Tuesday, July 9, 2019

San Francisco, 1964

Recently, I came across yet another newspaper article critical of San Francisco. It almost seems part of a coordinated campaign to disparage that city by the sea. The writer complained about the homeless population there (no doubt a tough situation) and the high cost of living (Tech intrusion will do that). But then the writer exposed his hand by smudging those ‘liberals’ and ‘NIMBY’ folks who he felt were at the root of this evil.

Funny how some old attitudes just keep coming back again and again. I guess it’s not surprising when you consider San Francisco’s DNA and the social and cultural changes constantly taking place there.

This liberal bastion of individuality has been under attack from more conservative forces for centuries. It began in the mid-to-late Eighteen Hundreds with the gold rush and the open town atmosphere San Francisco embraced back then. Well before the turn of the century, lurid stories were coming out of the ‘Barberry Coast.’ It only accelerated with stories of sexual freedom for men and women there in the Forties. The Fifties brought the Beatniks and then the hippies in the early Sixties. Many of America’s social and cultural changes had their origin in those fog-covered hills surrounded by the sea.

My experience living in San Francisco wasn’t normal by any standard. I was given free room and board with a great view of the ocean. I made a decent salary just to practice my journalism skills by day and bought a Vespa motor scooter to explore the city by night. I had a part time job at an Art Theater and took in the latest foreign films every weekend. There were scooter trips up and down the coast and into the Back Bay area.  It was eight months of my own little Camelot. Not a bad deal until a transfer sent me to a summer in hell.

In 1964 the city was slowly shedding its turn-of-the century collection of rundown dive bars and flea bag hotels for more modern digs. New hotels were sprouting up along Market Street down-town and there was talk of developing some of the dilapidated warehouses stacked up along the old vacant docks.

Just outside the entrance to the Presidio there was a three-two bar. Its patrons consisted of off duty servicemen, local drunks, guys trolling for a pickup and middle-aged women competing for the same clients. Welcome to San Francisco in the Sixties. Seven and Seven was my favorite drink when I was pretending to be all grown up.

The Haight Ashbury neighborhood had always been a working class neighborhood of Italians and Poles. Now younger folks were moving in, attracted by the cheap rents and huge Victorian homes where they could sublet rooms to their friends and acquaintances. I went there several times because ‘that was where the action was.’ I didn’t see much action, not that I would have recognized it at the time anyway.

Market Street was where one went for fine apparel and Fisherman’s wharf actually had working boats lining the docks. North Beach was still haven to Beats, drunks and druggies. But more upscale trendy bars were slowly inching into their territory. I found the area to be a tourist trap with over-priced drinks and very strange, almost scary, Broadway-type characters straight out of a Damon Runyon novel.

The Larkin Theater provided me with a weekly collection of new foreign films and watching the patrons who liked them. Two girls, their names long since forgotten, worked the ticket cage and provided comic relief with their high school trauma, drama and west coast teenage angst.

The Palace of Fine Arts was under reconstruction and the Art Museum by the Sea remained stuck in its turn of the century furnishings and d├ęcor. One of my many escapes from the city was Golden Gate Park and the Marina District which hugged the coastline. The ocean wasn’t far away.

Half Moon Bay was a Saturday morning scooter right away and Daly City a boring collection of ticky-tacky housing just like in the song.

But the real treat was Sausalito just across the bay. At that time it was still a bastion of creative types who wanted to escape the confines of the city. It was deliriously new, breathtakingly beautiful, full of wonderful temptations and totally out of reach for a youngster just in from the Midwest.

But, oh, how my imagination did soar.

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