Haight after the coolaid acid test

Maggie O'Farrell visits San Francisco, where kaftan-wearing kids are struggling to recreate the Summer of Love

"WHAT WAS the Summer of Love really like?" I ask and lean forward over the counter, straining to hear the inaudible mumble coming from the beard of the thrift shop owner. Suddenly a voice to my left interrupts:

"If you have to ask you'll never know."

This strikes me as an obscurely unhelpful answer, especially as the girl, wearing the statutory uniform of plaited hair, sandals and Indian blouse, quite obviously wasn't born before 1980. When I point this out to her, she tosses her blonde plaits impatiently.

"Well, I'm here now aren't I?"

Haight-Ashbury, in the western district of San Francisco, is a criss- crossing grid of wooden Victorian houses, flanked on one side by the green acres of Golden Gate Park. In the Sixties, attracted by low-rents and the proximity of the park, the hippies began taking up residence. It became the hang-out for Beautiful People, an icon for all middle-class Sixties kids disillusioned with the onset of capitalism, the site for the now- famous happenings, and the subject of a certain song involving flowers and hair.

These days it has an air of slightly depressed decline: more than a few shops are boarded up and many of the houses have security gates with "No Soliciting" warnings. The pavements are lined with white teenagers on skateboard and body-pierced "gutterpunks". Men with amputated limbs, whisky bottles and signs reading "Vietnam Vet - please help" doze in doorways. Weaving in and out of these groups are what I can only describe as throwbacks: teenagers in kaftans and flares floating diaphanously from thrift-shop to thrift-shop. A strange mix of economic decline and nostalgia-based tourism, it's a place to reinvent yourself as whichever off-the-peg youth culture identity you fancy. You can buy Fifties American furniture or tarot cards; you can get tattooed, scarred or pierced; you can kit yourself out in tie-dye, leather, lycra, or Seventies tracksuits. It clings defiantly and consciously to its famous past: the best-selling ice cream in the Ben and Jerry's here is "Cherry Garcia".

Outside Reckless Records, a girl in combat gear asks me if I can spare thirty-five dollars.

"What for?"

"A new skateboard."

I laugh. She's sixteen, she tells me, lives with her family in Oakland, where she attends high school:

"Around about Wednesday my friends and I stop washing our hair and stuff and then on Friday night we put on all our grungy, hippy clothes and we come down here to hang out."

"Why?"

She shrugs, "I don't know. This is where it all happened, right? It's the thing to do, I guess."

I meet Sam crossing the road at a street corner. He doesn't ask me for money but for the banana I'm holding. We are watched by the green gaze of his cat, Aggie, who is harnessed to the battered shopping trolley which holds all his possessions. Sam tells me he's been on the streets of Haight- Ashbury for seven years.

"I'm going to have to move on, though." He shakes his head sadly. Behind us a group of teenagers flip one-cent pieces into the air. "I mean, I like those kids and everything, but with so many of them pretending to be homeless, no one gives anyone any money anymore."

After a week, I manage to track down someone with first-hand experience of the Summer of Love; not through anyone in the Haight but through someone who knows someone's brother who she thinks may have been there at the time.

"We're getting to be a rare breed," Johnathan Wagner admits when I meet him in his Berkeley kitchen. "Most of us are either dead or we sold out to the suburbs years ago. I arrived in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 when I was seventeen. It seemed like the natural place to go. What happened there is difficult to grab hold of. It was kind of over while it was actually happening, a bit like the psychedelic drugs I suppose: you got a glimpse of nirvana and then it was gone. There was an awareness that it was all of huge cultural significance, a feeling that everything was going to change, real delusions of grandeur about the whole thing. It all happened in the spirit of abundance. There were so many people there then; the word `homeless' didn't exist in people's vocabulary. We all slept on the street or crashed at other people's apartments."

"Why do you think it's had such a lasting effect that people are still trying to relive it?" I ask him.

"The period was a critique of the meaninglessness of modern industrial society. We had grown up watching our parents doing a 50-hour week and asked ourselves, `is this what life's all about, slaving away for the industrial machine?' That question is bound to keep coming up for every generation because of the spiritual poverty of Western culture. The ideas of the age sound corny now - peace and love - but when you think about it they're quite good ideas, really."

"Do you ever go back?"

"Not really. I find it rather ghostly. It's trapped in its past. I'm really tempted to shake one of those kids on the sidewalk and say, `Are you really trying to relive what we did 30 years ago?'"

"What has its effect been on you?"

"It's hard unless you've taken LSD to really understand the whole period. It's extremely difficult to integrate the whole experience back into regular life: you had these incredible insights but there just wasn't enough collective wisdom to put them into practice. You either had to go back to ordinary life or you were going to go nuts, which a lot of people did. I moved away from it. I went to university. It's a very difficult period for me to think about. It's actually only now that I'm beginning to come to terms with it: I feel like I've been asleep for thirty years."

Everyone I talk to in the Haight tells me, "you should talk to The Pope" but when I ask where I can find him, they tell me mysteriously, "You won't find him. He'll find you." On my last day I encounter him mixing records in the back of a rave shop.

"I heard you were looking for me," he bawls over the pounding base. He's about thirty, with a powerful nervous tic, and is so thin his shoulder blades jut out from under his T-shirt. Under his dreadlocks, his eyes are inflamed with severe conjunctivitis.

As we talk, I realise that here is the real legacy of the Summer of Love. His parents were both hippies and he was born right in the middle of the Summer of Love. Both his parents "went totally insane from the drugs": his father committed suicide and his mother was sectioned when he was twelve, at which point he ended up on the streets. He himself has been battling with a heroin habit "for years".

His conversation veers giddily from social awareness ("People like The Grateful Dead have made so much money from the Haight, they should put some of those assets back in and help with the residual problems of that age") to paranoid delusion. I suggest at one point that he should maybe see a doctor about his eyes.

"It's not an infection. I have to sleep with my eyes open, you know. There are so many people in the Haight who want to kill me."

"Who?"

"The yuppies that live here now and the college students, they kill homeless people for a laugh." He looks around suspiciously before continuing in a hoarse whisper, "and d'you know what else? There are Vietnam vets in the middle of Golden Gate Park who haven't come out since the war ended. They still think the war's going on and they..." he pauses, looking around once more, "they eat homeless people."

I can't decide if I'm horrified or disbelieving. Part of me tells myself it's impossible, but his conviction is so absolute and, when it comes down to it, what do I know about living rough in Haight-Ashbury?

That evening, the bus is packed with middle-class kids returning to their suburban homes. In the Filmore district, a man with a greying afro gets on the bus with a lot of flamboyant swearing at the ticket machine.

"Who the hell are you?" he yells, apparently at me, from a distance of ten feet. "Yes, you!" He is definitely pointing at me. When he's a little closer, I tell him I'm from London and I'm writing an article about the Haight.

"What's with all those rich kids,"he booms rhetorically, "leaving their nice white homes to come down here and pretend to be poor?"

The bus falls deathly silent.

"You know what the best thing the Haight can do, the best thing that anyone can do? Get over all that '67 shit, get over the past, and get on with life. You know what I'm saying?"

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