True Story: I Was A Hippie In San Francisco In The Sixties
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Hippies. Woodstock, marijuana, casual unsanitary sex under picnic tables with people named "Daydream Sunshine" -- movies have given us a very specific image of the hippie. But as is so often the case, reality is nothing like the Hollywood version. We spoke with Sam, who lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco back in 1966. He was a hippie living at the very heart of Hippie-dom. Here's what he told us ...
A Lot Of Hippies Were Actually Homophobic
Sam moved to California for the same reason as millions of others before him: There was not a lot going on in the Midwest. He read about "the Haight" in a magazine, and saw an NBC special on the burgeoning hippie movement in the area. He got what he'd expected: "During the first few years, it kept that atmosphere of love and peace. There are movies that show hippies partying in the streets all the time, but it wasn't like that. Believe it or not, many of us worked. There were some of us who spent all day in the park, playing guitar, but we had odd jobs that felt more like running errands than real work. I helped bring marijuana down from Humboldt [County] a few times."
Haight-Ashbury was essentially a slum by the early 1960s. It drew in so many hippies because the rent was affordable for people whose resumes included "weed aficionado" and "love." But while it sure did house a lot of hippies, some were less welcome than others. "A lot of hippies hated the gays. If you ever heard of Harvey Milk, a lot of hippies didn't like him, solely because he was gay. That whole lifestyle shook hippies as much as any regular person back then. [When the biopic Milk] came out, they got so much wrong with that. One scene had his people cheering that that they could get Haight-Ashbury, but they really couldn't. Hippies were more on their side than most, but many still hated them. It was just the times. The police hated us, but they hated them more. I clearly remember not once but twice when hippies I knew who lived down the street helped the police try to stop a gay march."
Yes, hippies helped the cops bash gays. People might reject societal norms about bathing and working a 9-5 gig, but that doesn't make them "not assholes." There was a lot of anger and hate behind parts of the hippie movement. "You've probably heard of the Weather Underground, but they were more on the extreme side. But go down a few notches, and there were still a lot of hippies willing to destroy things to get their point across. Many of us were peaceful and were seen as harmless, but these kinds gave trouble. Some were communists, which in the '60s was pretty suspect. Others were antiwar, which meant half the country, including most of the police, were against you. Some others liked the lifestyle, but still wanted to see things explode."
Sam and his friends cooked huge communal meals, made art, and danced around in the sun listening to Janis Joplin. But while they were doing that, groups like the Weather Underground were orchestrating a two-decade bombing campaign.
Hippie Antics Were Played Up For Tourists
The hippie movement was world-famous, which meant that Sam and his long-haired, acid-dropping compatriots were treated like zoo animals by a generation of tourists. The Haight was subject to bus and guided tours, like it is today. And when they came, the locals made sure they got their money's worth. "When the tour buses came by, we'd stop whatever normal task we were doing and act crazy. We didn't like being zoo animals for couples flying in to look at us, but we thought that if it was going to happen, we might as well scare them."
It's likely that a lot of hallmarks of the hippie era were really nothing but jaded kids like Sam having a laugh. "There were some of us talking on a corner who would say, 'Bus is coming!' and we'd ... sit in a Hindu circle. We might pretend to do a rain dance. I remember we had a group of theater students on our block, and we put on a production of Measure For Measure, as if this sort of thing happened all the time."
If Sam and his friends played it up for the tourists, they might reinforce some silly stereotypes. But if they acted normal, they'd be gawked at like zoo attractions: "The bus would stop and people inside would stare at the hippies 'being normal.' My roommate at the time found out from the bus drivers that if we did stereotypical hippie behavior or if we approached the buses talking about love, tourists would get nervous and ask the drivers to floor it. Normal behavior was interesting, but things they had only heard about seemed dangerous. And that's why we kept it up: so that we wouldn't be stared at." Or at least, for not quite as long. You take what you can get.
"Free Love" Wasn't As Free As You Think
Movies like to portray the '60s as full of promiscuity, with every grubby dingus riding an ever-revolving carousel of sex. Except that's also a big myth. "We would actually get a little angry when a tourist or someone suggested it. I had a steady girlfriend at the time, and tourists would ask how many other women I was going to see tonight, and when we said we were in a committed relationship, they weren't shocked, but they were disappointed. And some looked happy that what they had heard was wrong too."
Remember, this was the '60s. Even freaky fringe people were a hell of a lot more conservative than most normies today. "I know some hippie couples who didn't have sex before marriage. It was still seen as wrong by a lot of people then to have sex before you married, and that belief carried over to us. It wasn't odd to meet a hippie couple in the Haight who were engaged, but were waiting to have sex on their wedding night."
While the '60s saw more sexual liberation, reports showed that most relationships were still forms of monogamy. Assuming the tiny subset of hippies who truly boned freely were representative of the masses would be like people in 2100 assuming all Millennials were Juggalos.
"I would write and call my parents, and they would tell me all of these weird things they heard on the news about us, and 'everyone having sex with each other' was something they heard. But I needed to clarify for them that it simply wasn't happening, except for a few circles. It's like relationships today. It was a disappointment for new people. We'd have them in our apartment for a week, and a harsh truth they learned was that free love wasn't real." So a lot of hippies were boring ol' monogamous homophobes who played up the freak angle when cameras were rolling. But they were all still antiwar, right? After all, the most iconic and lasting symbol of the entire hippie movement is the peace symbol:
Some Hippies Were Pro-War
"Many hippies were pro-war, or at least indifferent. They had brothers, boyfriends, and even friends there. You knew at least one person over there. I'd say it was like Iraq ... Movies always show this wrong. They show it from the point of view that everyone rose against it because it was 'wrong,' but they never seem to include all those hippies who had brothers or friends in the Marines, or thought that the war was a good thing but didn't fit in with the other war supporters at the time."
Sam recalls that hippies in the Haight were about as divided on the war in Vietnam as the rest of America. "There would be conversations at one table against the war, while at another table some hippies were talking about what we needed to do next."
Sam considered himself a "generally pro-war hippie." He explains: "Me and others justified it because we loved everyone, but if there was family, we wanted them back home and safe. Some of us thought the people would suffer under harsh communist rule as well. And if the war stopped that, and could bring people home, then being for the war was good. But what made me more on the pro-war side was seeing how some of my friends treated returning veterans. They would gang up on them and chase them out of bars because they didn't need more 'makers of violence' there. They just got back. They didn't need to hear that. I was lucky I was never drafted, but my brother was, and when he got back, I told him specifically to look as non-military as possible when I took him to dinner. Not because I would be embarrassed, but because I didn't want him harassed." It's a little weird that Hollywood immortalizes the "peaceful" hippies and ignores all the rest.
"Another group of us simply liked the clothes and the culture. I always point to the movie Serpico. You know, it's a New York cop, on the line and for the police, and he embraced the counterculture. There were weekend hippies, who would go downtown Monday through Friday, but 5 on Friday, they'd go full hippie. You could always tell who they were, because they had shorter hair. Before we knew about them, we thought they were cops."
Picture a hippie with a buzz cut. It just doesn't look right, does it?
The Drug Scene Wasn't As Crazy As You've Been Led To Believe
Any film set in the '60s has an obligatory acid trip scene set to Jefferson Airplane's "The White Rabbit." That's basically federal law at this point. And yeah, Sam admits there was a fair amount of acid in his day: "We really had a bit of everything."
But then again, that's true right now. 2017 isn't famed as a special era of psychedelic experimentation, but drugs are as common now as they were back in Sam's day. The reverse is also true: "I knew lots of hippies who didn't take anything ... It was a little odd when they [were] offered a joint and they didn't take it, but there was enough of them that it wasn't strange. A lot of soldiers coming back who moved here said 'I tried it in 'Nam, but it's not for me.'"
Pot use is probably more common today than it ever was in the hippie era. And the stuff we have is way stronger, too. "The stuff we smoked back then was a lot weaker. I tried a joint a few years ago, and I couldn't believe how strong it was. It was nothing like the grass we had back then. I just can't believe how much of the responsible hippie [pop culture] kept out, because to me, that was a big group. Some of us didn't want to do anything with drugs."
In fact, a number of people were specifically turned off of drugs because of the subset of hippie users: "My first apartment there had rainbow-colored stairs, and we were bringing up a friend of mine from Iowa who came out here. He said he was excited to try acid when I picked him up from the bus station. When we reached my apartment, there were too many hippies, completely off their rockers on acid, staring at my stairs, reaching out. I don't remember exactly what they said, but I think it was, 'I can't grab the colors.' My friend, as soon as he got up, told me 'I'll try acid later.' He never did, and I'm 99 percent sure it was because of those hippies trying to grab the stairs six feet in front of them."
The Hippie Mecca Died Quickly
After five years as a hippie paradise, Haight-Ashbury changed. The summer of love was over. Now it was a normal summer, everyone was sweaty, and the ice cream man had sold out of push-pops. "Hippies who made money had left. Jimi Hendrix and others, who you knew were going to be big, had left. As did most hippies who nailed down jobs. What was left were all the bummers who were getting by staying at others' places and getting food from them."
Sam and his fellow employed Haight denizens dealt with a lot of people in search of handouts. They didn't mind at first. Times were tough, people gotta take care of each other, peace, love, all good stuff. "But by '68, '69, it could be a dozen, and we would have to say we couldn't do it."
The summer of love attracted hundreds of thousands to San Francisco. Homelessness and malnutrition cases spiked. Even resident hippies started to go against the movement. Productive hippies who made art and hustled enough to feed themselves were swamped by freeloaders who didn't. "Then they would guilt us, saying it wouldn't give good karma, or how we could act 'like the rest of them'. Haight was like a big commune, but it needed people who had room for beds, and who could afford food. Take away that, and all you had left was artists or hippies who could only do small jobs, who couldn't afford to go anywhere else."
Everybody knows what that leads to: "We had our windows broken twice by 'peace-loving' hippies, because we refused to let any more stay the night. Streets were suddenly lined with hippies asking for change. In the parks and on the sidewalks, you used to see free spirits dancing around, or selling macrame hammocks, but now it was hippies who couldn't make it. Four years before it was Marijuana, and now it was heroin. [Hard drugs came in fast.] After a while, they left, and it was empty yet again. That almost-utopia barely lasted a few years, man."
By 1971, the dream had died entirely. That was the year they filmed Dirty Harry, when we first realized that Clint Eastwood looks pretty good while blowing the hell out of bad guys in a grimy, crime-riddled American wasteland.
Some of that movie was shot a block away from Sam's house. "I asked some of the crew why they were shooting here, and they said, 'We needed a place that looked abandoned, without too many cars to disrupt filming.' And looking around, they were right."
Evan V. Symon is a journalist, writer and interview finder for Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see? Then hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
Carol Blackman's book, Truth and Love: Finding the Soul of the Sixties, reveals even more about the idealized decade that you might not have known.
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