TOO LATE FOR THE HAIGHT by Peter Nolan Smith

The bus from Sacramento crossed the bay in light traffic. Most people in the Bay Area had off Memorial Day. The uniformed driver veered off the bridge and entered the TransBay Terminal. Once he parked in the depot, I grabbed my bag from the underneath storage compartment and entered the station.

Holiday passengers were forming queues for destinations north, south, and east. Most were military personnel on leave or college students. Commuters had stayed home for the day.

After three days of driving through the desert and seeing nothing, but white faces, the racial mix in the bus station was a culture shock.

Black soldiers ran to their gates, Mexicans eyed the hall for immigration officers, Indians slept on the benches, and Chinamen greeted families coming off the buses. A single Japanese farmer held a bonsai tree in his hands.

I was back in the melting pot.

My friend AK had headed south on I-5 this morning. I was meeting him next week in Encinitas. A bus for Santa Cruz was leaving on the hour. The fare was less than $3. The bus was an easier exit out of the city than hitchhiking, but my friends and I had spent the last six days driving across country and I wanted to see the city.

I stepped out onto Beale Street. Buses and trolleys traversed the peninsula to the ocean. I was in no hurry to be anywhere fast and began walking west.

The temperature in San Francisco was much cooler than the Central Valley. I set my canvas travel bag on a wooden bench and pulled on a light leather jacket.

“Man, you looking for a place to crash?” A scraggly longhair in dirty denim jeans and a soiled paisley jacket scratched at a sore on his neck.

He was a junkie.

“No, I’m good.” I slung my bag over my left shoulder with a winch.

My muscles and joints were bruised from last night?s tussle with the security guards in Reno. They had tossed me out of the casino. Losing so much money had been a tough way to end my birthday.

“Everyone is good.” The junkie picked at a rotten tooth.

“I’m just passing through the city.” I didn’t want any trouble and walked away at a faster pace than normal.

“Our place is clean and you get your own bed. No bedbugs too. You give what you can afford. My name’s Omo. Stands for On My Own. We’re a cool commune. Lots of chicks too. You into chicks?” Omo panted like a stray dog seeking a handout.

“Leave me alone.” I glared with the promise of a punch.

“Suit yourself, but you don?t know what you’ll be missing. Girls, drugs, rock and roll.” Omo stuck his hands into the shredded jacket and returned to the station muttering curses.

“Fucking junkies.” I sneered at his back.

Seven years ago almost a hundred thousand young people flocked to San Francisco. The Summer of Love had played out its vein of psychedelic gold in three months, yet the Death of the Hippie hadn’t prevented countless young boys and girls from hitting the road in hopes of reincarnating that dream and these wide-eyed faithful were easy marks for the junkie vultures haunting the bus station.

I crossed the street headed with the slender spire of the TransAmerica Building rising to the North and stopped at a small Mexican diner on Mission Street for a lunch of enchiladas, rice, and beans. The waitress supplied me with extra tortillas and I paid with a twenty-dollar bill, tipping the young girl a dollar on a $2 check. She deserved more.

“Mucho gracias.” She smiled with gleaming white teeth.

“Da nada.” Jack Kerouac had picked grapes in a migrant camp before he began ON THE ROAD. The beat writer had fallen for a girl who might have related to this waitress. Mexicans have big families just like the Irish.

Leaving the restaurant I veered off Mission.

“Yo, man, it’s me, Omo.” The junkie from the bus station shouted from the grassy slope of Buena Vista Park. A very thin teenage girl in a filmy dress held his hand. Dead flowers were wreathed in her sad blonde hair.

“Yo man, wait up.” Omo and the skinny girl skipped across the street, as if they were the last hippies on Earth. “Yo, man, this is Jaz. She’s one of the girls at the commune. She likes young guys like you, don’t you, Jaz?”

“You have nice eyes,” Jaz spoke with a toneless voice.

“Like I said before. I’m good.”

“I could make things better.” The pale-skinned redhead’s stick arms sported shooting tracks. My youngest sister was her age.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

A greasy-haired Latino tailed us on the opposite side of the street. He regarded the three of us with too much interest to be an innocent passer-by.

“Yo, man, we live around the corner. Let’s go up there and chill.” Omo pulled out a joint.

“Not today.” I figured the joint was dosed with heroin.

“Man, why you so uncool? Come with us and we can all get it on.” Jaz pulled on my arm with the strength of a blood-weak vampire. “I’ll do anything.”

“She really means anything.” Omo lifted her dress to the waist. She wasn’t wearing any underwear. The gap between her bony legs was wider than a hand. “Anything is Jaz’s specialty.”

“I got places to go.” I shrugged off her weak grasp.

“$20 will get you an hour of heaven.” Pickings were slim this Memorial Day Weekend and Omo wasn’t giving up so easy. “$30 gets you paradise for a night. You look like you want it.”

“So you’re her pimp?” I had never paid for sex.

“Pimp is an uncool word.” Omo stood in my way. “I’m her coach. What about it? You can do a lot of ‘anything’ in an hour.”

“No.” I had reached the end of my patience and pushed him hard.

“Sorry, to bug you, man. I didn’t realize you were queer.” Omo gave me the finger. He was a sore loser.

“Fuck you too,” I muttered under my breath.

At the corner I checked over my back.

Jaz and Omo were gone.

So was the Latino.

I looked up at the street sign. This was Haight-Ashbury.

The Fillmore West had been shut for two years. Quicksilver, Moby Grape, and the Jefferson Airplane had abandoned this city for the country. Empty houses bore the charred scars of arson and the hard-faced gangs lounged on the stoops of boarded-up apartment buildings.

Two years ago my college friend and I had crashed with a Mexican shaman living across from the Panhandle. Juan swore that he didn’t need sleep. Peter and I watched him smoke heroin and nod into oblivion. It was an easiest goal to achieve than enlightenment.

Last year Nick and I had stayed with his cousin on Walker Street. The Haight had fallen another few steps from grace. We had visited the North Beach strip clubs. I favored the Condor Club, which had been was the first topless bar in America and the girls on the stage had pretended to be love children.

Today the Summer of Love was a distant memory. A few decrepit head shops lurked along the famed strip, but the hippies had given way to openly gay men in plaid shirt, tight jeans, and work boots.
These men had brothers in New York and Boston. They stared at my crotch and commented about my ‘rack’ as lewdly as horny sailors on leave. Judging for the shortness of their hair, several might have been stationed on Treasure Island with the Pacific Fleet.

I kept walking West.

Reaching Golden Gate Park I strolled across Kezar Stadium’s empty parking lot. The gates were locked with chains. The start of the 1974 football season was a baseball season away from the end of May and Mexican families charred meat on barbecues with a dozen baseball games in progress on well-trodden fields. A couple of hippies tossed Frisbees on the edge of the lawn. Marijuana wafted on a cool breeze scented with salt. The ocean was at the other end of the park.

Few pedestrians strolled on the paths along Stow Lake. Collarless dogs ran in packs through the wilderness thriving within the city. Omo and Jaz hurried to catch up with me. The Latino with the scar scrambled out of the bushes to join them.

A fist-sized rock lay in the dirt.

I bent over, as if to tie my shoe.

The rock was smooth in my hand.

I stood up and continued in the same direction.

On the other side of a small lake Omo and Jaz blocked my path and the scarred Latino blocked my retreat.

The young girl pushed Omo forward.

“Man, you should have gone with Jaz.” Omo spoke slowly, as if every word was important.

I slipped my bag off my shoulder into my left hand.

“Fucking Jaz would have made life easy for everyone.” Omo whipped out a knife. The blade was four inches long. He was no Zorro, but the three-on-one odds changed when another man stepped out of the bush.

“Surprise, surprise.”

The longhaired drifter had shaved since we had passed him on the highway in Nebraska, but Bill had yet to repair the tear in his patchwork leather jacket. His knuckles were scrapping bloody and his right cheek was swollen from a recent punch. The southern boy had played this game before.

“I didn’t expect to run into you again, hippie scumbag, but it’s a small world.”

“I thought you were joining a carnival.” My bag was too heavy to attempt running for it.

“My plans changed after seeing you in Nebraska. I figured we might meet up again.”

“It was a long shot.” Four-on-one ran in their favor.

“I like them, queer boy.” Bill edged forward to my left.

“You know him?” Jaz asked from behind Omo.

“This hippie fag’s boyfriend tossed me out of a car the other side of the country.” Bill pointed to the torn leather. “They fucked up my jacket, didn’t you?”

He cracked his knuckles and the scarred Latino circled to my right.

No one else was in sight.

Only the five of us.

“Give us the bag and your money.” Omo held the knife with a shaking hand.

“Okay.” I held out my bag to Bill.

“Good boy.” Bill reached out with his left hand.

His friends were pleased with my easy surrender.

“The best.?

I looped my fist to open-palm Bill’s skull with the rock in my hand. I didn’t pull the punch and the stringy-haired southerner collapsed with the gracelessness of a puppet losing his strings.

Omo lunged with the knife and I socked him with the rock. He went down on top of Bill. I picked up the stiletto and turned to the scarred Latino.

“Are we done?” I slipped the rock inside my jacket pocket. It had served its purpose.

“Yeah, man, we’re cool.” The Latino backed off several feet.

“Then have a nice day.” I kicked Omo in the ribs twice. He groaned each time. It was not for show.

Bill was bleeding from the head.

I booted him in the back.

In Boston when someone was down, it was a good idea to insure that they stayed down.

I walked away from my attackers and looked over my shoulder several times until South Drive. Cars sped along the park road. I was safe again.

“Hey, you.”

Jaz ran up to me.

“Can I go with you?” She was out of breath.

“I’m going nowhere special.” I wasn’t telling her about heading to San Diego.

“I know where that is,” she said like nowhere had more than one location.

“Where you from?” I didn’t expect her to tell the truth. She was trouble and I had no desire to find out how much trouble.

“Kansas, same as Dorothy.”

“If I gave you the bus fare, would you go back home?”

“Mister, these streets are safer than my home.” She bit her chapped lip. “If I come with you, I’ll do anything you want.”

?Jaz, I?m traveling alone.?

The young girl couldn’t make it much farther than Route 1 before checking into the Cold Turkey Hotel. I pulled $20 out of my pocket. She didn’t deserve the money, but today was the day after my birthday.

“Here, this might get you straight.”

“A little.” She snatched the bill like a banana-hungry monkey in a cage. Her smile was missing a tooth.

“For another ten we can go into the bushes.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I really have to be going.” I could see the girl who she had been, but only just. “You take care of yourself.”

“I’m tougher than I look.”

“I?m sure you are.” I was on my summer vacation and Jaz wasn’t the type of girl to rescue in a season.

“Fuck you, mister.” No one liked rejection.

I left her on the roadside.

After crossing the Great Highway I stood on a sloping strand of sand.

The sun was three hours from setting in the cold ocean. No one was swimming at this beach. I pulled the rock and knife from my jacket and threw them into a wave. Neither re-appeared from the surge.

I walked back to the road.

Cars were heading north and south. I stuck out my thumb. Luck in hitchhiking was determined by location. The road was straight and the shoulder was wide enough for a driver to pull over without getting rear-ended by another vehicle.

A Tempest convertible stopped within two minutes. The Marine on holiday was headed to Daly City. I jumped in the car. Sadly leaving San Francisco felt good.

The hippie might have been dead, but the road lived on forever and I was heading to Big Sur.

The wind swept through my hair.

The sun was warm.

California was open for the taking and I wanted to see how much of it was mine.

After all yesterday had been my birthday.

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