The Haight

May 1967

 

I was twenty years old and a geology major at Antioch College in Yellow Springs Ohio.  My provincial suburban upbringing had been blown away nearly two years before when I was introduced to sex, grass, and acid all on the same night by the same remarkable woman (thank you, Ms. Horsefield, wherever you are).  I had grown my hair long and was trying every experience the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll could bring me.  Even in small-town Ohio, the hippie revolution was all over the media.  The national magazines all had feature articles on the phenomenon, and TV news showed strangely-dressed people grooving on the streets of London, New York, Paris, Prague, and especially San Francisco.  Progressive radio stations were playing music by scores of new bands with funny names.  The Monterey Pop Festival in April brought these west coast bands – what we would call garage bands today – to national attention.  Suddenly they were all over the airwaves, and we were listening to Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Country Joe, and the Jefferson Airplane – plus of course continuing with the Beatles and the Stones, the Doors and the Cream.  The songs were great music, but most also carried a message.  I realized these bands were other young hippies like me, and they were sending me a summons.  Come to San Francisco.  We are changing the world.  Join us.

Antioch had a work-study format in which you alternated quarters.  I had spent the winter working as a lab assistant in a geology lab.  For the spring quarter I had signed up to go to Wyoming on a geology field trip with students from several other colleges.  We traveled there in buses, examining the geology on the way, then spent eight weeks cracking rocks and drawing maps in the high county in the Wind River Range.  It was great fun and a great adventure of climbing, caving, and exploring.  But it wasn’t a full quarter like an academic program normally was.  The program ended at the beginning of June and I had six weeks before I had to go to my next job.  I announced to my parents I was off for San Francisco and started hitch-hiking.

Traveling was relatively easy that trip.  I got several long rides that got me pretty quickly to LA, where a couple of guys hoping to get into the film industry dropped me off on Sunset Strip.  I wandered around gawking at the kaleidoscope of people thronging the street.  I thought I was dressed pretty fashionably – ragged and very tight pants with multi-colored stripes and bell bottoms, a tie-dyed tee shirt, a headband made from an Indian block print bedspread, and a tie just above my left knee (you never knew when you might need a tourniquet).  But these LA hippies were into costumes.  The Beatles had just released Sergeant Pepper, and old band and military uniforms were in vogue.  People were strolling to see and be scene, and it wasn’t like the hippie scenes I’d experienced in the Lower East Side or even Yellow Springs, where everyone was a head.  It seemed like more American marketing to me, not a revolution.  Maybe it was all Valley Girl hippie wannabes.  In any case, I slept in a crash pad and headed north in the morning.

I was stuck most of a day in Santa Barbara where hundreds of hippie hitchhikers were strewn on the grass on the median of highway 101 as it hit the stoplights going through town.  But my hitching style was pretty effective by then, and I was soon on the road again.  Somewhere near Salinas (as Bobby McGee says), I got dropped off and had a long wait before a straight-looking dude in a panel truck picked me up.  Finally, just as the sun was starting to go down, my goal was in sight – the towers of San Francisco loomed ahead.  The freeway ended abruptly in the middle of downtown (as it still does).  The guy asked me where I was going, and I said Haight-Ashbury.  He wasn’t familiar with the city and had never heard of the Haight, but he was a nice guy and we drove around a bit trying to find it.  We were driving along Market Street when I saw a familiar name on a street sign.  “Dig it, man,” I said.  “This is Haight Street right here.  It’s gotta be nearby.”  He pulled over to the curb and I thanked him and got out, dragging my big green army duffel bag out of the back.  He drove off and I looked around.  Everybody looked straight.  Where were all the hippies?  This was like a haj pilgrim arriving in Mecca and not being able to find any Muslims.  I saw that Haight Street did not continue east of Market, so it had to be west.  I shouldered my bag, hoping I looked manly and far-traveled, like the Old Spice guy.  I had come 2,500 miles – a few blocks of walking wasn’t a problem.  But after block after block of a very gritty urban neighborhood, I started wondering how far it was.  The street sloped gradually but steadily uphill as far as I could see ahead.  My bag was heavy and awkward and I kept trying to find a more comfortable way to carry it.  Among other essentials, I always carried a set of four recorders, soprano to bass, in case I ran into someone else who played early music (I never did).  Also, it was cold and windy.  This was June in California – shouldn’t it be hot and sunny?  Still, it felt good to walk after a week of riding in cars, and I was going to Haight-Ashbury.

Twenty minutes later it was fully dark and the fog had come in.  I had heard that San Francisco was foggy, but I had visualized the London fog I’d seen in British movies – a thick yellow haze that filled the still air and mysterious hansom cabs rattling over wet cobblestoned streets.  This fog had someplace to go.  It was racing at twenty miles an hour, streaming down the street in a discrete tube, like a rolled-up sweat sock.  I could stand on the sidewalk and be in the clear, but be unable to see the other curb.  Traffic and pedestrians passed through it at high speed, apparently oblivious.  It had the cold decomposing fish smell of the sea about it, and a biting cold edge that cut right through my Navy-surplus pea-coat.  I hunched my shoulders, buttoned the coat tight around my neck and plunged on.  Ten long blocks turned into fifteen and still there was no sign of any hippie street scene.  The houses were tall elaborate old Victorians, clearly mansions and not likely to be the venue for a hippie community, which were always in the very lowest-rent districts.  There were few people on the street and those hurrying to their destinations through the fog.  Where were the hippies sitting on stoops and sprawled in the parks like in Thompkins Square in New York?  Where was everybody?

Finally, after trudging twenty blocks, nearly two miles, I started seeing head shops and other signs of hippie stores. At last I looked up at yet another street sign and it said Ashbury.  I had arrived.  I looked around.  Haight was very commercial – all small stores and businesses, all closed by now.  Ashbury started up a very steep hill into a residential neighborhood, but it was still all large fancy-looking houses.  Where were the crash pads?  In New York it had never taken me more than an hour of asking various freaks to find a place to crash.  Here there was nobody to ask.  It was just too cold to hang around on the street at night.

I spotted several heads sitting on the steps of a building.  The sign said it was the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic.  I sat down and talked to the guys.  Two were there to get rid of the clap; one was there for a clean needle exchange.  I asked about a place to sleep.

“Oh, man,” groaned one.  “You’re too late.  You gotta get there early and throw down your gear to reserve a space.  Spread it out bigger than you need because other people will keep pushing it over you know, and then you’ll be sleeping in a full lotus or something.  But you gotta do it by noon or so cause they all fill up.”  He handed me a paper from a box beside the clinic’s door.  “Dig it,” he said.  “Here’s a list of crash pads.  But I can guarantee you they’ll all be full.”

“Shit.  I just got here from Ohio.  Where can I sleep tonight?”

“Sorry, brother,” said another guy.  “You’re fucked.”

“There’s always the park,” said the third.

“What park?” I asked, not relishing a night on the ground.  I didn’t even have a sleeping bag, just an old moldy blanket my dad had been issued in the Navy thirty years earlier.

“Golden Gate.  It’s down there a few blocks.  You can’t miss it – it goes on for miles.”

I peered down the street, squinting into the blowing fog.  “How far is it?” I asked.

“Just a few blocks.  There’s a bunch of trees on the right just inside.  I slept there a few nights.”

“Okay.  Thanks, man.”

I flung my pack onto my shoulder again and set off.  Soon the street ended and a wall of black trees loomed up across Stanyan Street.  Fog streamed through the trees and was illuminated by the street lights as it emerged.  I stooped under the low branches and duck-walked back into the complete darkness, dragging my duffel behind.  I immediately stepped on a body.

“Hey, shit,” growled somebody.  “The fuck?  Find your own tree, fucker.”

“Sorry, man, sorry,” I mumbled.  I shuffled over a few steps and froze like that, waiting for my eyes to adapt. Gradually I could make out the surroundings.  A half-dozen people in sleeping bags were scattered around in the bare dirt, surrounded by heaps of trash – food wrappings, bottles, chip bags, and sodden rags of blankets and clothing.  Everything was damp from the fog and filthy with the clingy mud under the trees.  It was most unappealing to just throw down and sleep there.  Also, I hadn’t seen anything of these people and had no idea if it was safe or not.  Sleeping in an alley or on a fire escape in New York, there was always a chance of getting rolled.  I had no idea what the scene here was really like.  This was certainly not the flower children dancing around a maypole with flowers in their hair that I’d seen on the news.  I considered for a long while and then decided I didn’t like it.  I’d rather find someplace where I could be alone.  I crept back out and started back up Haight Street.  I stopped a head cruising by and asked again where I could sleep.

“You can try the other park – Buena Vista.  It’s two or three blocks back up Haight.”

“Okay, thanks, brother.”  I plodded back the way I had come.  The guys on the clinic steps were gone.  The street was empty.  I found the park, but it seemed to be just a row of funny bushes (melaleucas, I later learned) on a steep bank beside the street.  I clambered up to it and pulled my way under the shrubbery.  It was still cold, dirty, and damp, but the bushes cut the wind somewhat and there didn’t seem to be anybody else there.  I pulled out my thin blanket and rolled myself up like a burrito.  Still feeling exposed and vulnerable, I got my knife out of my boot and clutched it in my hand, and tried to sleep.  I’d made it to Haight-Ashbury.

 

I slept only fitfully, waking every time a car went by and its lights illuminated my little cave in the bushes.  I finally fell asleep toward morning, but I was so cold and uncomfortable I got up as soon as it was light.  I kept my blanket, now filthy and muddy, wrapped around my shoulders against the cold.  The fog had risen a couple hundred feet so it was like a dirty gray woolen blanket being dragged over the tops of the houses, but the wind was still blowing hard and it was still very cold.  I got back on Haight Street and wandered aimlessly down toward the park.

The only person I knew in the City was a former college girlfriend, Ellen Fishman.  She was on a work quarter, working at a health clinic in San Francisco.  We’d had a brief affair the year before and I’d spent several nights in her room in Birch Hall, the women’s dorm at Antioch.  One memorable night there was a fire alarm and the dorm was evacuated.  Since I wasn’t supposed to be there, we decided to wait it out.  Soon a fireman unlocked the door and found us huddled naked under the covers.  “Well, shit,” he said, and closed the door.  The affair was casual and only lasted a few weeks.  It ended abruptly when she caught me in bed with her roommate Hillary.  Thinking back on that, I wondered how happy Ellen would be to find me on her doorstep.  Still, it was worth a try – better than another night in the melaleucas.

I dug a worn scrap of a paper from my wallet and peered at it in the half-light of dawn.  It was just a phone number she’d scrawled on a restaurant napkin when we were both leaving the campus a few months before.  It was clearly too early to call, so I got a cup of coffee at a diner and wandered down to Golden Gate Park to see what I could find.  Several scruffy people were emerging from the grove of trees I’d tried to crash the night before.  As I strolled along the sidewalks running deeper into the park, I found people creeping out of shrubbery everywhere.  They were standing in clusters, wrapped in blankets or sleeping bags, looking frowsy, cold, and sleepy.

The sweet scent of weed floated from one group and I wandered close, trying to look needy.  Sure enough, a guy offered me a hit and I took a deep drag.  I passed the joint and struck a conversation.  Most of these people were like me, newly arrived from all over the country.  I asked one girl I thought was cute if she could recommend a place to eat.

“Sure man,” she said.  “Wait till about nine, then head up to the Panhandle.  The Diggers set up tables there and give out free food.”

“They give away food for free?” I asked in surprise.  “Who pays for it?”

She shrugged.  “Who cares?  It’s free.”

“Who are the Diggers?”

She just shrugged again, but a guy in a floor-length fur coat and a Russian hat spoke up.

“A bunch of people trying to build a cash-free economy.  Lots of restaurants and grocery stores give them their day-old food they’re not allowed to sell anymore.  The Diggers cook it up and serve meals three times a day.”

“Pretty cool.  Where is it?”

“The Panhandle.  Hang around, we’re all heading up there soon.”

I started feeling better about my long cross-country trip to get here.  The people were friendly, not as hostile and scary as on the Lower East Side, and I had already learned how I could eat for free.  Now all I needed was a place to stay.  I was torn between trying to locate some of the crash pads on the list I’d gotten at the Free Clinic to stake out a space, and waiting till I could call Ellen.  Sure I’d been a shit to her, but we’d parted on friendly terms and I hoped she’d at least let me crash at her place.  I decided to wait and call her after breakfast.

After eight o’clock or so people started drifting slowly west, back toward the Haight.  I saw other groups assembling from every sheltered area in sight.  They were a motley bunch, in every kind of hippie attire, from Carnaby Street Mod to thrift shop scruffy.  There were a lot of furs, uniforms, ponchos, boas, and hats of every description.  The sole principal seemed to be to find something no one else was wearing.  In many cases, this made for some bizarre outfits indeed.  Most people had long hair, the girls’ hanging long and free, the guys in ponytails or like me, Indian-style headbands.  People with curly hair wore it in huge pseudo-Afros or long frizzy braids.

I followed my group back to Stanyan Street, the eastern end of the park.  They turned left there and went down two blocks from Haight Street.  There was an elaborate entrance to the park there, where John F. Kennedy Drive began weaving westward through the hills and forests of the park toward the ocean, still three miles away.  But east of Stanyan was a long one-block wide extension of the park, running between Park and Fell, called the Panhandle.  It reminded me of a college campus, with huge trees and wide green lawns criss-crossed with serpentine sidewalks.  Streams of hippies were converging from every direction, forming a milling mass in the center of the lawns.  Several wildly-painted trucks were parked there, and a group of people were busily setting up folding tables.  I joined them and started unloading tables out of a box truck and setting them up on the grass.  Other people were unloading big boxes of food out of other trucks.  Lots of people were helping, and soon there was nothing for me to do.  There was a temporary sign board set up with public notices and I idly read some of them.  Many were personal, in the nature of “Billy - we’re here.  Come to 225 Fell Street.  Sally and Annie.”  Others were public notices.  I read one posted by the Diggers:

 

THE DIGGERS demand an ERECTION!

THE BALLING BOWL

A FREE PUBLIC structure in the panhandle where individuals can swim in vinyl pools filled with Vaseline, WAIL LOVE to downcast brows, and carry-on as much as they want until they think it beautiful to stop.

THE DIGGERS fully understand that the cost of erection can be added to the PUBLIC debt and especially appreciate Captain Kiely's generous offer of men and machines to quicken the rise of the ERECTION and give meaning to its eventual climax.

UP THE BALLING BOWL!

THE DIGGERS

I was bemused.  Were they serious?  Did they really expect the city to build a balling bowl?  The other notices were just as whimsical, though there were also more useful notices – such as a place to go for bad trips, accidental poisonings from bad drugs, and the Free Clinic for STD’s and injuries.

Twenty or thirty people were busily unloading the trucks and setting up big industrial-looking gas cooking stoves.  They were remarkably organized and efficient for hippies – clearly they had been doing this a while.  The food was soon steaming and being dished out.  I grabbed a paper plate and a fork and joined the line.  There were already several hundred people in it, but it moved fairly quickly.  I got a ladle full of some kind of vegetarian chili, beans, and some pieces of browning canned peaches.  I found an unoccupied tree and sat down to eat.  Like most vegetarian food I’d tried, it was boringly unspiced, chewy, and rather glutinous.  Still, it was hot and filling and went down very easy.

I was grateful for the people who had put the operation together and liked the idea of hippies feeding hippies without joining the cash economy.  I thought if I was not otherwise occupied at meal times, I might come down and help.  I was curious about who the Diggers were – did they have straight jobs?  They didn’t seem to have a religious agenda like the soup kitchens.  Mostly they looked like the rest of us, though I thought their average age might be a few years older.  I wanted to ask questions, but they were all very busy and clearly didn’t need some dude bugging them.  I thought I’d try after they had packed up.  I wish I had, because some people I later came to admire, like Gary Snyder and Peter Coyote, were among them.

As I ate I looked around at the crowd.  There were probably two thousand people gathered there eating, with more pouring into the park from the houses and streets on both sides.  It was quite a show – soon tourists would be paying money to come look at us.  They seemed to be mostly college-age kids, wearing every imaginable kind of rig.  A group of Hare Krishnas were dancing and chanting to finger cymbals, looking very cold in their saffron robes and shaved heads.  I thought they were idiots, but that’s my general reaction to anything religious.  Most people ignored them.  A girl I thought might have been cute before she cut off her hair came up to me and shook a can in my face.  “Love offering, brother?” she asked.  I sent her away with a dismissive nod.  As she walked away I could see her legs were goose-pimpled with the cold and her bare feet were crusted with dust to the ankles.  I took another bite of food, thinking, “If you want to wear saffron and go barefoot, go to Thailand where it’s warm.  You’ll catch your death here.”

Looking around, I saw that probably half the people were barefoot, their feet as filthy as the acolyte’s.  I don’t know if it was part of the hippie creed, that shoes were a product of the military-industrial complex or something, but I was having no part of it.  The sidewalks were the usual city filthy, with broken glass, dog shit, and various unidentified sharp litter.  If you’re on the street you’re going to be walking a lot, and I intended to have shoes on.

There were a lot of young girls that looked to be high-school age.  Many didn’t wear bras (those bonds imposed by military-industrial patriarchal bra manufacturers), and their nipples could be clearly seen wobbling around under their thin tops, a sight I found endlessly fascinating.  In general, I thought the percentage of hot women was extremely high.  They were especially appealing because they were hippie girls.  They are plenty of cute sorority girls, but I knew we’d have nothing in common.  To them I wasn’t a colorful character – I was dirty and unwashed.  And there would be moral objections to fucking – saving it for their husbands, or not wanting to lose my respect, or whatever.  Hippie girls were much more likely to take a proposition in the spirit it was offered – “Hey, wouldn’t fucking be fun?”  Generally speaking, hippie girls were easy - and proud of it.

So I was gradually warming to the Haight scene.  The weather was much worse than I had been prepared for and the place was very dirty, but it had a good vibe.  Everybody was smiling and friendly.  There was no sign of the hostility from the straights that had been universal everywhere else I’d been – in fact there were no straights in evidence.  No strolling citizens looking askance at the particolored people, no shouting rednecks, no cops, at all.  Everybody I could see was another freak, there to soak in the experience of finally, finally, be among our own people.

I dumped my plate in a garbage bag and wandered off to find a public phone.  It was several blocks before I found one in a drugstore on Haight.   I called the number Ellen had given me.  Then she picked up.  “Hello?”

“Hey, Ellen Fishman!  It’s me, Brian.  Remember, from Antioch?”

“Oh, yeah.  Are you here in the city?”  I tried to judge from her voice if she was happy to hear from me.  At least she didn’t hang up.

“Yeah.  Just got in late last night.  Slept in the park.  Pretty cold out there.”

“I imagine.”

I waited, hoping she was going to invite me to sleep at her place (whatever that might entail).

“Listen, my place is small and I have roommates.  I don’t think I can let you crash here.  But I’ve got some friends who might be able to help.  Come over this evening.”

“Oh, great.  Thanks, Ellen.  That would be great.  So I don’t need to stake out a spot in a crash pad?”

“No, we’ll find something for you.  Come over after dinner, ‘kay?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.  I’ll see you then.  Thanks.”  I hung up.  So she was inviting me into her bed or feeding me.  She clearly hadn’t forgotten that night with Hillary.  Still, if it resulted in a warm place to sleep, I couldn’t complain.

I spent the day wandering around, getting familiar with the layout.  There was nothing special about the intersection of Haight and Ashbury – there was nothing there but the Free Clinic a couple of doors down.  But the corner was roughly the geographic center of a poorly-defined neighborhood where the majority of the freaks lived.  The head shops and hippie clothes shops lined the road for four or five blocks from there to the park.  All the other streets were residential, almost entirely big fancy white Victorians like wedding cakes, with bay windows, high-peaked gables, and tons of gingerbread.  Many were painted up in gaudy colors – pink and purple and orange and green, all mixed in one elaborate facade.  Paisley print curtains and American flags and psychedelic posters lined the windows.  Most of the posters required several minutes of close inspection to determine what they were advertising, clearly nothing that had come from Madison Avenue.  But they were artistic and beautiful and they sent messages out through the community, announcing concerts and Be-ins and tribal gatherings in a language straights couldn’t read.

And the names of the bands were so whimsical and mysterious they were funny – the Chocolate Watchband, the Doors of Perception, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead.  I was sure these were jokey pick-up bands and no one would remember their names in six months.

Music was everywhere, pouring out of every car and open window.  Hippies wandered the streets, plunking on guitars, playing recorders, harmonicas, tablas, bongos, and Jew’s harps.  Groups of hippies would gather around to listen, to sing or chant along.

Everyone was basically high all the time.  Drugs were easily and openly available.  People sat on the curb or the steps of a house, passing joints to passersby and chanting, “Hash, acid, lids,” until somebody stopped and bought some.  In a country where you could get a life sentence for possessing one grass seed in some states, death for trafficking, I had developed extreme caution in buying and selling drugs.  You never exchanged names or sources, you never called a drug by its true name, you never dealt where could possibly be seen, and always in cash, no bills larger than twenties.  Here people often had their wares displayed around them, and signs with prices.  It made me very anxious and I could looking over my shoulder.  In any other city in America there would be a phalanx of riot police moving down the street, busting heads in more ways than one.  Here there was no sign of the police at all.  Where were the pigs?

Not relishing the vegetarian gumbo in the park again so soon, I stopped in a café and ordered a burger (take that, Buddhists).  All the patrons were hippies, but the staff looked like your average straight American.  They must have been pretty jaded by then, because they didn’t raise an eyebrow, no matter what walked in.  It was amazing to see what people put on when they wanted to “go hippie.”  Beads and fringe were ubiquitous, homespun and hand-died were common, and odd combinations of cast-off period clothing seemed to be the coming style.  Hairstyles too ran the gamut.  Lots of younger guys just brushed their mid-length classroom-and-church hair forward over their eyes and peered out through the straggling bangs so you could hardly see their eyes.  I thought they looked like idiots, but they appreciated the hippie culture and wanted to associate themselves with it.  So the hippies were generally nice to these kids, some as young as 13 or 14, whose parents drove them over to the Haight for an evening.  I suspected that many of the cute young girls were taking home more reminders of their visit than a poster and a string of beads.  The girls were on the pill and couldn’t get pregnant, so why worry?  VD was rampant, and I never encountered anyone using condoms.  They’re so artificial, you know, honey.

I strolled in the park, still lugging my duffel.  I couldn’t think of a safe place to stash it.  A pretty good band was set up in one meadow and hundreds of people were dancing in front of their makeshift stage.  I was pretty loaded by then, having been imbibing in the free drugs all day.  I joined the crowd dancing and lost myself in the music for an hour or two.  The wind had finally died and the sun broke through the overcast and the sun was warm on my back.  It felt great.  I have no idea what band it was, but they had a great harmonica player.

As the sun dropped into the offshore fog and the warmth went out of the air, people started wandering back toward the Panhandle for a Digger dinner.  I joined them.  The food was much the same, but they also had corn bread that was good.  I waited until it was well after six o’clock, then sauntered slowly over to find Ellen’s place.  I found that Waller was the next street south of Haight, up a steep hill from the main drag.  I wandered along till I found the address.  It was a big white building on the north side of the street, with a tall set of steps leading up to a covered front porch.  It was not a Victorian, but it had clearly once been somebody’s mansion, as most of the houses appeared to have been.  I went up and knocked on the door.  A hippie dude opened the door and looked at me in surprise, then at the big green duffel on my shoulder.  His smile faded – I had the feeling he had been expecting someone else.  He came out past me and looked up and down the street, then turned again to me.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked, in a somewhat belligerent attitude.

“My name’s Brian.  I’m here to see Ellen.”  He looked blank.  “Doesn’t Ellen Fishman live here?”

“Ellen?” he said.  “Oh, yeah, the chick in back.  Okay, come on through, then.”  We entered a long straight hallway that went straight back into the house.  Several doors opened off it.  Clearly the old mansion’s large rooms had been partitioned into several separate apartments.  He turned right through an open doorway.  I glanced in and saw six or eight hippies scattered on the floor around a big hookah in the center of the room.  Music was playing loudly – some crashing heavy metal.  I caught a glimpse of a skinny blonde girl doing a line of powder off a mirror.  Everyone turned to look at me as I stood there.

“It’s not Rick,” said the guy who had let me in.  “No sign of him yet.”  He looked at me.  “Ellen’s in the back apartment.  End of the hall.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, and continued down the hall.  I knocked at a door, and a moment later Ellen opened it.  “Hey, Ellen,” I said, giving her a hug.

She hugged me back.  “Hey, Brian,” she said.  “You made it all the way out here, huh?”

“Yep.  Just like I said I would.  Bet you didn’t think I’d show up, huh?”

She shrugged.  “Seems like everybody is coming to San Francisco this summer.”

“Yeah.  Wearing flowers in our hair,” like the song says.

She smiled and led me through a small living room bedroom combination into the kitchen.  Maybe she didn’t want to sit on a bed with me.  I sat down at the table and she poured us each a glass of cheap red wine.  We chatted a while.  She told me about her co-op job and I told her about my summer in Wyoming and some of the adventures of my trip.  The music from the front apartment came right through the thin plywood walls.

“Jesus,” I said after a particularly loud blast.  “Is it always like that?”

She gave a wry smile.  “Yeah, pretty much.  They’re okay, but they’re into harder drugs and they’re pretty loud.  They seem to be especially rowdy tonight for some reason.”

We sat there drinking wine and chatting about mutual friends.  Neither of us brought up the subject of where I might be able to crash, though it was in the front of my mind.  I hoped she was judging me, trying to decide if she was going to let me sleep there.  I tried to look friendly and harmless.  I really wasn’t trying to hit on her again, I just needed a floor.  When she didn’t broach the subject, I was just wondering if I should ask.  Suddenly there was a loud crash from the front of the house, followed immediately by excited shouting.  We had left the door of her apartment open, and from where I was sitting I could look straight up the long corridor to the front door.  Cops were pouring in, squeezing through the doorway, bellowing and shouting.  I heard breaking glass and splintering wood.

“The fuck?” I said, starting up.  A big burly cop with a nightstick rushed into the kitchen and looked at the two of us staring back at him, our mouths open.  He glanced around the room, confirmed we were alone and there was no rear exit, then glared at me.  Siddown!” he growled.

“What’s going…?” I began, but he shoved me back into my chair.  “Sit down and shut up, both of you.  Don’t even think about moving.  Got it?”

“Yes sir,” said Ellen, in a scared voice.  He looked at me.  I put up my hands.  “I won’t move, officer.”

He spun around and ran back up the hall.  From the sounds, there was a violent fight going on in the front apartment, and it looked like he didn’t want to miss a chance to crack some heads.  Ellen and I looked at each other in horror as we heard screams and grunts and the sounds of bodies slamming into the wall.  In a few minutes it was over.   The cops started leading people out the front door in handcuffs.  Our guy came back and confirmed we were just where he’d left us.

“Anybody else here?” he asked.

“No,” said Ellen.  “This is a separate apartment.  I don’t even know the people in the front apartment.”

He ignored her and started searching the apartment, opening cupboards and drawers.  I was so glad I wasn’t carrying any dope.  I’d been just smoking the stuff people handed me, and didn’t have a stash of my own yet.  I had no idea if Ellen did.  She wasn’t a stoner type back at college, but everybody smoked weed, didn’t they?

If she had a stash, the cop didn’t find it.  He took our names and wrote them down.  I tried to explain that I didn’t even live there and was just an innocent college boy visiting an old chum.  He didn’t buy it.  He had us stand up and handcuffed us, then started heading us toward the front.  As we reached a doorway on the right, another cop came back to us.

“Just these two back here, sarge,” said our guy.

“Did you check in here?” asked the sergeant.

“That’s just the bathroom,” said Ellen.

He opened the door and we all looked in.  There was a hippie guy sitting on the can, his pants around his ankles.  He had a tourniquet around his arm with the ends in his teeth and held a homemade ‘fit he had just pushed into his elbow.  He looked up at us and seemed remarkably calm.

“Hello, officers,” he said through his gritted teeth.  “Just about done here.  Mind if I finish?”

The cops seemed taken aback, but the older one nodded.  “Go ahead, buddy.  Then we’re all going for a ride.”

The guy squeezed off the hit and released the tourniquet, sending a surge of heroin into his bloodstream.  Then in one motion, he threw his ‘fit into the sergeant’s face, pulled up his pants, and jumped through the window.

The sergeant flinched back from the needle, then batted it away and let out a roar of rage.  Both cops tore out the front door and took off down an alley after the fleeing junkie.  Ellen and I looked at each other in amazement.  I had to hand it to the guy – talk about keeping your cool in a challenging situation.  But it didn’t end well for him.  He had difficulty running, both from the scag rush and because his pants kept falling down, and the cops had him before he could get fifty feet.  They both jumped on his back, crushing him the ground and raining blows on his head and shoulders with their sticks.  Soon they were dragging his semi-conscious form around to the front of the house.

The attempted escape was so spectacular that it hadn’t even occurred to me to take off running when they left us unattended, and in seconds it was too late.  Both cops were furious now, red-faced and puffing, and they pushed us roughly to the front door.

“Love your place, Ellen,” I managed to get out before we were shoved into a Black Mariah.  The eight other people, most of them bloody and bruised, were slumped on the bench seats along the sides.  The junkie was tossed on the floor.  Two cops with guns sat at the back.  Ellen and I squeezed in with the others, and the paddy wagon took off, siren wailing and lights flashing.

I hadn’t driven in San Francisco yet, and this was my first experience of the steep hills.  I could have sworn the driver was trying to get airborne from the steep angles the van was taking.  Each time we crossed a street, the road leveled and we were all thrown around, then the nose pointed steeply either up or down and we were off again.  It would have been a fun, exciting ride in other circumstances.  It occurred to me that I hadn’t been in San Francisco for twenty-four hours yet, and already I was busted.

I wondered what the consequences were going to be.  These guys were doing heroin, which I hadn’t encountered up to that time.  But I knew it was serious shit.  If Ellen and I couldn’t separate ourselves from these guys, we could be in deep shit.  What chance did we have of that?  There were drugs and paraphernalia all over that front apartment.  And the doors between the apartments had been open when the cops came in, so it would look like a single operation to them.  I didn’t feel good about this.

Ellen looked terrified, and I felt sorry for her.  I put my arm around her and tried to comfort her.  I didn’t think my arrival had done anything to cause all this, but it wasn’t a fun date so far.  Combined with the Hillary Mis-step, I didn’t think I’d done anything to improve my chances with Ellen.  But I had solved the problem of where I was going to sleep.

After what seemed a very long Wild-Mouse type ride, the van pulled into an underground garage and parked.  A moment later the doors were opened and we faced a number of angry-looking cops.  They rousted us out none too gently and marched us through a series of corridors painted institutional green.  The injured junkie was barely conscious and they took him away on a cart.  We were separated from the three girls and put in a big holding tank, then taken out one by one to be booked, fingerprinted, and photographed (how I’d love to see that mug shot now).  When we’d all been booked, some guards led us to the drunk tank and we joined a dozen other guys.  A few were hippies, but most seemed to be standard older drunks.  We checked each other out, then sat on metal benches and waited. 

I chatted with some of the other guys from the bust.  Some of them were pretty badly beaten up.  They told me they’d been expecting a buddy of theirs when I showed up.  They’d sent him to New York on a scoring run and he was supposed to be arriving that night with a suitcase full of good New York white horse.

One of the other guys said he’d overheard some of the cops say that they’d gotten wind of the run and had met the courier at the airport.  They didn’t bust him, but followed him to the house.  While Ellen and I had been talking, he’d arrived at the front door.  As soon as he came in, the cops rushed into the house and started jumping on people.

I told them about the guy shooting up in the bathroom, and they laughed.  “Yeah, that’s Big Joe,” one said.  “He was giving the stuff a taste.  I guess he didn’t like being interrupted.”

I was way too wired to sleep, so I spent the whole night sitting up and worrying about what was going to happen.  In the morning, we were sent in groups of four to the showers, presided over by a guard watching through a window.  I got cleaned up, washed my hair for the first time in two weeks, and put my old dirty clothes back on.  I admired the towels.  They were white with a stripe down the middle bearing the words City and County of San Francisco in embroidered red letters.  I considered what a great souvenir of this adventure one of those towels would be.  I left the towel draped around my neck as we walked back to the tank.

Nothing more happened for several hours.  Some of the more experienced guys said the next thing would be an initial arraignment hearing to tell us the charges and determine if they had enough evidence to charge us.  I figured a suitcase full of heroin was more than enough.  After that, we’d get nice orange jumpsuits and wait for trial.  I figured my college career was over.  At least I no longer had to wonder what I was going to be when I grew up.

Sometime in late afternoon a guard came and called my name.  I was taken to another room, where I found Ellen sitting, looking ever more scared.  I wanted to hug her, but it wasn’t allowed.

A guy in a suit came in and sat down.  He looked at me.

“Mr. Crawford, from what Ellen tells me, you’re a friend from college who just stopped in for a visit.  Is that right?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I’d just gotten there a few minutes before the bust.”

“Yeah, we saw you go in.  We saw that big duffel you were carrying and thought you might be part of it.  But there was nothing in it.  What are those things – some kind of musical instrument?”

“Recorders, sir.  Very popular in the Renaissance.  Not so much anymore,” I added lamely.  I didn’t think he wanted to talk about the evolution of end-blown fipple flutes during the Baroque period, as interesting as I thought it was.

“Well, we also determined that there are two separate apartments on that floor, and Miss Fishman is the tenant of the rear apartment only.”

Ellen and I looked at each other.  Could there be some hope after all?

“Now I don’t know if you two were involved or knew it was going on or what, but the fact is, we only had a search warrant for the front apartment.  I’m afraid some of the officers might have been - overzealous.  I don’t suppose you gave them permission to enter your apartment, did you, Miss Fishman?”

She shook her head.  “They just barged in,” she said.

He nodded.  “That’s what I thought,” he sighed.  “Hell, this whole operation was FUBAR.”

Ellen clearly didn’t recognize the military expression for Fucked Up Beyond All Repair, but I liked the sound of it.

He sighed again.  “Okay, you two can go.  Go collect your stuff.”

Ellen’s face lighted with relief and she grinned at me.  I must have looked the same.  We were separated again and a guard led me back to the tank.  I briefly explained to the others what had happened and they looked at me enviously.  “The detective is really pissed about the whole operation,” I told them.  “Maybe they made other mistakes on you guys.”

They didn’t look convinced.  It was time to go.  I reached down to pick up my pea coat and saw the towel lying next to it.  I grabbed the towel and thrust my arm into my coat, pushing the towel deep into the heavy material of the arm.  Making sure it wasn’t hanging out at either end, I hung the coat over my shoulder and went to the door.  The guys saw my move, but the guard didn’t.  He let me out and walked me through the jail to the release office.  There were a couple of other guys getting released at the same time, and I had to wait.  I was very conscious of the weight of the towel against my back, and was terrified it was going to fall out.  What would happen if they found it?  Would they just turn me around and put me back in for petty larceny?  Boy, would I feel stupid then.

But I was processed and they gave me back my wallet, watch, belt, headband, and tourniquet.  They buzzed me through the door, and I walked out into a San Francisco sunset.  Ellen was waiting on the steps, grinning at me.

“How do you like San Francisco so far?” she said.

I pulled the towel out of my pea coat and showed it to her with a grin.

“It’s all good, man,” I said.