Rabu, 11 Januari 2012

TOO LATE FOR THE HAIGHT by Peter Nolan Smith

The bus from Sacramento crossed the Bay Bridge in light traffic. Most everyone in the Bay Area had off Memorial Day. The uniformed driver took the first exit to the Transbay Terminal and parked in the depot. I grabbed my bag from the storage compartment underneath the bus and entered the station.

Holiday passengers were forming queues for destinations north, south, and east. They were mostly military and college students. Commuters had stayed home for the day.

I walked onto Beale Street into the intense noontime sun. The temperature was much cooler than the Central Valley and I set my canvas travel on a wooden bench to pull a light leather jacket.

"Man, you looking for a place to crash?" a scraggly long hair in dirty denim and a soiled paisley jacket asked, while scratching a sore on his neck.

"No, I'm good." I had been warned about rip-offs by overly friendly hippies and slung my bag over my left shoulder. The muscles and joints of my right were bruised from the security guards in Reno tossing me from a casino.

"Clean and your own bed. You give what you can afford. My name's Omo. Stands for On My Own. We're a cool commune. Lots of chicks too. You into chicks?" Omo followed me at a safe distance.

"Leave me alone." I glared back at him with the promise of a punch.

"Suit yourself. You don't know what you'll be missing." Omo stuck his hands into the jacket and turned back to the station.

The Summer of Love had ended seven years ago.

Now junkies and speed thieves preyed on unsuspecting hippies following the acid trail of 1967. The wide-eyed faithful were easy marks for the vultures haunting the bus station and I crossed the street headed toward Mission Street with the slender spire of the Transamerica Building rising to the north.

Six days ago I had left Boston in a drive-away station wagon bound for Lodi, California. The owner was relieved to have his Ford Torino delivered without mishap. My friend AK had headed south on I-5. I was going to meet him in Encinitas sometime next week. Buses and trolleys traversed the peninsula to the ocean. I intended to cover the short distance by foot. I wasn't in a hurry.

Lunch at a small Mexican diner consisted of enchiladas, rice, and beans. The waitress kept coming with extra tortillas. I paid with a twenty-dollar bill and tipped the young counter girl a dollar on a $2 check. She deserved more.

"Mucho gracias." She smiled with gleaming white teeth.

"Da nada." Jack Keroauc had picked grapes in a migrant camp and fallen in with a girl who probably was related to this one. I could see why.

I veered off Mission at Haight and strolled on the south side of the street to avoid the sun. The Fillmore West had been shut for two years. Quicksilver, Moby Grape, and the Jefferson Airplane had abandoned this city for the country. Empty houses bore fire scars and the hard-faced gangs lingered on the stoops of boarded-up apartment buildings. Heroin and speed had ripped the heart out of Haight-Ashbury. No one was wearing flowers in their hair this year with good reason.

"Yo, man, it's me, Omo." The hippie from the bus station shouted from the grassy slope Buena Vista Park corner. A very thin teenage girl in a filmy dress was holding his hand. She wasn't wearing any underwear. Omo and the girl jumped onto the sidewalk. "Yo, man, this is Floral. She's one of the girls at the commune. She likes young guys like you, don't you, Floral?"

"You have nice eyes." Floral spoke with a dead voice. The pale-skinned redhead was about 15. She sported shooting tracks on the inside of her stick arms. My sister was her age.

"Thanks." I kept walking at a steady pace, having noticed another long-haried junkie on the opposite side of the street. He was watching the three of us with too much interest to be a passer-by. This was a set-up.

"Yo, man, where you going? We live around the corner. Let's go up there and chill." Omo wasn't giving up on me. Opportunities at the bus station were slim on Memorial Day. His voice was on edge. He needed a score. I was it.

"Yeah, man, come with us and we can all get it on." Smack had hit America hard in the early 70s and Floral was one of its many casualties. She pulled on my arm with the strength of a blood-weak vampire. "I'll do anything."

"She really means anything." Omo lifted her dress to the waist. The gap between her legs was wide than a hand. "Anything is Floral's specialty."

"Thanks for the offer, but I got places to go." I shrugged off her weak grasp and broadened my gait.

"$20 will get you an hour of heaven." Omo wasn't giving up so easy.

"So you're her pimp?" I hadn't been with a woman for a long time, but I had never paid for sex.

"That's an uncool word." Omo smirked with unwavering perseverance. "I'm her coach. What about it? You can do a lot of anything in an hour."

"No." I was at the end of my patience and pushed him hard.

"Sorry, to bug you, man. I didn't realize you were queer." Omo shouted in a loud voice and gave me the finger. He was a sore loser.

"Fuck you too." I muttered under my breath to avoid any escalation of this encounter.

Two years ago the hippie scene had been on its last legs. A few head shops lurked in a state of decay along the famed strip, but the long-hairs were outnumbered by openly gay men in plaid shirt, tight jeans, and work boots. They had brothers in New York and Boston. These men openly stared at my crotch and commented lewdly, as if they were sailors on leave. Judging for the shortness of their hair, several might have been stationed on Treasure Island with the Pacific Fleet.

San Francisco had belonged to the Beats in the 1950s. The hippies had inherited the city in the 60s. This decade was owned by men in love with men, even if that love lasted a few minutes. I kept walking west.

I reached Golden Gate Park with Kezar Stadium on my left. I strolled through the empty parking lot. The gates were locked with chains. The 1974 football season was a long way away from the end of May.

Almost a hundred thousand young people flocked to San Francisco in the Spring of 1967. The gathering of the tribes lasted one long summer. The Haight was not big enough to handle that many people at one time and the fall saw an exodus of those disenchanted with the chaos, but it was still a beautiful day.

Mexican families were burning meat on barbecues and a dozen baseball games between Latino squads were in progress on a well-trodden field. A few hippies were tossing frisbees on the edge of the lawn. Marijuana wafted on a cool breeze scented with salt. The ocean was getting close.

Few pedestrians strolled on the paths past Stow Lake. Collarless dogs ran in packs through the underbrush. A wilderness survived at the edge of the city. It was not safe and I was being followed by three men and a woman. Two of them were Omo and Floral. This meeting was not a coincidence.

A fist-sized rock lay in the dirt. I bent over, as if to tie my shoe. The four of them were too far away to notice that I was wearing boots. The rock was smooth in my hand. I stood up and continued in the same direction. There was no place to run.

The confrontation came the other side of a small lake. Omo and Floral stood in my path and the other two approached from behind. I didn't put down my bag. The young girl stood in back of Omo. She was pushing him forward. The other two were a Latino in a leather vest with a bandana around his head and the long-hair from the Haight. A scar bisected his face. It had not come from a duel. He was the first one to speak. Scar had nothing good to say."

"Man, heard you didn't want Floral." Scar spoke slow, as if he wanted me to hear every word.

"I wasn't in the mood."

"That's too bad, because that would have been easy for everyone." Scar whipped out a knife. The blade was four inches long. The Latino balled his fists. Omo smiled with anticipation and Floral said, "Do it. Do it."

They were a team. It was four-on-one on paper. None of them had seen the rock in my hand.

"Give us the bag and your money." The greasy-haired hippie flourished the knife with a shaking hand. He was jonesing big time.

I slipped the bag off my left shoulder and held it out. The four of them seemed pleased with my surrender and Scar reached out with his left hand. Desperation left a big opening and I swung my fist in a wide loop to open-palm his skull with the rock in my hand. I hadn't pulled my punch and Scar dropped the knife. His body hit the ground at the same time. I picked up the knife and turned to Omo.

"Are we done?" I slipped the rock inside my jacket pocket. It had served its purpose.

"Yeah, man, we're cool." Omo lifted his hands in submission. The Latino robber backed away several feet.

"Then have a nice day." I pocketed the knife and kicked the fallen thief in the ribs twice. It was not for show.

I walked away from my disappointed attackers looking over my shoulder several times until I reached the South Drive. Cars sped along the park road. I was safe again.

"Hey, you."

Floral ran up to me.

"Can I go with you?" She was out of breath.

"Where you from?" I didn't expect her to tell the truth. She was a runaway.

"Kansas, same as Dorothy. Where you going?" She bit her lip, hoping I might say Hollywood.

"Nowhere special." In her state Floral couldn't make it much farther than Route 1 before going to the village of Cold Turkey. I pulled $10 out of my pocket. She didn't deserved it, but today was the day after my birthday. "This get you straight."

"A little." She snatched the bill like a banana-hungry monkey in a cage. "Another ten and we can go into the bushes."

"Thanks, Floral, but I really have to be going." There was no telling what she was carrying and I wasn't going to find out. "You take care of yourself."

"I'm tougher than I look." Her smile was missing a tooth. Life was tough on the street.

"I'm sure you are." I was on my summer vacation and Floral wasn't the type of girl to save in a single day.

I left her on the roadside and ten minutes later crossed the Great Highway to stand on a sloping strand of sand. The sun was three hours from setting in the west. The cold from the ocean chilled my flesh. No one was swimming in the surf. I took the rock and knife from my jacket and threw them into a wave. Neither appeared from the surge.

I turned around to San Francisco.

Cars were heading north and south on the coastal road. I walked to the curb and stuck out my thumb. A Tempest convertible stopped within two minutes. The marine on holiday was headed to Daly City. I jumped in the car. Ten minutes later we left the city by the bay and sadly it felt good leaving, but only until the wind swept through my hair.

The hippie was dead.

The road lived on forever.

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