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Whistling in the Dark


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Hanks Trails


A Tour of the Other side of San Francisco with Stan Fluoride

It’s too easy to walk down Haight Street and say it ain’t what it used to be. But Hippie died in the autumn of 1967 and it wasn’t what it used to be two years later when I spent a month there. Many see it as a tourist trap, a post-psychedelic Coney Island. So is the Haight a travesty or is there some legacy from those heady days of sex ‘n' drugs ‘n' rock ‘n' roll?

I decided to join a Haight Ashbury Flower Power Tour led by a man
encouragingly called Stan Flouride. He meant Fluoride, of course, but had spelt it wrong in the American way. Unlike the spelling obsessed Brits, the Yanks don’t give a damn.  Mark Twain not only couldn’t spell for toffee, he probably couldn’t spell toffee.  So it’s Flouride pronounced Fluoride.  Promising. 

I met the burly Mr Flouride at the hippie epicentre, the corner of Haight and Ashbury on a grey winter’s afternoon with a damp misty chill in the air. Stan was wearing shorts with a Venezuelan goddess tattooed down his leg. More promising.

Stan hadn’t been a Hippie, arriving in San Francisco in 1982 as a radical
political punk. Of the social and cultural changes between the fifties and eighties he said there was a continuous line from Beats to Hippies to Punks to Yuppies. Had he never been a Goth?

“No,” said Stan, “Not a Goth. You only get two youth movements in your life. I’d been a freak, never a hippie, then became a radical punk.” Stan reminds us that Hippies was a Jazzer’s putdown of white teenagers who hung around the cool dudes, the Hipsters.

Haight may be a blowsy reproduction of itself but Fluoride illuminates the stories behind the façade of murals and graffiti, clothes emporiums and wacky smoke shops like Positively Haight Street and Dreams of Kathmandu. He mines a rich vein of stories, not just of Flower Power but the whole history of this area of San Francisco, mushrooming from nothing in the gold rush 150 years ago. Significantly the United States purchased the Western lands from Mexico at a knock-down price nine days before the discovery of gold in California.

Stan threw all this at us as we strolled the gentrified hills past the manicured Victorian wooden houses with their high stooped steps and intricate ornamentation. The Haight began as a tourist trap beside the man made Golden Gate Park, every tree and blade of grass landscaped into barren sand. Many thought the park a white elephant, but it started the search for al fresco fun. There is still a garden for the blind with touch ‘n sniff flowers. Hippie approved.

The big corner houses in the Haight were mansions for wealthy Victorian
families. Others along the street were from catalogues for the new middle classes personalised with special ornaments, cornices and carvings giving each their quirky human quality.

From Haight we climbed the steep sidewalks of Ashbury for some alternative stargazing. On the first block is the home of Janis Joplin at 635. A block further up the hill 710 Ashbury, beautifully preserved, was communal home to the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia, patron saint of Acid, is sanctified in paving stones nearby. Stan shows us the Haight district firemen’s badge which still carries the Grateful Dead skull crossed by its lightning flash.

Right opposite is the Hell’s Angels house at 719. Stan explained the unlikely connection.

“Lack of rolling papers,” said Flouride “makes strange bedfellows.”
When one Angel was busted on $20,000 bail the Dead did an impromptu
benefit gig on the back of a truck and made that in an hour.

The baffling bond between the peacenik Hippies and the psychotically
violent Angels was sealed. It was predictably buried two short years later at the Stones’ Altamont fiasco. 

In contrast to the Dead’s gorgeous Victorian, Charles Manson’s house on Page is a sickly cream stucco. It has been exorcised a hundred times but with drawn curtains still looks murderously sinister.

Through the tour Stan shows us then-and-now with old photos of the street we are walking. The Haight survived the great earthquake and fires of 1906 and these charismatic Victorians are all original.

Flouride stopped in front of one house where Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph
Nureyev were at a “marijuana party”.

“It was only a party when I arrived,” declared Rudolph.

It was raided and when the cops came Margot hid in a closet while Rudy
flew over the roof. Stan points at the chimney where he was caught.

Nureyev was still flying and even handcuffed did a jetée into the paddy wagon.
Murals are protected from painting over with a $10,000 fine and are
everywhere. A long rainbow wall is filled with primeval one-celled
organisms evolving through humans into chaos and destruction. “This is the Evolutionary Rainbow,” says Stan.

We’re standing on Haight opposite Magnolia’s, a café with a colourful
history. It was a pharmacy when Hippies took it over and made it The Drug Store Café. The authorities complained they weren’t a pharmacy and couldn’t say “Drug”, so it became the “Drog Store” and survived. It changed hands and became Magnolia Thunderpussy, named after the new owner who was a burlesque performer. Stan shows us the semi-porn menu with erotic desserts like the Montana Banana. Born again as the Christian “Psalms Café” it then became “Dish” with new gossipy gay owners. It has reverted to “Magnolia’s”, sadly not to the more Dadaist “Drog Store”. You can’t have everything. As we mused on Magnolia’s checkered history a woman in a black T-shirt ran up.

“Are you Stan? You gave me headlights for my ’67 VW and I want to give you honey from my rooftop bees.” Honey from my rooftop bees? VW headlights! Holy Armistead Maupin! Timewarp gold dust! Is this the 21st century? I pinched myself. Stan had found the headlights on the street, asked around if someone had a matching model and finally found our grateful rooftop beekeeper. Who says Hippie died?

What else endures from those heady days? Stan fills us in. The first non-profit community car share scheme started here in 2001, an idea spreading round the world. A rival commercial car share scheme folded.

Trees on the streets are planted by a group of ex-Hippies called “Urban
Forest.” Originally they worked clandestinely cutting out paving stones
and guerrilla planting small trees. Nowadays residents ask for a planting with full approval of the City Council. Urban Forest will plant the tree for free and maintain it for two years.

Every autumn a massive Free Country and Bluegrass festival rocks Golden Gate park. Hippie Hillbilly heaven. Even the original Haight Free Clinic by the Tibetan Store on the corner of Haight and Clayton, still cocks a snook at the rapacious American medical establishment and has the most successful detox clinic in the country.
And Buena Vista Park sprouting out of the Haight is a good hill to climb for panoramic views across the city to the Golden Gate and to see where Hippie was ceremonially buried in 1967.

We finished up at the “Herb’n Inn” a cosy Victorian B&B with a Psychedelic Museum. There is a tight network of B&Bs in the Haight but fired up by Fluoride’s rant I searched for imprints of hippie legacy in other San Fran hotels. I found three - ecological, pop culture and Rock ‘n Roll - all indebted to the sixties.

The Eco hotel
The GOOD in the rising South of Market area uses sustainable materials. The bed is salvaged wood, the blanket is recycled soda bottles, the sink water is recycled into the toilets. They supply free bikes and encourage walking. They add a dollar to the daily bill for their local community project. All this sounds worthy, the hotel equivalent of a hair shirt but is presented stylishly and playfully in chic minimalist rooms: “Be good” declares a wall artfully. Lights out and Good Night glows luminous over the bed.

The Pop hotel
TOMO is full of bright brash Japanese Animé. One wall of my room was a Manga cartoon. It’s hip and modern, with LCD TV, iPod dock and ironic wood-grain pattern carpet. Dedicated gamers can get a room with X Box and Wii’s and a full cinema size screen. It’s near the legendary Fillmore and a clutch of jazz clubs. It sits by Japantown a bizarre sixties Nippon mall packed with shops and restaurants built in 1968. Tomo was recently voted “Best San Francisco Hotel to Have Sex In”. More Hippie approval.

Sex ’n Drugs ‘n Rock ’n Roll hotel
The PHOENIX is smack in the centre of the urban jungle beside the notorious Tenderloin area. A sleazy old fifties motel, it was converted into a rock ‘n roll resort. Tropical styled rooms surround palm trees and a guitar playing ceramic frog beside the decorated pool. The Bambuddha lounge is heart warmingly decadent. Its community projects include a fund for deafened rock musicians as well as a Tenderloin school. We stayed in the Road Manager’s lodgings. Celebrities who have slept in the Star’s suite next door include Little Richard, Chubby Checker, REM, Red
Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Sex Pistols, Bo Diddley, The Killers and… Again Five Star Hippie thumbs up.

Outside, the decayed urban jungle is being annexed by Vietnam and rebranded “Little Saigon”. Trawl great Vietnamese restaurants on
Larkin. And for a scary walk on the wild side to check the crack on the
sidewalk nothing beats a stroll down Ellis to Market and back for a Pho at Pagolac.

Stan’s revelatory tour and these hotels share a debt to the Summer of
Love. Something happened then which lives on. Hotels fund community projects, folks give away VW headlights, a world class Country music festival is free and trees are planted for free. And though Schwarzenegger failed to push through pot’s legalisation last year there is a marijuana “clinic” on every corner.
Sounds like 21st century Hippies to me.



Hank flew to San Francisco with Virgin Atlantic



© Hank Wangford