Hippie hypocrites and Boomer bullshit
When I spotted kids wearing Army surplus field jackets patched with peace symbols and North Vietnam flags, I left my own well-worn Army issued field jacket in my beat up car.
At Golden Gate Park, hippies languished everywhere, and dogs chased balls—the only sign of energy and ambition.
By Dell Franklin
Coming up from L.A., my first stop was San Francisco. I’d read and heard about the hippie culture, the new movement, free love…and parked my car amid the hive of activity in Haight-Ashbury and began, walking around. When I spotted kids wearing Army surplus field jackets patched with peace symbols and North Vietnam flags, I left my own well-worn field jacket, the only remnant of my military war-drobe, in the smooth-running, beat-up 1954 Chevy station wagon I’d bought for $100 and planned to drive around the country, sleeping on a foam mat in the back upon arriving at a destination to my liking.
It was May of 1967, shortly after my discharge from a 30-month Army hitch overseas. As an aspiring writer, I carried a spiral note-book on which I would report what I’d see and hear.
The street leading to Golden Gate Park was packed like New York City at rush hour, but nobody seemed in a hurry, as though a desultory torpor had overcome every individual shuffling along. I was bombarded by sensory saturation: Incense burning from stores, marijuana smoke wafting in a thick haze from alcoves and windows of old Victorians plastered with psychedelic art and the latest slogans, the twang of electric guitars screeching. I stepped around threadbare flower children sprawled in clumps on the sidewalk. Teenage panhandlers hit me up casually, almost insolently, for “bread,” and when I told them I was dirt poor they smirked, and I immediately felt the alienated fool, self-conscious of my military haircut, baggy lumberjack shirt and sneakers. A clown.
Intimidated by the costumed gadgetry and irreverent clubbiness of the scene, I scuttled off to Golden Gate Park, where the same crew languished everywhere, dogs chasing balls the only sign of energy and ambition.
Returning to my wagon, I found a guy in patched bell bottoms, knee-high soft boots, vest with peace button and mountaineering hat lounging very comfortably on the fender and hood, eyeing me with an appraising, challenging expression. Along the sidewalk, smoking, sat his friends, all of them staring at me as I took the key to my wagon out.
I nodded to the man slouched on my vehicle, and he nodded back, looking me up and down. “These your wheels, dude?” he asked.
When I nodded, he managed a lizard smile. “You don’t mind my resting on it, do yah?”
I pondered this question. The wagon was one of the worst looking clunkers on these streets, and there were a few dilapidated VW buses and vans, but mine looked like a getaway car in a bank robbery. “Well,” I said, “it’s not a Mercedes, ob-viously. If it was, and you were sitting, on it, and I objected, I’d be a territorial, materialistic asshole, right?”
“Right on, my brother.” He smiled, hopefully.
“On the other hand, if I object to your sitting on this piece of shit, I’m a truly troubled person, right?”
He began rolling a cigarette. He finished, offered it to me, and I shook my head. He lit up. “So, are we cool, dude?”
I felt this guy, and the entire mass of this unruly bunch were stealing my thunder. I’d began dressing in rags back in the 1950s as a junior high and high school student. I wore T-shirts until they fell off my back. I hated new clothes, liked being the only kid in school who looked like a perennial slob, and it drove my parents, both dandies who’d worn rags during the Great Depression, half crazy. My best friend on the high school baseball team, a black guy named Walter Jones, dressed like a prince and called me, very affectionately, “Ragman.” I enjoyed my role, my identity. Still, I’d never taken to costumes and regalia. That’s what I felt this was, in Haight-Ashbury. There seemed this pressure to look like them, be like them, or hit the road. Perhaps they viewed somebody who looked like me as an intruder, maybe a spy, a narc, or an outsider groping for some sort of niche in this tight-assed world of lost souls.
“I don’t know yet,” I said.
He sat up, just a little, inhaling, holding the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb. I spotted a tattoo on his chest.
“So what’s the problem, bro’?”
I shrugged, said nothing.
“You uptight, bro’?” You seem edgy, nervous. Relax, bro’. I ain’t threatening you. Just bein’ comfortable. It’s all about sharin’ what we have, man. It gives off good vibes, man. You dig?”
“Sure. I don’t mind sharing. I ain’t got much, but I’ll share it. But I kinda like to be asked first, you know.”
He scrutinized me closely, squinting. “You been in the Army, in ‘Nam?”
“So you weren’t forced by the criminals to kill anybody, right?”
“I got lucky.”
“You believe in the war?”
“Right on, bro’. You got some good karma, kept you outta that bullshit. You ain’t got murder on your conscience, you know.”
In his own way, I felt him trying to manipulate me, gain the upper hand. He lay back, again comfortable, asked me if I wanted a bean. A bean? He winked, told me I looked low, depressed, needed a boost. I told him no. I’d never done drugs. Didn’t I smoke weed? No. But weed, like booze, or tobacco, was from the earth, man, natural. I shrugged. They were all peering up at me from the sidewalk, the curb, the alcove of the nearby Victorian.
Where I grow up, in Compton, like this guy, they tried to bend me over to their way of thinking, and living. At a huge high school, where half the enrollment was black, a peer-pressure driven racism was virulent.
“Nigger lover,” I was called by white teammates, and guys I’d grown up with at our all-white junior high. I was start-ing shortstop as a sophomore, and, Walter Jones played second base. We were tight. Always sat together on the bus for away games. He was cool, relaxed, I was high-strung, hard on myself. We played catch together, played pepper together, worked on the, double play, and sometimes he rode me the mile to my home to the white section of town on his bike, and I did the same for him. Brothers.
That was 1960. Briefly, visiting my dad’s store in Compton shortly after my discharge, and going to McDonald’s for lunch, I ran into Walter. He hardly said a word to me, was aloof, tried to shake me. Married. Two kids. Blue collar job. A Muslim. Wanted nothing to do with whitey, he explained, and walked off. I was hurt. Bad.
“I don’t know where you get this murderers bullshit,” I said.
He slowly lifted himself off the hood, sat up. “If you let them take you, let the criminals round you up, and you end up killing, in an unjust war, what else are you?”
“Too poor to leave the country. Too poor to buy your way into the National Guard. Too scared to go to jail for your principles.”
He continued sizing me up, still trying to bend me, probing, perhaps, for a vulnerability that would sway me to his way of think-ing, capture me as a true believer, like some sort of guru or evangelist. I’d been through all that, too. And, in a way, he was testing me, and I began to resent his violating my space, so blatantly trespassing upon my private property — in a sense showing me up and attempting to present me as the problem and, perhaps, the enemy. Like a bully from the block, he had his crowd behind him.
“I want you off my fucking car,” I heard myself' growling in a too ominous voice, unrecognizable to me. Gritting my teeth, suddenly wild with rage, I was confused, adrift, fitting in nowhere, flagellating helplessly, not wanting to return to college and its assembly line of diploma graspers leading to a good job, marriage, children, fulfillment, the burden, the trap. I was also angry that all these people were getting laid, and I wasn’t, because while straight girls found me odd, unappetizing and without any semblance of a future, hippie chicks found me boring and square. Seething at the dismal hopelessness of my plight, beaten down from three years of Army life, I stepped closer to the man, still perched so insouciantly on the hood of my car, smirking at my miserable confusion.
“Come again,” he said, while his crew perked up all around me. He finally sat up. “You got a problem with me, dude?”
“Yeah, I got a problem listening to fuckers like you calling the poor saps getting hauled off into the Army murderers,” I growled again. “Now you get your spindly ass off my car before I drag you off and beat on you, motherfucker. I mean NOW!”
He sprung off the wagon. Stepped around me. “You’re a troubled dude,” he said, calmly, pityingly, in that zombie tone of voice. “Too bad. You’re all uptight.” He flashed me the peace sign, eyes twinkling behind rimless pink sunglasses. “Peace, brother. We’re all in this together. I hope you find peace and happiness, and love. Life can be good.”
They crowded around after I got in the car. I was trembling. Christ, I was no fighter. I was a dove. Realizing suddenly that it would be a long, long time before I saw any kind of light at the end of the tunnel, I drove off. I drove all over America.
So many years later, after living in San Francisco in 1968 and part of ‘69, and working as a bartender in an L.A. beach town through-out the 1970s and ‘80s, I watched as the long hair, beads and orna-ments and zombied out jargon was replaced by white shirts and ties and custom salon cuts; a shiny new car instead of an old decaled VW bus; and the children and wife behind the traditional white picket fence in the traditionally white affluent neighborhood, far away from the Black Panthers, who were left to their burning ghettos, and I had to laugh out loud at the love generation, the so-called revo-lution, the movement.
In time, their indulgence, of themselves and their offspring, the bloating, and emptiness, the tight pony tails in some cases being the last reminders of the great flirtation with Bohemia and communal lifestyles, became an affront to their ancestry trekking across the country in a downtrodden dust bowl to scavenge at any job for chump change. And, of course, their very hedonism and casual con-sumption and wastefulness led to the self-righteous right-wing poli-ticians in collaboration with the sanctimonious religious funda-mentalists to hijack the country and turn it into the paranoid, warmongering, greed-crazed, pill-ridden, obese, debt-plagued mess it is today.
The long aspired to American Dream was achieved. My father, too.
During high school, my parents moved us out of roughneck, melting pot Compton to a new safe white suburb in Orange County, and I was instantly bludgeoned by the empty sterility of it all. Neighbors seldom conversed, but disappeared into garages. Gardeners mowed lawns and trimmed hedges. Pool cleaners circulated like locusts. No-body walked to school together, or played in the streets. I was lost, and, mysteriously, for the first time, troubled, and depressed in a way I did not understand.
Perhaps this version of the American Dream, essentially, was what the hippie movement was fighting all along, and who could blame them? But they bent. Oh, did they bend, like flimsy elastic. Later, much later, when it was in fashion, they called themselves Baby Boomers, or, Boomers, as they sipped trendy white wine and went to spas and shrinks and played the music of their youth, oblivious to the ruination of their fatuous existences. Hippies and Boomers.
When I drove around the country, back in 1967, the hippies were in little pockets everywhere. In some places they were despised, showered with venal hostility. Their philosophy was, as they put it, “right on.” Their intentions were exemplary and inspiring. The entire movement was worthy of Gandhi’s blessing. But they fell prey to an America that was too easy, a path too accessible, and a trove of riches too irresistible.
For all they attained, they lost. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.