbearers lifted the 15-foot coffin, to be filled with the artifacts of hip, and bore it down the long hill to the street. They paused to kneel at the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury and brough the coffin to rest for the moment in front of the Psychedelic Shop, which had a huge sign reading “BE FREE” in place of its famous mandala. Then the elated mourners swept the street in preparation for the procession at noon.
At noon a huge banner was stretched across the street. It read “DEATH OF HIPPIE, FREEBIE, BIRTH OF THE FREE MAN.” (The Chronicle had dubbed the reincarnated hippie a “freebie” in a story on Friday, but later apologized). The coffin was carried to the Panhandle, where more newspapers, beads, fruit, cookies, posters, flowers, and buttons were added to the remains. A banner was held up reading “The Brotherhood of Free Men is Born.” And, as the proeession began, the crowd sang Hare Krishna, but slowly, as a dirge.
The procession moved slowly down the Panhandle towards Golden Gate Park. First came a legion of photographers, walking backwards, and then the coffin, over ten struggling pallbearers, and then a hippie laid out on a stretcher, holding a flower to his chest, and then about 200 mourners, some in elaborate costume, some shaking tambourines, some carrying babies, some dodging cameras. When it reached the park the procession turned left, now with a police escort, whose job seemed to be to keep the procession jammed onto the sidewalk. Six blocks later they turned left again, hauling the coffin up the steep hill on Fredrick Street, and at the top of the hill, they turned again on Masonic Street, which goes steeply down hill, to complete the circle of the Haight. The coffin picked up speed as it moved downhill, the photographers jumped to get out of the way, and dead hippie squirmed to stay on the stretcher. And then halfway down the steep Masonic Street sidewalk, their path was blocked.
A Cadillac had been left parked in a driveway.
The funeral procession came to a crushing halt, and the police escort — a lone cop — sauntered over and began to write out a parking ticket.
“Move the car.” someone yelled. The owner wa1ked out of the house and began to argue with the cop.
“Hassle him later,” they yelled. “Move the car!”
The cop gave the man a ticket, and the owner returned to his house. The Cadillac remained in the driveway, and the pallbearers were groaning.
At which point the cop consented to let the procession bypass the car in the street.
The End of the Line
The procession ended where it began, in the Panhandle. The hippie on the stretcher rose from the dead, looking punchy, and the banners, were used to kindle a fire under the huge coffin. The flames took to it quickly and rose ten feet in the air as the crowd cheered. They danced in a circle around the burning coffin and the cameramen and, and as the fire died down, free men began to leap over the flames. Then the crowd gasped with horror as they saw the fire engines approach.
“The remains!” someone yelled. “Don’t let them put it out!” The crowd blocked the firemen and spokesmen argued with the chief as his men readied their hoses. When the hoses were ready, the crowd parted, and the coffin disappeared in a monster cloud of spray and black smoke. The fire was out in seconds, and the firemen moved in with shovels to break apart the smouldering remains. A few diehards were still arguing with the chief, but the mourners had already begun to wander off.
Saturday, the Chronicle reverently reported that the Hippie was dead, but by Monday they were back in business again, with their daily quota of copy from the Haight. The banner remained strung across Haight Street for a week, as a reminder, and the Psychedelic Shop was closed and boarded up, and the parking meters were cleaned of the white paint. But the kids still panhandled and sold newspapers and lounged in the doorways, and the occasional tourist still gawked from behind the locked doors of his car. Nothing bad changed. It was all the same.
But an exorcism is a subtle thing, and some of the dejection that plagued the Haight in the wake of the Summer of Love did appear to be gone. When a phalanx of 14 cops swept down Haight Street Tuesday in a daylight raid to net runaways, the community responded with vigor and outrage and, despite threats by Police Chief Cahill, the raids were not repeated. The heat was on and the Haight kept cool.
Within a few weeks, the Switchboard was out of debt and danger, and a series of well-attended benefits brought a generous reserve of funds into the coffers of the clinic, which reopened in late October. The Straight Theatre, which was denied a dance permit by an ever-harassing city, held huge “Dance Classes” (for which permits are not needed) to the accompaniment of the Grateful Dead. And the Diggers were delivering free meat to communes and distributing 5000 copies of a 20-page free magazine called “Free City.”
The Free City
The elders now harbor hopes that San Francisco will indeed become a “free city.” If any city can, it can, but it must be born, not made. The hippie was made but the community called Haight-Ashbury was born, and it was a virgin birth — an evolutionary experiment and experience. It was beautiful, I am told, in the golden age before the Human Be-In which awoke the media to the precious copy lying untapped on the south side of Golden Gate Park. “Were you here a year ago?” people ask. If you were, then you know.
But then the seekers came en masse, enticed by the media. “They came to the Haight,” a handbill relates, “with a great need and great hunger for a loving community. Many, wanting to belong, identified with the superficial aspects of what ‘hippie’ was. They didn’t drop out but rather changed roles.
“As a result the tone of Haight-Ashbury changed. With many people coming in expecting to be fed and housed, the older community tried to fulfill their needs. Rather than asking them to do their thing, the community tried te give them what they came for. The community tried to be something it wasn’t.
“The early members tried to save the community and as a result it began to die. It began to die because in the effort to save it the individuals lost themselves. Without individual selves the community started to become a shell with little within; to maintain the community feeling, meetings replaced relationships and organization replaced community.
“By the end of the summer we were forming organizations to save something that no longer existed. Community is a creative thing and saving is only a holding action. By desperate clinging, we lost.”
They lost, but they learned.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 5, 2020