The good old days on Hippie Hill

Three days after we moved into our San Francisco apartment, we discovered a girl living in the hall closet. The address was 2233 Sutter St., in the Fillmore district. The girl was Sharon, and, apparently, she came with the place. The time was spring 1967. Damn near anything could happen.

Hollows and I had thumbed in from the East Coast, arriving with pocket change between us. Our last ride was a girl driving a VW bug who said she was going to drop us some place in San Francisco we’d never heard of. “Yeah, I guess it’s kind of like the Village,” she said, responding to my question. “They named the neighborhood for the corner where the two streets meet, Haight and Ashbury.”

We hooked up with some equally broke buddies from back East. They were temporarily squatting in a row of abandoned tenements along Redwood Alley, soon to be demolished. In a few days we found the Sutter Street rental and, between six of us guys and two girls, we came up with enough for the first month’s rent and a box of spaghetti. The Japanese Cultural Center, big as a square block, was under construction at the time. Our own version of war reparations liberated enough of its lumber to build sleeping platforms. Now all we needed were jobs.

I was a newspaperman in those days, if you could stick that label on a kid who’d worked for The New York Times first as messenger, then as office boy, and, finally, as a clerical assistant to the assistant to the foreign editor. The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner had different owners but shared a printing press and were in the same downtown building, so I made the long walk to Fifth and Mission streets and knocked on the door of The Examiner to seek a newsroom job as a copy boy.

The “chief copy boy” was about 50 years old and not a lot more than four feet tall. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and the luck was with me. He not only hired me to start next morning; he put me on the payroll as of the first of the pay week, two days earlier! We shook on it.

As I turned to leave, I hesitated. The thought of the long walk back to an empty box of spaghetti gave me a courage I would rarely know again: “Excuse me, sir, but since the paper owes me a couple of days’ pay already do you think they might advance me 20 bucks?” I asked. Incredibly, he brought me down to the cashier for the draw.

I had walked stone cold into The Examiner with not a penny to my name and walked out with a job, with two days’ extra pay coming, and with $20 in my pocket. I arrived back at Sutter Street with more spaghetti, my first sourdough loaf, and a celebratory bottle of Hennessey cognac that, in youthful exuberance, I mistook for Irish whiskey. We were in mid-supper when Sharon walked out of the closet.

She was one of those big-eyed, stringy waifs who could have been 18 or 30. Asked where the heck she’d come from, she simply told us that home was the hall closet, and had been for some months. Sure enough, if you stood on a box you could peek over the edge of the broad shelf that ran the depth of the walk-in closet. Pushed against the wall were a sleeping bag, water bottle, and canvas tote stuffed with personals. Sharon was a night feeder. Once she got over finding strangers in her kitchen, she became one of the girls.

A month or two later, Sharon announced that she was to be married a week from Saturday on Hippie Hill, the grassy rise in Golden Gate Park that had come to be a kind of Stonehenge without the rocks. To this hill streamed the endless river of young persons drawn to San Francisco in search of personal freedom, in search of peace in time of war, or possibly just in search of Acapulco Gold, incredibly good marijuana that wholesaled at $65 a kilo. (Attending an Animals concert at the Fillmore Auditorium once, I found it was not possible to keep a straight head given the smoke of hundreds of lighted joints. Chuck Berry made a surprise appearance that night while the Animals were still onstage; he duck-walked a few famous tunes, then left to rocking applause. Later, in the crowd layering up at the exits of the Fillmore, the guy in front of me took a toke from the joint he held, telling a companion, “Man, this Gold is good! I’d swear I saw Chuck Berry up there jamming with the Animals!”)

The prospect of Sharon’s wedding instantly entranced the women of the house. Our apartment sprang to life amidst the constant clacking of bead curtains, hung from each doorframe, as determined cooks or seamstresses or flower gatherers rustled in and out of the rooms fulfilling their assignments. Casseroles were baked. Brightly colored yarn, a white smock from Goodwill, and a yard of tulle blossomed into a bridal tiara and gown to leave you breathless. We men helped, too, laying up gallons of Red Mountain Burgundy wine to marry thin slices of lime, lemon, and orange for a barrel of sangria we swore oaths we’d keep chemical-free. A free-verse poet from the Mission District who had sent away to become a minister by mail volunteered to perform the service.

The ceremony was set for early evening, because that afternoon a free concert was scheduled on the back of a flatbed truck on the panhandle grass strip leading to Golden Gate Park: Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company, Gracie Slick with Jefferson Airplane, and, I think, Country Joe and the Fish.

This was just the right event to launch us to a peak from which we could plateau smoothly through the wedding groove. On the downside, the level of sangria in the barrel was lowered significantly during the concert with the excuse that the barrel would be easier to carry.

Finally, dreamily, we circled the crest of the holy hill in the magical hour before the fading of the sun. The elfin Sharon and her court stood like sprites in a coppice off to the side. The free-verse poet waited center-stage, clutching a suspiciously thick handful of pages I hoped were not his poems. The guitarist sat on the only chair in sight and strummed like a Gregorian at first, then strummed expectantly, then idly, and, finally, led us feebly through a smattering of Dylan songs, ending with “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

It wasn’t that the groom was a no-show; he just didn’t exist. Sometimes the dreaming is more real than the waking.

San Francisco in ’67 was like that _ before it turned brittle, before we learned that acid killed _ in the days when you could climb Hippie Hill and draw a deep breath of music and love and damn near anything could happen.

(Gerald FitzGerald is a writer based in New Bedford, Mass., and a state prosecutor.)