For years I’ve heard people note with a certain degree of smugness that the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, once the epicenter of the hippy movement, now sports a Gap and Starbucks. Not true. Ashbury is a neighborhood, not a street, so there is no intersection to speak of. Either store would be delightfully ironic, but I saw niether.
The streets are instead thronged with a series of boutiques, head shops and expensive vintage stores, all of which smell faintly of pot. Which means Ashbury remains a hippy stronghold, at least in the twenty-first century sense of the term. A peculiar amalgam of trust funds, class guilt, romanticism and drugs.
As Haight is a street, not an intersection, it might better be described as the birth canal of the hippy movement. It empties into Golden Gate Park, where I can report that the heirs of beatniks and hippy progeny still hold vigil for their forefathers.
Young and I entered the park after lunch and a pleasant trolley ride. A whiff of marijuana jostled one of his nose hairs, kicking his conservative instincts into Defcon 3. San Francisco has a way of rendering Young bi-polar, catapulting him between elation and despondency. The scenery elevates his mood better than Prozac, and he revels in the cultural diversity. (Which is to say as we drove through the various neighborhoods, Young took particular pleasure in rolling down the window and yelling at pedestrians in what he considered their native dialects. Hence as we drove past an Irish pub on Offarrel Street he yelled “Ai de-die-de-die!” Later, as we cruised past a pagoda-shaped jungle gym in Chinatown, he effectively mimicked the noise of pots being thrown down a staircase.)
In Golden Gate Park, however, Young slipped into sullen irritation. “Bums,” he muttered, casting flinty glances at the ragged, bearded figures sprawled beneath trees. The first encampment we walked through was by far the most virulent. I have never seen grunge elevated to a color scheme before, but the dreadlocked clumps of human wore nothing besides rags the color of fingernail grit.
Initially Young’s reaction amused me. When traveling I like to think of myself as an anthropologist, so in my mind the park was populated with a cultural sub-group of interesting, tattered forest-dwellers. Whereas Young interpreted the scene as “What’s Wrong with America.”
I was about to point this out to him when one of the layabouts came at me. “Humble nugget!” he accused, darting past. I wasn’t scared, exactly (these were hippies) but was a little surprised that I had so quickly irritated them. (Note: I had left my new NRA hat in my car.) “Why does everybody hate that I wear a blazer?” I asked Young. “Seriously. Everybody thinks I’m trying to show them up. I just like blazers,” I said, throwing my hands up.
“They don’t have jobs,” he muttered, “they don’t pay taxes. Half of them are sponging off their parents.”
We pressed on, past a tennis court and to a less threadbare, more middle-class pocket of San Franciscans. Normal-looking people, happily sopping the loose sun beams. Playing Frisbee, picnicking and cycling. Behind us, roller bladers dance-skated in circles around a boom box. The grass in the park was lush and kempt, the weather Edenic. Everyone looked so content, so happy.
“Young,” I said, stepping over an attractive couple napping on a quilt, “you remember The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells?” He nodded. I looked at the sky, the families pushing strollers, the grass unmolested by chiggers. “You know how the humans lounge around in a garden and fruit grows by itself, but at night the Morlocks come out of the tunnels and eat them…?”
Perfect climate makes me suspicious. The Great Plains have dramatic, cathartic weather. Blistering summers and frigid winters, with transitions marked by Wagnerian lightning storms. California weirds me out in that vast stretches of it are locked in an eternal state of sunny 75° Fahrenheit. As if the gods are conspiring somewhere. The fact that the bourgeois paradise which is Golden Gate Park makes me paranoid is not a good omen for future contentment.
After a few minutes Young and I split up. We were both exhausted, and tend to wear each other out while travelling. He headed north, further away from his ancestral enemies, and I drifted towards a drum circle.
A big one, situated at the base of a hill. Seven drums or more, tightly insulated by a layer of thumping, gyrating park-goers. I sat on the knoll, among the menagerie of free spirits absorbing the beat. I watched a shirtless man bop between bodies, pumping himself into ecstasy. Meanwhile his dog, a beleaguered-looking mutt, sat nearby with a wary expression, utterly oblivious to the rhythm. Bored.
An older bearded man sat down next to me and lit up a joint. Then a clean-shaven guy in a polo shirt sat down, too. He had a markedly accountant look about him, which further compounded when he pulled out a flute. He tried to join into the drum circle, hopelessly, and I found myself wondering what on earth he was thinking. Maybe his wife found him at the hotel and said, “Kevin! Some musicians are playing in the park! Why don’t you grab your flute and go join in with them?” And he’d sprinted over, thinking it was a quartet or something.
After a while I got up and shuffled towards the park’s exit. At least three people mumbled “humble nugget” as I walked by. These people are assholes, I thought. I didn’t call them names.
When another guy said it, I pivoted. “Okay, what the hell is ‘nuggets,’ supposed to mean?”
He stared at me blankly, then swiveled his head to survey other pedestrians. “Nuggets means pot, man. I’m trying to sell you pot.”
“Oh is that it?” I asked.
Later that night, at dinner, I would explain to Young that the grungies he so detested were actually entrepreneurs. But it didn’t make much of an impact on him.
Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.