Everyone I knew was reading it, but I didn’t want to. Season of the Witch is a look at my adopted home town of San Francisco, moving from the Summer of Love in 1967 to the dark, dark ‘80’s to redemption at the end of the decade. But finally I relented and was swept into the meticulously researched and well-written account of how the city moved through its different phases and events that would not only define and redefine its culture, but ripple out to the world beyond as well.
I first came to the Bay Area (more Berkeley than San Francisco) in the summer of ’72, five years after that living announcement of a new world. In that short time, the edges of love began to cave and crumble, the mind-expanding good vibes drugs of LSD and marijuana were shifting to meth and cocaine and heroine. The neighborhood rock bands playing free for the people had entered the fray of big business rock star frame. The euphoria of envisioning a world beyond the dull buttoned down business career, repressed sexuality, double standard alcoholics putting down pot, a Machiavellian education system, a horrific war, still vicious racism was still alive and palpable in those early days of my arrival in San Francisco. But hard drugs, fame, money, homeless runaways trying to escape it all with no plan or clear idea of what they were running to, all of that was part of the reason the dream was beginning to fray at the issues.
I loved living in the thick of it and am grateful that I did. My hippie start-up days were at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and when I graduated in 1973, San Francisco was the obvious next step. I lived on Shrader Street, one block from the Panhandle and one block from Haight Street. I never was homeless or into hard drugs or by then, even that obsessed with pot and it’s cousins. I had just begun to craft a vision of a positive alternative to everything we critiqued in the form of a new education and was impatient with merely grooving with the now or insisting on armed revolution. I was losing friends to Guru Marahaji, Hare Krishna, hard-core leftists, Jesus freakism, growing increasingly concerned about a vulnerability to be scammed and taken in by the mysterious East or the Che-modelled West.
It was a time of great cultural upheaval and birthed incredible music, a faith in human goodness that had me hitchhiking four times across the country, new and larger definitions of Spirit and Soul and courageous determination to work toward social justice, for blacks, for Latinos, for Native Americans, for the poor, for women, for children and last on the list, but the seeds beginning to sprout, for gay folks. But times of rapid change to open up the highs and lows, light and darks of human possibility and there it was, the whole catastrophe, living at the extremes, not much time for the grey middle zone of simple social harmony.
And as the book so painfully chronicles, darkness descended. I couldn’t help but be pulled into the macabre world of the Zodiac killer, the Zebra killings, Patty Hearst and the SLA, the Jonestown Mass Suicide, the murder of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, the lenient sentencing of Dan White, the AIDS epidemic. I was traveling around the world for a year at the time of Jonestown and the Moscone/Milk murder, so didn’t feel the full impact as much as the rest of my friends. But I was living and working in San Francisco during the rest of it. Truth be told, I was as worried about nuclear catastrophe under Reagan's watch as the local Zebra killers and trying to create a positive atmosphere with two daughters born in 1980 and 1984. But reading through this book, there is no question about it— these were dark times for the mythical Baghdad by the Bay.
And then came the glimmers of redemption. A surprising needed politic style of Dianne Feinstein, the 49’ers toppling the Dallas Cowboys rein and going on to win the Super Bowl, the community response to the AIDS crisis and more. San Francisco was a phoenix rising from its own ashes and spreading its wings to fly closer to the mountain peaks of individual freedom of expression, social justice, diverse co-existence, sustainability and just plain fun.
But I couldn’t help but be struck by the idea that a city, like a person, can grow up. The first hippies were all under thirty, pure in their hopes and dream and intentions, but without any elder guiding star or any idea of the work involved in moving from mere rejection to building brick-by-brick a positive alternative. We were kids. Young, naïve, innocent. Not only the first flower children, but the first gay immigration as well. The antidote to repression was pure uninhibited expression, sex without commitment, the first ecstatic freedoms of coming out. Yee-haw. Seen from the far end of 64 years old, it’s no wonder that such unbridled expression irked the working class folks and the Catholic church-goers and the responsible adults raising kids.
And then the dark times came. I don’t believe it was wholly a cause-and –effect, some divine retribution for attempting to fly so close to the sun. It was just life’s way of shattering naivete and innocence and passing it through the crucible of death and destruction to see if it still might emerge at the other end, not wholly beaten-down, but borne up by a more mature understanding of what freedom and expression and work really means.
And that, I believe, is precisely what happened in San Francisco. No one can imagine the Supreme Court deciding that walking naked through the streets, having sex in public, partying day and night, is the inalienable right of every American citizen, gay or straight. But from its “Whoopee” roots, the gay community moved on to gay marriage, asking for the chance to have their committed relationship recognized, the chance to be in the hospital with their lover when that time came. That’s a mature vision that the greater culture finally has legally accepted (though many still needing work culturally or individually). The mind-expanding drugs matured to a rigorous practice of meditation or yoga, the politic outrage to sustained vision of working for the rights of all with multiple strategies. In short, we grew up. But with the vision still intact, though different. The vision grew up with us.
Not that the work is done or can ever be. San Francisco has other challenges now, the hi-rise mania back, the immigration of high-rolling IT hipsters pricing just about everyone out of their neighborhoods. It’s always a work in progress. But as I flew over my beloved city from Portland yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel renewed love and admiration and appreciation for what it stands for, what it offers the world, what is yet has to accomplish.
And I want to be there for it.