The bus from Sacramento crossed the bay in light traffic. Most people in the Bay Area had off Memorial Day. The uniformed driver veered off the bridge and entered the TransBay Terminal. Once he parked in the depot, I got off the bus to grab my bag from the underneath storage compartment and entered the station.
Holiday passengers formed queues for destinations north, south, and east. Most were military personnel on leave or college students heading home for the summer. After three days of driving through the desert and seeing only white faces, I was slightly shocked by racial mix in the bus station. Black soldiers ran to their gates, Mexicans eyed the hall for immigration officers, Indians slept on the benches, and Chinamen greeted families coming off the buses. A single Japanese farmer held a bonsai tree in his hands.
I was back in America's melting pot.
My friend AK had left south on I-5 this morning.
I would meet him next week next week in Encinitas. A bus for Santa Cruz was leaving on the hour. The fare was less than $3. The bus was an easier exit out of the city than hitchhiking, but my friends and I had spent the last six days driving across country and I needed a walk to clear my head. Before hitting the street I stopped at a phone booth to call Boston. The friend staying at my apartment in Bug Village answered my call. Everything was fine in my absence. I didn’t say anything to Steve about my gambling debacle and hung up the handset.
Leaving the terminal I stepped out onto Beale Street. Buses and trolleys traversed the peninsula to the ocean. I was in no hurry to be anywhere fast and walked west for a few blocks. The temperature in San Francisco was much cooler than the Central Valley. I set down my canvas travel bag and sleeping bag on a wooden bench before pulling on a light leather jacket.
“Man, you looking for a place to crash?”
I stood erect and turned to a scraggly longhair in dirty denim jeans and a soiled paisley jacket. He scratched at a sore on his neck, indicating his dug of choice as meth.
“No, I’m good.” I slung my bag over my left shoulder with a winch.
My muscles and joints ached from last night’s tussle with the security guards tossing me out of a Reno casino.
“Everyone is good.” The junkie picked at a rotten tooth.
“I’m just passing through the city.” I didn’t want any trouble and walked away at a faster pace than normal.
“Our place is clean and you can have your own bed. No bedbugs too. 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 panted like a stray dog seeking a handout.
“Leave me alone.” I glared the promise of a punch. “Suit yourself, but you don’t know what you’ll be missing. Girls, drugs, rock and roll.” Omo stuck his hands into the shredded jacket and shambled to the station muttering curses.
“Fucking junkies.” I sneered at his back.
Seven years ago almost a hundred thousand young people had flocked to San Francisco. The Summer of Love had played out its vein of psychedelic gold in three months, yet the Death of the Hippie hadn’t prevented countless young boys and girls from hitting the road each year to reincarnate that paradise and these wide-eyed faithful were easy marks for the vultures haunting the bus station. I crossed the street with the slender spire of the TransAmerica Building rising to the North and veered off Mission at Haight.
“Yo, man, it’s me, Omo,” the junkie from the bus station shouted from the grassy slope of Buena Vista Park. A very thin teenage girl in a filmy dress held his hand, as the two skipped down to the sidewalk and across the street, as if they were the last hippies on Earth. Close-up they were close to dead.
“Yo, man, this is Jaz. Remember I told you about the girls at the commune. Jaz is the best of them all."
“You have nice eyes,” the girl mumbled with a graveyard whisper. I had a stutter and said with stumbling over a syllable, “Like I said before, I’m good.”
“I could make things better.” The pale-skinned redhead’s stick arms sported shooting tracks. Dead flowers wreathed her sad blonde hair. My youngest sister was her age.
No older than 15.
A runaway and her glazed eyes narrated her life on the streets.
“I’m sure you can.” I looked over my shoulder to a greasy-haired Latino on the opposite side of the street.
“Yo, man, where you going? We live around the corner. Let’s go up there and chill.” Omo pulled out a joint.
“Not today.” The joint was probably dosed with heroin.
“Man, why you so uncool? Come with us and we can all get it on.” She yanked 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 teenager wasn’t wearing any underwear and the gap between her bony legs was wider than a hand. “Anything is Jaz’s specialty.”
“I have places to go.” I shrugged off her weak grasp.
“$20 will buy you an hour of heaven.” Pickings were slim this Memorial Day Weekend and Omo wasn’t giving up so easy on he only mark in sight. “$30 buys you paradise for a night.”
“So you’re her pimp?”
“Pimp is an uncool word.” Omo stood in my way. “I’m more her coach, mentor, guru. What about it? You can do a lot of ‘anything’ in an hour.”
“No.” I had reached the end of my patience and pushed him hard.
“Sorry, to bug you, man. I didn’t realize you were queer.” Omo gave me the finger. He was a sore loser.
“Fuck you too,” I muttered under my breath.
At the corner I looked over my back. Jaz and Omo were gone.
So was the Latino.
I checked the street sign. This was Haight-Ashbury, but not the Haight of 1967.
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 charred scars of arson and the hard-faced gangs lounged on the stoops of boarded-up apartment buildings.
A few rundown head shops lurked along the famed strip, however the hippies 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 about my ‘rack’. Judging for the shortness of their hair, several might have been stationed on Treasure Island with the Pacific Fleet.
I continued west to Golden Gate Park and strolled across Kezar Stadium’s empty parking lot. Chains locked the gates. The start of the 1974 football season was a baseball season away from the end of May and Mexican families charred meat on barbecues with a dozen baseball games in progress on well-trodden playing fields opposite the stadium. A couple of hippies tossed Frisbees on the edge of the lawn.
Marijuana smoke drifted on a cool breeze. Longhairs and beaners liked the weed. I smelled the sea.
The ocean was at the other end of the park.
Collarless dogs ran in packs through the wild undergrowth surrounding Stow Lake. A fist-sized rock lay in the dirt. I bent over, as if to tie my shoe. The rock was smooth in my hand.
Someone shouted for me to stop. Omo and Jaz hurried across the withered grass to block my path and the scarred Latino scurried out of the bushes to cut off my retreat.
The young girl pushed Omo forward.
“Hey man, you should have gone with Jaz.” Omo spoke, as if every word was important. “Are you queer?”
“I wasn’t in the mood.” I slipped my bags off my shoulder.
“Fucking Jaz would have made life easy for everyone.” Omo whipped out a knife. He waved the blade. I stood my ground. Omo was no Zorro, but the three-on-one odds shifted when another man exited from the bushes.
The longhaired drifter had shaved since our passing him on a Nebraska highway, but Bill’s knuckles were bloody and his right cheek was swollen from a recent punch.
“That’s it, but I apologize for not remembering your name.”
“Apology accepted.” My hand tightened on the rock in my pocket.
“That’s really white of you, but I didn’t expect to run into you again, hippie scumbag and you probably didn’t either.”
“Weren’t you joining a carnival?” My bag was too heavy to attempt running for it.
“Carnival boss was an asshole, so I came west to see California, figuring we might meet up again.”
“It was a long shot.” Same as four-on-one ran in their favor.
“I like long shots, queer boy.” Bill edged forward to my left.
“You know him?” Jaz asked from behind Omo.
“This hippie fag’s boyfriend tossed me out of a car the other side of the country.” Bill pointed to the torn leather. “They fucked up my jacket, didn’t you?”
“Not me, but my friend.”
“The Jew boy?"
“He rolled you down the hill like a bowling ball.”
The scarred Latino circled to my right.
I kept him in the corner of my eye. Bill was the real danger.
“Give us the bag and your money.” Omo held the knife with a shaking hand.
“Okay.” I held out my bag to Bill.
“Good boy.” Bill reached out with his left hand.
His friends were pleased with my easy surrender.
My fist swung in a wide loop to open-palm Bill’s skull with the rock and didn’t pull my punch. The impact exacted a bone-crunching crack and the stringy-haired southerner collapsed onto the path with the gracelessness of a puppet losing his strings. Omo lunged with the knife and I socked him with the rock. He collapsed on top of Bill. I picked up the stiletto and turned to the scarred Latino.
“Are we done?” The rock had served its purpose and I dropped the stone the ground.
“Yeah, man, we’re cool.” The Latino backed several feet.
“Then have a nice day.” I kicked Omo in the ribs twice. His groans were not for show.
Bill bled from the head.
I booted him in the back.
I was from Boston and when someone was down, we liked them to stayed down.
I walked away from my attackers and looked over my shoulder several times until reaching South Drive. Cars sped along the park road. I was safe again.
Jaz ran up to me.
“Can I go with you?” She was out of breath.
“I’m going nowhere special.”
“I know where that is,” she said like nowhere had more than one location.
“Where you from?” I didn’t expect her to tell the truth.
“Kansas, same as Dorothy.”
Few adults realized how THE WIZARD OF OZ was a runaway movie.
“If I gave you the bus fare, would you go back home?” She was trouble and I had no desire to find out how much trouble.
“Mister, these streets are safer than my home.” She bit her chapped lip. “If I come with you, I’ll do anything.”
“Jaz, I’m traveling alone.” I pulled $20 out of my pocket. She didn’t deserve the money, but today was the day after my birthday.
“Here, this might 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, but I really have to be going.” I noticed that her smile was missing a tooth, but I could see the girl who she had been, but only just. “You take care of yourself.”
“I’m tougher than I look.”
“I’m sure you are.” I was on my summer vacation and the teenage runaway wasn’t the type of girl to rescue in a single day. "But you're too young."
"I'm older than most."
"But not older enough for me.
“Fuck you, mister.” No one liked rejection.
“Thanks to you too.”
Jaz vanished into the bushes and I crossed the Great Highway to stand on a sloping strand of sand. No one swam at this beach. The water was iceberg cold. I tossed the knife into a wave. The riptide sucked the weapon into the deep.
I walked back to the Great Highway.
Cars head north and south. I stuck out my thumb.. The road was straight and the shoulder was wide enough for a driver to pull over without being rear-ended by another vehicle.
A Tempest convertible stopped within two minutes. The Marine on holiday was on his way to Daly City.
I jumped in the car. The marine stepped on the gas. The wind swept through my hair. For a few second leaving San Francisco sadly felt like an escape, until I realized that while the hippie might have been dead, but the road lived on forever.