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  • Writer's pictureTiffany-Ashton Gatsby

San Francisco Dreamin'

It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.

- Oscar Wilde

I always tell people I lived in San Francisco. I don’t mean that I had an apartment there and went to school or worked there. I never had a morning commute, nor did I meander down aisles in the grocery store. What I mean is that I lived in San Francisco. In many ways, it’s where my life began, and while maybe not in the flesh, it’s likely where it will end — in my heart at least. A part of me belongs to The City in a way that not even I can understand. It’s a calling, a longing, nostalgia for my past, and nostalgia for a time before I was alive. It’s a dream of the future I desire and a future I couldn’t bear to have.

Do you remember your first love? I mean the one from your youth that really isn’t true love at all but is all-consuming. Your heart skips a beat when they glance in your direction; you can’t think about anything but them. Your friends tire of your stories when all you can do is talk about them. You can’t imagine a life without them, and you’re absolutely sure that you’ll die if you can’t be together. I remember mine. I was a sheltered youth growing up in Los Angeles, and Thom managed to introduce me to the nostalgia of the 60s and the hippie movement that shaped my formative years. We had a five-year barely-on-again-very-off-again drama-filled relationship that solidified my love for music, adventure, and The City by The Bay.

Thom convinced me to do many things, including jumping the fence to skip school and hitting up the Head Shop across town before going to secluded parks to lay in the cool grass while the hot LA sun beat down on us. He’d read me poetry by Jim Morrison and Robert Hunter. I started frequenting a local record store to get bootleg tapes on his recommendation. All of this was unfamiliar territory for me, and I felt like an imposter when I was with these people who all seemed to know more than I did. I spent most of my time watching and trying to soak everything in. I felt like I was the first to discover some of the secret messages on The White Album and Led Zeppelin IV. I spent most of my time listening to The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Grateful Dead and rewatching Apocalypse Now over and over again.

We’d go to Thom’s house when his parents weren’t home, and he’d play me Grateful Dead songs on the piano. Box of Rain was my favorite. That’s where my obsession with San Francisco began to take hold. I would dream of the Summer of Love and wearing flowers in my hair. He said that we’d go to San Francisco to do 420 at 710 Ashbury Street one day. The address is where the Grateful Dead used to live in the heart of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. In honor of The Dead, it became somewhat of a tradition to go to their former front stairs at 4:20 pm and smoke a bowl. As you can imagine, twenty-five years after the heyday of The Dead, the new owners of the house didn’t exactly appreciate that, so a gate was eventually installed at the bottom of the staircase. However, it never seemed to discourage people from hanging around. Neither did the fact that the police knew it was an easy place to pick up a few kids on charges of possession and loitering.

One day after a hiking trip with Thom, I found myself in a jail cell in Van Nuys, tripping on acid for the first time. That instigated the move to my father’s in Beverly Hills, where Thom and I didn’t have to sneak around anymore. Just a few weeks later, he bought me an engagement ring with his folks’ stolen credit card. My ‘yes’ to the proposal was as excited and impulsive as any fifteen-year-olds would be. A few weeks after that, I got caught throwing a small party while my dad was in Manhattan for my stepmom’s birthday. Rather than waiting for them to get home and deal with the consequences, I decided to run. Thom had run away from home — and me — before, so I was sure he’d understand and that we’d find each other again someday.

I had recently begun reading the Jim Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, which chronicled the rise and fall of The Doors frontman and his time as a rooftop vagabond on Venice Beach, just a few miles away. I knew it would be impossible to disappear there but thought my chances on the street would be better than the consequences at home. I heard rumors that there was still an active hippie scene in Haight-Ashbury that welcomed runaway youth. I packed my belongings, took a bus to the Skid Row Greyhound station in Los Angeles, and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco.

The guy next to me on the bus was barely twenty and basically doing the same thing — running away to San Francisco. We talked about sharing a hotel room in The City while figuring out what to do from there. I already knew it was safer to be with someone than be alone, so I shoved down my feelings for Thom and cozied up to bus-boy pretty quickly. The bus station in downtown San Francisco was just off Market Street. It was dirty and dingy, homeless folx everywhere with desperation on their faces. The morning was cold and wet, and the street smelled vaguely of trash and the sickly scent of old beer. We found a six-story walk-up hotel that rented rooms by the hour. My heart sank. This couldn’t be my San Francisco. I saw my future flash before me — likely devolving rapidly into sex work and a drug overdose if I stayed here. I dropped my stuff off and naively set out to find a job. I didn’t have any identification, so I went to an ice cream shop that happened, of course, to sell laminated identification cards. My sheltered fifteen-year-old brain wasn’t smart enough to at least get one from another state.

I found a Sam Goody record shop and went to fill out an application. Of course, I had no address, so I left that blank. I was smart enough to lie about my age. The guy that took my application was cuter, friendlier, and just barely more competent than the guy from the bus. After telling him a sob story about showing up for college and my roommate bailing on me, he said I could crash on his couch, assuming his roommates/bandmates didn’t mind. I knew I couldn’t tell them the truth — that they were offering to harbor a teenage runaway. I ran back to the cheap hotel and grabbed my stuff, making a hasty apology to bus-boy, and ran off to my new home for the week on Fulton Street, just a few blocks from Haight-Ashbury, or The Haight, as my new roommates quickly corrected me. That’s a sure sign you’re not local. And I was now officially local.

That evening was my first trip to The Haight. The band and I went up there after smoking a few bowls. I wasn’t exactly a pot smoker yet, I mean, I’d smoked pot with Thom a couple of times, but that was it. My tolerance was low, and I really didn’t know what I was doing or how much was enough to get me a little high or a lotta too much high. As a result, the experience was surreal. It wasn’t quite as hippie flowers and rosebuds as I imagined. Instead, there were some high-end organic and vegan restaurants. And the street was pretty dirty and filled with crust punks wearing leather jackets with studs and Skinny Puppy patches. Walking down the street, I heard echoes of people mumbling under their breath, “buds… doses… buds… doses.” It took me a while to figure out they were selling pot and acid. Or maybe asking to buy pot or acid? Down the street, someone yelled “Five-Oh!” followed by a succession of announcements like the wave at a stadium game until the “Five-Oh!” reached me, and I noticed two police officers coming my way. Later, I came to find out that these officers were called Spike and Dyke, the regular Haight beat cops. Spike was a muscly African American man reminiscent of Wesley Snipes in Blade. Dyke was just a tough-looking blonde woman, so of course, she was taunted as a lesbian, true or otherwise. This definitely was not the San Francisco of my dreams. I wanted this to be my home, but at the moment, I just needed to figure out a way to survive.

In between band practices, I’d go up to The Haight to try and make some money. I observed the different panhandling techniques and tried to figure out which one would work for me. This older woman was panhandling day and night in the same spot. Her skin was worn down from hard work and time in the elements. She looked sad. Broken. She’d sit on the sidewalk, staring down into nothingness, a ghost of herself. She cupped her outstretched hand, just waiting for someone to take pity on her and drop in some change. I took pity on her, although at the time, I couldn’t tell if she was really that sad and desperate or if it was an act. After a few months of living on the streets, I realized she was not faking. If you don’t have people or a community, street life is lonely. You are ignored, and people don’t treat you like a human. They act as if you’re a bag of trash discarded on the sidewalk, a nuisance to step over. It’s far too easy to become the shell of the person you once were. I didn’t understand that at the time, so I tried her panhandling technique a few blocks away, trying to look pathetic and sad. It wasn’t very successful. A day or so later, someone walking by said to me, “You think that act is gonna work? Go home and steal your beer money from mommy and daddy.” I wasn’t broken yet, and I looked too clean to be homeless. And at that point, I wasn’t yet homeless; I was couch surfing. But that was about to change.

I started hanging out in Golden Gate Park to grab a free tofu and tomato hoagie from Food Not Bombs. I don’t know if I was just starving or if it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. People in the park called each other brother and sister, but in that slow drawl kind of a way, like “Hey, brother, you wouldn’t happen to have any kind bud on you to share?” Everything was kind, and everyone was family. I found my people. Most of them were kids like me who ran away from home and stayed in The City. Then there were the true believers who left capitalism behind to look for a world filled with communes, love, and better days without the constraints of paychecks and power bills.

I met Coyote, who embodied my official San Francisco hippie dream. His sandy hair was a few weeks away from its last wash, kind eyes crinkled in the corner, and his skin was kissed by the sun. His clothes were secondhand remnants from the sixties or seventies, and it looked good on him. I grabbed my stuff from the band’s apartment and started sleeping in the park, in doorways, and in an empty van with Coyote. When we panhandled, it was either “spare change for weed” or “spare change for beer.” Apparently, there’s some merit to honesty as we made enough money for McD’s burgers here and there. More often than not, people would just give us beer, kind buds, or a five-strip of acid. In the following week, we developed a small group of friends who hung out in the park or down by the hookah lounge. Some of the folks in the park talked about going up to Arcata in Humboldt County to dumpster dive for weed and work the North County Fair. Coyote thought it was time to leave The City behind. And just as I was settling into The City - my City - I left.

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