I just reconnected with a friend I knew in San Francisco in the 1970s, and that’s gotten me thinking about what a magnificent time and place it was.
Back then, you and a bunch of friends—seekers, misfits, up-and-comers and down-and-outers, people running to and people running from—could rent a big railroad flat in the Mission or the Haight for a couple hundred a month, and you could reinvent yourself as a street musician or coffeehouse poet, book binder or filmmaker.
You could study landscape architecture or Sanskrit, rolfing or breadmaking. You could buy 1940s outfits for 50 cents at Thift Town and wear them temping at downtown legal offices, or you could dress down and get a job scrubbing the deck of the ship Balclutha.
You could buy a bike at a sidewalk sale on Dolores Street for a buck and later pedal through the rain with your best friend at 1 a.m. to the top of Bernal Hill because she’d just broken up with her boyfriend and couldn’t sleep. You could join EST or the Hare Krishnas, do primal scream or live on wheat grass and goat cheese, and nobody would care.
And love was everywhere, but elusive. You’d fall for a guitarist/courier with a gap-toothed smile and squinty eyes, and he’d decide San Francisco was too much for him and move back to Spokane or Milwaukee or Chevy Chase. You’d click with an actor/window washer with a Monty Python wit and gravely voice, and he’d say San Francisco wasn’t enough for him, and off he’d go to New York or L.A. to make it big. You’d go sip a latte in North Beach or sign up at Fort Mason for a workshop on homemade soap, and you’d meet someone new, someone who’d just moved down from Alaska or up from Louisiana, and you’d begin again.
People answered the call of San Francisco and spent a year or two or ten (I remained for 29), and left with memories of a time when everything seemed up in the air, full of possibilities, full of hopes and dreams ready to gel and fall gracefully back to earth, making it a better place than before.
Some dreams came true; others didn’t. We all matured, planted our feet on the ground and walked toward our diverse destinies. Many of us devoted ourselves to committed love and the joys of parenting, punctuated by conference rooms, school rooms, waiting rooms, bills. But San Francisco in the 1970s will forever be a part of those of us who were there. And a good part it is.