When I was fourteen, I asked my mom about hippies.
“Mom, were you a hippie in the sixties?”
She didn’t look up from her needlepoint. “What? Of course not.”
“But I thought everyone in the sixties was a hippie,” I said.
She glanced at me, arching her eyebrow. “No, everyone in the sixties was not a hippie. Don’t ask your father a question like that, ok?”
“Did you wear tie-dye?”
“Did you like the Beatles?”
“Only when they were mop-tops. I didn’t like what they did later on, especially when that Yoko Ono” (she wrinkled her nose) “showed up and they all grew their hair long and started taking drugs.”
I had no idea who Yoko Ono was, but he/she/it sounded intriguing. “Were your friends hippies?”
She paused in her stitching. “Why are you asking all these questions about hippies?”
“We’re studying the Cultural Revolution in my History class.” I stared at my practical mother in her polyester pantsuit and envisioned her in a patchwork skirt and a wreath of flowers on her head, dancing barefoot in the mud, just like in the documentary we’d watched in class. I watched her needle pull thread through the fabric in the cross-stitching hoop. Perhaps she would have embroidered her bell-bottomed jeans …
“Well, I knew a few Flower Children. They’re different. We didn’t think of them as hippies. Hippies were dirty and radical. But the Flower Children never wanted to hurt anyone,” she explained. “They were gentle and loved nature. They believed in love, not like those drug addicts that came later.”
“What happened to the Flower Children?” I asked.
She shrugged. “They grew up, I guess.”
I was silent then, wondering if flowers and love were of no interest to old people.
Another question, one that Mom can’t answer, occurred to me today, many years after the Summer of Love faded into the long Autumn of Survival: What names were worshiped then but languish unknown and excluded from today’s teen dreams? Who started it all and died in obscurity? Because it’s probably their ghosts I’m seeing on here on San Francisco’s Haight Street, and only artificial tulpas of youthful Grace Slick, who is now white-haired and plump. Across from me, a mural of Janis Joplin looms over a group of kids in filthy jeans with rope-leashed pit bulls. No flowers in their hair, though a couple have Grandmother’s love beads and imitations of Uncle’s mohawk. They pass around cigarettes, and vodka in Coke bottles. Their vices are cheaper than drugs, and kill the dream more slowly.
America’s collective memory of teen dreams is crammed like an attic, full of ruffled shirts, ‘49 Fords, ramshackle rooms in unwashed bohemia, syringes and rolling papers, leather journals stinking of cigarettes, neon gods, combat boots under lace, and worn sleeping bags on concrete. And in San Francisco, I could find–if I was inclined to chip away at the grime layering the streets–the remains of flowers much older than I am. Organic matter mixed with bum piss and exhaust, composting in concrete cracks.
The musical inspiration for this came from a kid playing guitar outside the cafe I was in. Since he wandered off, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite new San Francisco bands, Foreign Cinema.
Photo by Mr. Skeleton.