Jumat, 13 April 2012

TOO LATE FOR THE HAIGHT by Peter Nolan Smith

The bus from Sacramento crossed the bay in light traffic. Most everyone in the Bay Area had off Memorial Day. The uniformed driver exit off the bridge and entered the Transbay Terminal five minutes past 1. Once it parked in the depot, I grabbed my bag from the underneath storage compartment and entered the station.

Holiday passengers were forming queues for destinations north, south, and east. Most were military on leave or college students. Commuters had stayed home for the day.

A bus for Santa Cruz was leaving on the hour. The fare was less than $3. Taking the bus was easier than hitchhiking out of the city, but my friends and I had spent the last six days driving across country. My friend AK had headed south on I-5 this morning. I was meeting 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 was in no hurry to be anywhere fast.

I stepped out onto Beale Street. The temperature was much cooler than the torrid Central Valley and I set my canvas travel on a wooden bench to pull on a light leather jacket.

“Man, you looking for a place to crash?” A scraggly long hair in dirty denim jeans and a soiled paisley jacket approached me, while scratching a sore on his neck. I recognized the type. Junkies were taking over the cities.

“No, I’m good.” I slung my bag over my left shoulder with a winch. The muscles and joints of my right arm were bruised from the security guards in Reno tossing me from a casino last night.

“Everyone is good.” The junkie picked at a rotten tooth. He was in bad shape.

“I’m just passing through.” I didn’t want any trouble and headed west.

“It’s a clean place and you get 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 with the promise of a punch.

“Suit yourself. You don’t know what you’ll be missing.” Omo stuck his hands into the shredded jacket and returned to the station muttering curses.

“Fucking Junkies.”

The Summer of Love ending seven years ago was stopping the junkies and speed thieves from preying 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.

Several blocks later I stopped at a small Mexican diner for a lunch of enchiladas, rice, and beans. The waitress kept supplying me 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 Kerouac had picked grapes in a migrant camp before he wrote ON THE ROAD. The beat writer had fallen in with a girl who probably might have related to this one. Mexicans have big families just like the Irish.

I veered off Mission at Haight and switched on the south side of the street to avoid the sun. Almost a hundred thousand young people flocked to San Francisco in the Spring of 1967. The gathering of the tribes lasted one long summer with Haight-Ashbury as their psychedelic playground. 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 the scars of arson 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. Anyone was wearing flowers in their hair this summer was a fraud.

“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 held his hand. She wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“Yo man, wait up.” 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 zombie voice. The pale-skinned redhead was about 15. She sported shooting tracks on the inside of her stick arms. My youngest sister was her age.

“Thanks, but no 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.

“Leave me alone.”

“Yeah, man, come with us and we can all get it on.” Floral 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 wider 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. “$30 gets you paradise. You look like you want it.”

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

“Pimp’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 I had hitchhiked in San Francisco with a friend. The hippie scene had been on its last legs. Now a few decrepit head shops lurked along the famed strip. The Hippie Era had given way to openly gay men in plaid shirt, tight jeans, and work boots.

These men had brothers in New York and Boston. They stared at my crotch and commented as lewdly as sailors on leave. Judging for the shortness of their hair, several might have been stationed on Treasure Island with the Pacific Fleet.

I kept walking west to Golden Gate Park and strolled through the empty parking lot Kezar Stadium. The gates were locked with chains. The start of the 1974 football season was a long way away from the end of May.

It was still a beautiful day.

Mexican families burned meat on barbecues and a dozen baseball games between Latino squads were in progress on a well-trodden fields. A few hippies tossed 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 was thriving at the edge of the city. It was not safe and I noticed three men and a woman behind me. Two of them were Omo and Floral. This 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 blocked 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, I heard you didn’t want Floral.” Scar spoke slowly, as if every word was important.

“I wasn’t in the mood.”

“That’s too bad, because that would have made life easy for everyone.” Scar whipped out a knife. The blade was four inches long. The Latino balled his fists. Omo smiled behind needy eyes and Floral prodded Scar and Latino, “Do it. Do it.”

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

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

“Okay.” I slipped the bag off my left shoulder and held it out.

“Good boy.” Scar reached out with his left hand. His friends were pleased with my surrender.

“The best.” Their esperation left a big opening and I swung my fist in a wide loop to open-palm Scar’s skull with the rock in my hand. I hadn’t pulled my punch and Scar collapsed with the grace of a puppet losing his strings. The knife and his body hit the ground at the same time. I picked up his weapon 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.” She was trouble and I had no desire to find out how much trouble. “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 came straight from Alaska. No one was swimming in the surf. I pulled 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. My luck was determined by location. The road was straight and the shoulder wide enough for a car to stop without danger.

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 leaving San Francisco felt good.

The hippie might have been dead, but the road lived on forever and I was heading south to Big Sur.

The wind swept through my hair.

The sun was warm.

California was mine and I was willing to see how much it was mine.

After all yesterday had been my birthday.

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