Friday, February 06, 2015

Wild times -- and we thought we were just normal

Bear with me on this one; I really don't know quite what I think of David Talbot's Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, a narrative of San Francisco's tumultuous passages from the 1960s through the early 1980s.

His story was, after all, much of my life. I was a Berkeley student exploring the other side of the Bay at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967; I remember staying clear of the throngs to listen to a solitary woman playing a guitar and wailing keening songs while sitting under a tree; that was Buffy Sainte-Marie. (She's still powerful; check the link.)

I remember mass stops of young Black men during the hunt for the Zebra killer. I learned to hang sheetrock while renovating the International Hotel and welcomed busloads of older Black women from the People's Temple who marched alongside white hippies defending that residence for retired single Filipino men.

At the free restaurant, Martin de Porres House, where I lived, we refused the bulk food extorted from Randall Hearst by his daughter Patty's kidnappers -- but we gladly accepted the bags of provisions that our homeless friends brought us from that misbegotten boondoggle. Mayor George Moscone rallied to our defense when the Health Department sanctioned us for feeding the hungry without a permit (so did Fr. Quinn, the Catholic Archbishop.)

When Diane Feinstein was choosing a supervisor to succeed Harvey Milk, I joined many who lobbied for a lesbian woman. (We lost, getting Harry Britt instead; he turned out pretty well.) When Milk and Moscone's murderer, Dan White, got off with a slap on the wrist, I wrote up the ensuing satisfying orgy of burning police cars for a lesbian newspaper. And I celebrated with everyone else when Bill Walsh's 49ers became a dynasty of football winners who the rest of the country could never quite erase with the label "effete."

So I lived Talbot's story, perhaps a little closer to the ground than his sources and so, though I'm glad that he told it, I often also had a different view. Not a contrary view, but a different view.

Some things he got terribly right. One of these was the descent of the scene in the Haight into anguished violence.

But as San Francisco's revolution spread -- carried by the music, the drugs, the underground railroad of wandering youth -- the poison in America's soul was also billowing. You could feel it more and more on the streets of the Haight. San Francisco was no longer only a haven for the country's restless dreamers but also for its wrecked and ruined.

The 1960s turned sour in large part because of the endless bloodletting in Vietnam. The soul sickness leached everywhere as the war came home, but nowhere more than the Haight. where many ravaged veterans sought solace. The music that GIs listened to in Vietnam, and the magazine spreads of hippie revelry, promised a halcyon world far him the blood and mud. But many of them found it was not easy to leave the war behind; they brought it home with them. Life in the Haight grew more violent and disturbing. The drugs got harder.

The Haight was nowhere I wanted to be by as early as 1969.

Talbot clearly has great sources in the old labor-Communist (Hallinans et al.) San Francisco that battled the old Irish-Italian Catholic San Francisco. And he's worked to have some sense of the Black and Asian forces that struggled to be heard underneath of those conflicts and around the various newcomers.

But I don't think he has much grasp of the struggles of gays and of Mission and Excelsior Latinos to find their place in this melange. Diane Feinstein's long ascendancy was not some peaceful afterward to the terrifying years about which he writes for those groups. Her "Mommy knows best," patronizing style disgusted grassroots activists. Her prissy prudery was no help to the gay community struggling to change sexual practices with the appearance of HIV infection. She offered nothing to tenants nor to the movement to curb downtown oriented Manhattanization.

And these civic skirmishes never stopped. As late as 1989, the San Francisco Police Department rioted in the Castro, attacking gay individuals and bars. Struggles over retaining a place for middle and working class people in this spatially constrained peninsula continue to this day. They get heated in ways that are not so different from the 1930s labor battles on the waterfront that preceded Talbot's era.

Perhaps our forms of political expression became slightly less wacky in the years after Talbot's period, but as late as the first Gulf War San Franciscans were still opposing the national imperial eruption by seizing the Bay Bridge; within a week of the 9/11 attacks, we enjoyed a "Power to Peaceful" concert in Precita Park.

The current explosion of property values and consequent expulsion of the less affluent may, finally, render San Francisco an ordinary city. (As of 2014, after this book, Talbot seems to have concluded that the class war in the city is lost.)

But maybe not. This place has a potent history of absorbing disruptive changes. Maybe we'll weather a few more and remain an interesting place. In any case, Season of the Witch is a significant contribution to what must always be incomplete and tendentious slices of that history.


Hattie said...

Fascinating. I'm abashed at how I undervalued in my mind the LBGT activism then. I was all we're so liberal in SF so where's the problem,you know? But of course it was a tough and sometimes nasty fight and still is.
My uncle lived next door to the Hallinans in Ross. He hated them! Long story. I partied some with the Hallinan boys at their Berkeley house but was luckily too chaste and dorky to get into trouble. One of the Hallinan boys got a girlfriend of mine pregnant and paid for her abortion. I avoided being raped by one of their friends by acting crazy.

Michael Strickland said...

I've been avoiding the book because I know both your and my version would be a hell of a lot more interesting, and more inclusive of a few more strands besides. Plus, the present world is plenty interesting, and it's fascinating watching it through various veils of memory/time.

janinsanfran said...

Hattie -- from what I heard, the Hallinan boys were something to give a miss -- good for you. I liked having Terry as DA. My vote for DA always goes to whoever I think will let the protesters out soonest. The current incumbent is not of that sort, but he has put himself on record against the death penalty and for less incarceration. Pretty good for a DA.

Michael Strickland said...

Finally read the book and was thoroughly engrossed because there were a lot of details that I didn't know and/or remember. Have now moved on to Talbot's recent history of the Dulles brothers and the CIA. It's very interesting, confirming a lot that we already knew and suspected.

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