Posts Tagged ‘Flower Power’

We were stood on the corner of Waller and Stanyan, alongside the McDonald’s parking lot and opposite the historic Stanyan Park Hotel. It was 10.20 on a sunny if cool Saturday morning in April. The shops in Haight Street a block away were drowsily coming to life, and a gaggle of skateboarders and assorted “heads” were making their way over to Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park to hang out for the day.

After ten years of inexplicable resistance, we had finally decided to give the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour a try. Having read our e-mail confirmation carefully we were confident that we were at the appointed meeting place. But the time was beginning to concern us. Whilst both our e-mail and the official website had expressly stated that the tour began at 10.30am, we had collected a leaflet the previous day quoting 9.30am.

As 10.25, 10.30 and 10.35 passed without anyone joining us, we began to speculate on what might have happened. Was it really a 9.30 start and we were horribly late? Had the tour been cancelled because we were the only participants (and if so why hadn’t we been informed)? Or was the guide merely delayed? I rang the telephone number quoted on the e mail with no success.

As frustration turned to irritation at 10.40, a balding, middle-aged man approached us and enquired whether we were on the tour. He had received a telephone call to say that the guide was running late due to a burst water main near her flat.  A Kentuckian, he was accompanied by his 20 year old daughter, as well as his son and his girlfriend, both of whom were studying at San Francisco State University.

Five minutes later our ears were assailed by a cheery “good morning” emanating from behind us on Waller Street. On turning around we were greeted by a diminutive woman dressed from head to toe in black, apart from the psychedelic leggings flashing intermittently from beneath her huge coat, shuffling towards us. This was Izu, our guide for the next two and a half hours. My heart soared (I may have been alone in this reaction) – here was someone who had palpably lived and breathed the hippie dream in the sixties and, equally importantly, was still doing.  This was going to be fun – and I was not to be disappointed.

Having made her apologies, referring, not for the only time, to “hippie time”, she squealed with delight at the sight of my Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” t-shirt. We were instant soul mates and, given my familiarity with the history and music of the era, she regularly sought my input, which, whilst being very gratifying personally, might have annoyed the remainder of the group who weren’t as well informed beforehand. The son’s girlfriend spent most of the morning hiding behind his back and when gently challenged on this by Izu, insisted that she was not feeling well. I’m not convinced she wasn’t just a tad intimidated by Izu’s earnest, energetic approach.

Izu’s credentials to conduct this tour were impeccable. She  had lived in the Haight for a month during the Summer of Love, and despite returning home to New York immediately thereafter, had been resident in the neighbourhood for many years.

One of her most endearing traits was that she had retained her broad New York accent which, incongruous though it might seem, gave an added charm and piquancy to her feast of anecdotes. I particularly delighted in her repeated pronounciation of Haight-Ashberry, proclaimed in a manner that could be heard from several blocks in any direction. 

Armed with our free gift of a Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour button badge we set off down Waller Street, pausing at the SFFD’s Fire Station 12 which, uniquely, carries the Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” logo on its engines. We learned too about the Human Be-In, the influx of young people from all over the United States and the invaluable social service provided by both the Diggers and the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic.

Whilst we stopped at properties that had been lived in by such counterculture luminaries as Janis Joplin (several), Country Joe and the Fish and Jimi Hendrix, as well as Charles Manson, the highlight for me was the Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury. Now, I have stood outside this pad many times but, with Izu at my side, I didn’t feel as uncomfortable, as much of a stalker, as I had done before. It helped that Izu knew both the current tenants and their neighbours – well, actually, she appeared to know everybody in the vicinity! We barely passed a shop, café or homeless center without her stopping to hail its occupants.

Whilst I went along with every photo opportunity arranged by Izu, I did draw the line at taking one of the Haight-Ashbury sign – been there, done that, not cool. I think we fell out briefly at that point!

Many San Francisco walks are more like hikes, especially when they involve negotiating its unforbidding hills, but this one is leisurely and laid-back. We barely walked more than 100 yards before Izu asked us to gather round to listen to her stories, not only of the music scene but also the general history of the Haight. She was aided by a canvas shopping bag, from which she intermittently plucked vintage photographs.

The tour culminated in a visit to the recently opened Haight Ashbury Museum of Psychedelic Art and History, a center designed to showcase the arts, music and creativity of the era. Depending upon your point of view, it was either impossibly cluttered or incredibly comprehensive. Izu alerted us to historic posters, photographs and newspaper extracts from the hippie Haight.

The slogan of the museum is The Hippies Were Right!, a mantra repeated by Izu throughout the tour. As the (larger) badges extolling this theory illustrated, this relates to concern for the environment, emphasis on organic products, peace and love rather than war, sustainable housing and fuel efficiency, and, capping it all, “more fun and less unnecessary work”. I for one find it hard to argue with any of that.

The tour ended with heartfelt hugs outside the museum and clichéd, but utterly necessary, poses for the cameras.

In summary, this was a relaxing and thoroughly entertaining walk. In fact, the word “walk” doesn’t adequately describe it. It was a “show” in which Izu, in her inimitably animated, slightly wacky style, conveyed a vast amount of information and observation on both what was arguably the neighbourhood’s golden era and how those ideals are being implemented today.

Anyone who is deterred by the prospect of becoming preached at on the virtues of free love and rampant drug taking should really not be worried. Whilst Izu, inevitably, relates stories of excessive LSD, marijuana and heroin usage, she takes every opportunity to explain her vehement opposition to drugs. Nor does she gloss over the many unsavoury elements of the period.

So go with an open mind and you will be rewarded. But first listen to some live Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane whilst you are searching for that old kaftan, transfer a few flowers from your garden to your hair, throw on any piece of jewellery you can find, get on the bus and make your way up to the corner of Waller and Stanyan on a Tuesday or Saturday at 10.30am (yes, that’s 10.30am hippie time).

And remember…………….the Hippies Were Right!

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Only after we returned from our latest trip to San Francisco did it occur to me that, during the ten night stay, we had neither visited such perennial favourites as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts or Alamo Square, nor taken a single ride on a cable car.

How can you travel nearly 6,000 miles to one of the most popular cities on earth and not take in its most iconic locations I hear you say? Surely, you are missing out on the greatest experiences it has to offer?

That is not, however, the way I see it. Rather than accept that this represents poor planning and an opportunity missed, I rather view it as a sign of our growing maturity as visitors to San Francisco. The fact is that we no longer feel the need to tick off as many of the guidebook recommendations as possible, tiring us out unnecessarily in the process.

The nature of our time spent there is increasingly taking on a different, more relaxed, you might even call it ordinary, tenor, one that more closely mirrors that of how we live at home.   Being in San Francisco has become such a familiar and regular part of our lives, somewhere we visit more often even than the places we love in our own country, that it has assumed that status of our second home, and, therefore, somewhere we neither  have to pretend to be what we are not, nor have to do what we feel we ought to do.

Choosing to stay some distance from the tourist enclaves of Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf, as we did in Noe Valley this year, allows us to do as much, or as little, as we feel on any given day.

If all we want to do is to hang out at the apartment in the morning, watching the Bay Area news on TV whilst catching up on household chores, before strolling out to a neighbourhood café for lunch, followed by gift and food shopping and then returning to the apartment for a glass or two of wine on the outside private deck whilst watching the world go by, then so be it. We then might eat in in the evening – or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might decide to take the metro downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach.

The point is that we are at liberty to do as we wish, not as we feel we ought to do to make the most of the trip and the not inconsiderable expense. Of course, it has been the happy conversion from hotel to apartment living over the past three years that has enabled us to do this.

And if it sounds to you that living in San Francisco has become less exciting for us, even routine, even a chore, then you could not be further from the truth. Whilst I can comfortably claim that we now feel at home in the city and, for myself in particular, probably did so before I ever visited it, I am tempted to suggest even that we have become, in a small way, San Franciscans, interested in its politics (with a small “p”), culture and, undeniably, its sport – just as we do at home.

And remember – those wonderful attractions are still a short drive or a bus or taxi ride away.

Nor is it the case that we no longer go sightseeing – far from it. On our recent trip we may have bypassed some of the more renowned locations, but we made a conscious effort to sample new, and nearly new, experiences, some of which were long overdue. These included a tour of City Hall, exploring Nob Hill, the Castro and Hyde Street Pier in depth, reliving the Summer of Love on the Flower Power Walking Tour, sunbathing in Dolores Park, and spending an afternoon in the excellent California Palace of the Legion of Honour.

Attending two Giants games at AT & T Park and a thrilling Elvis Costello concert at the Warfield, as well as eating out at more traditional restaurants such as John’s Grill (in the Maltese Falcon room) and the Daily Grill (Lefty O’Doul’s was too busy) added real richness to our stay.

And we still found time to take in several of our favourite spots – Golden Gate Park, including the Japanese Tea Garden and Stow Lake, Sunday brunch at the Cliff House, dinner at the North Beach Restaurant, Beach Blanket Babylon, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building and the depressingly under threat Gold Dust Lounge.  And, of course, a spot of DSW shoe shopping for my wife in Union Square – now, heretically, resident in the former Border’s bookstore (the shoe shop, that is, not my wife – though she might like to be).

Having read the above, perhaps the vacation wasn’t quite as relaxing as I first thought!

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“I’m coming home again…..never to roam again” the song continues. Well, sadly, I will be roaming back to the UK in no time, but not until I have spent the next fortnight back in the “one in all the Golden West”.

Many of my previous posts attest to my love for The City, especially  http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/my-san-francisco-top-ten/ .

Those of you who have stayed the course with me will be relieved to learn that I’m not going to dribble on about cable cars, bay views and hippie Haight in this post – well I might find myself unable to avoid rapping a little on the last one……..man.

No, as our upcoming ninth trip approaches, this post looks ahead to some of the less touristic experiences that await us. Some are perennial joys whilst others will be savoured for the first time.

In the best “traditions” of TV reality shows (so I am reliably informed), they are presented in no particular order:

1. Eating Sourdough bread

Taking that first bite from an authentic sourdough loaf will almost certainly be the first, and last, taste sensation of our visit. Whilst, allegedly, I can purchase sourdough bread from a farmer’s market or wholefoods supplier in the more enlightened towns and cities of the British Isles, it will not be made from the Boudin “mother dough” and, therefore, not carry the unmistakably tangy taste of the San Francisco original.

If you want to read more about the genesis of the Boudin sourdough, you can do worse (just) than read my article at:


2. Riding on the MUNI

“I get sourdough bread but MUNI – are  you crazy?” I hear any resident or informed visitor exclaim. “The “service” is totally unreliable, the drivers insolent and a sizeable number of its customers are so weird that they’d fail the audition for any self-respecting freak show”.

Ah, but there be the rub, me hearties. It is the “all human life is there” quality that makes it so endearing – provided, of course, that you’re not planning to be any place soon or are of a squeamish disposition.

I wrote about one particularly entertaining and ingenious tableau in my diary from last year’s vacation:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/western-diary-day-17-hittin-the-heights-and-muni-delights/ .

3. Watching the Giants play an MLB game at AT & T Park

Two actually – the (Pittsburgh) Pirates on Opening Night, complete with fireworks, on Saturday 14th April and the (Philadelphia) Phillies two nights later. An earlier post documented my initiation into baseball, and following the San Francisco Giants in particular:


Visiting the City that little bit later this year has meant that we can finally graduate from attending desultory pre-season games featuring squad players to joining a full house crowd at a “real” game, or rather two, with heavy hitters, or rather pitchers, such as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Oh, and eating those fabulous garlic fries – and taking cover from the dive bombing seagulls towards the end of the game.

4. Getting to Know New Neighbourhoods

After successful stays in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle in the past couple of years, we are staying further south this year by renting an apartment for the first week in Noe Valley, or “Stroller Valley” as it is affectionately known for the preponderance of resident families with young children.

We aim to “stay local” as much as possible that week, exploring unfamiliar neighbourhoods such as Noe Valley itself and semi-mountainous Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill and Twin Peaks, as well as re-familiarising ourselves in particular with the Castro and Mission districts, much neglected on our previous trips. In fact, we are venturing further out of the City than we have ever done before, though public transport will whisk us briskly downtown should we, in the unlikely event, crave a fix of the wharf or corporate shopping at any time (that said, our two appointments with the Giants will steer us towards the bay on those days).

5. The Flower Power Walking Tour

For all my reverence for the Dead, the Airplane and the late sixties San Francisco music scene, I have resisted, in the past, signing up for the flower power walking tour of Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be too clichéd, preferring to truck around the area on my own. But the testimonials are so compelling, and the bona fides of the individuals conducting the tour so intriguing (they lived through the Summer of Love), that I now anticipate it with relish.

6. Exploring the Old and Public San Francisco

Aside from our initial, guided trip 17 years ago, we have never explored Nob Hill in any detail. We have clanked past it on the California and Powell/ Mason and Powell/Hyde cable cars (sorry, I know I promised I wouldn’t mention them) many times but given little heed to Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park or the grand hotels – until now.

We will aim to combine that with a morning skulking as much of the public buildings that comprise the Civic Center as we are permitted to enter. I am particularly keen to visit the public library.

7. Breakfast with KRON4

Preparing for the day ahead in San Francisco has never been complete without the accompaniment of local TV station, KRON4, informing me of the weather prospects, the state of the “Bay Bridge commute” or the latest Giants news. Whilst Darya Folsom is my favourite presenter, I’ll also confess to having followed Sal Castenada’s traffic reports on rival station KTVU too for many years.

8. Skiing the Sierras

The full story of our miscalculation over the short skiing leg of our trip in Lake Tahoe will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that the outcome is that we will finally be forced out of our customary torpor and ski somewhere other than Heavenly this time. Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood beware.

We return to the City for the final three nights of the trip, staying in a hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. Our sixth performance of Beach Blanket Babylon and meals at two of our favourite eating places, the North Beach Restaurant and Cliff House await. And much else besides.

So, San Francisco, “open your Golden Gate”, don’t let this supplicant !wait outside your door”.

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