The spirit of freedom is alive and well and Haight and Ashbury
by Salil Tripathi
Dec 22 2007
I am at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, and the clock is stuck at
4.20. The summer of love was 40 years ago, and the smell that wafts
through the most famous crossroads in the history of counterculture
is not of marijuana, but of mocha java. Has the revolution gone limp?
Across me is a Ben and Jerry's (B&J's) ice-cream parlour that looks
as messy as Leopold's Café in Colaba but, instead of relics of the
1960s, I see eager young people wearing T-shirts and shorts, buying
dollops of ice cream, fortifying themselves before hitting the
streets. B&J's sells Cherry Garcia; Jerry Garcia's home is the
proverbial stone's throw awayif you aren't stoned, that is.
The colours around me are vivid and psychedelic. Orange and purple,
green and yellow, red and pink: Everything is meant to shock and awe,
but not in the militaristic sense; arouse, but not only in the
orgastic sense; numb, but not in the anaesthetic sense; and calm, but
not in the meditative sense; all at the same time.
Why 4.20? It has nothing to do with the blackbirds, though the stoned
man on the sidewalk laughs at the nursery rhyme simplicity of the
idea. He claims to be a Gulf War veteran, seeking donations from
pedestrians with a banner by his side saying "Donate generously. Want
to get stoned tonight." He tells me 4.20pm is the hour to get stoned.
I tell him 420 is a section of the Indian Penal Code dealing with
cheating and forgery. He laughs, as if saying the whole world is a
As we say goodbye to 2007, it is worth recalling that it has indeed
been a year of anniversariesof the summer of love, of course, but
equally importantly, the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's
monumental novel On The Road. During a month-long vacation in the US
this summer, I had been reading the adventures of Kerouac and Neal
Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in the novel),
encapsulating mad, meandering journeys across the American heartland,
as soldiers returned to the US after liberating Europe and Asia, but
did not fit into the conservative, Eisenhower-era US.
It was called the Beat Generation, a phrase the critic Louis Menand
traces to an old carny slang. Menand says the poet Allen Ginsberg and
Kerouac picked up the term from a man called Herbert Huncke, a gay
street hustler from Chicago they met near Times Square in New York in
1939. Beat means beaten down and poor, exhausted, at the bottom of
the heap of history. But it is only when you are flat out on the
ground on a dark night that you can see stars shining in their full,
scintillating glory. In what has been a difficult year, the balmy
weather of San Francisco, and the spirit of freedom the city
encapsulates, has just that sort of feeling for us.
The stories Kerouac wrote the sexuality, the outré behaviourmay
sound banal, boring and conventional today. We have all grown up and
learned to get our hair cut every month and tell our children why
drugs are bad and the only good sex is safe sex. But it was
revolutionary in that time, and that spirit pervades through that
city, even if all those revolutionaries now have iPods, drink coffee
at Starbucks and even B&J's, as a brand, has been sold to a multinational.
But the spirit isn't lost. When I step out of our friends' home in
the morning and walk down from Noe towards Castro to board the
streetcar, I find foot-stamp size silhouettes of George W. Bush on
the road. The line below says: Impeach the Idiot.
Earlier that day, we have been to that temple of the First Amendment,
the City Lights bookstore, co-owned by the poet Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, which published Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish (and held
open readings from those) at a time when many in the US would have
wanted to see such books banned. There's a banner there asking San
Franciscans: "Where is the courage? Why is that man still the
President?" Dixie Chicks would have been feted as queens at this
bookstore, the intellectual counterpoint to the sensation of feeling
spaced out that Haight and Ashbury induce.
We are surrounded by the musty smell of books, ready to lose
ourselves in the magical tapestry of words. Banned books have a
special section here as a kind of in-your-face defiance.
In a sense, that distance between Haight and Ashbury and the City
Lights bookstore encompasses the trajectories of American
counterculture. When Timothy Leary said: "Turn On, Tune In, Drop
Out," some dropped out at Haight and Ashbury, others at this
bookstore. In the chasm between rose strait-laced skyscrapers,
reflecting post-war American prosperity. But its conscience was
rocked by the music strumming through parks in Haight and Ashbury,
and the words, the inspiration, and the rebelliousness were nurtured
at bookshops such as City Lights.
I had come to Haight and Ashbury to discover the mood of that summer
of love. Standing with my sons at that corner of Haight and Ashbury,
sipping magical chocolate milkshake, in a corner of the US where it
is always 4.20pm, seeing people walking all over the face of the man
who is their president, reading a book that in so many other
countries would have been banned outright, we got a glimpse of the
meaning of the word, freedom. Like the image of the Golden Gate
Bridge surrounded by fog, freedom seems elusive; it is imperial and
grand, it is within reach, it often gets clouded, but it is always
there, within our firm grasp.
Write to Salil at email@example.com