Through Any Given Door

3.42 Positively Haight Street

Bob and Cathy

Haight Street ~ 1968 was the year to spread my wings. Dad couldn’t pay me more than he paid the girls (who were all making $2.00 an hour) so after seven summers and five Easter and Christmas vacations working in his store, I flew across the street and got a teller job at Great Western Bank for $2.25. I was newly married, nineteen going on twenty, and Bob and I were ensconced in a one-bedroom apartment in Daly City just below all the boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tacky that all looked just the same.

Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, 1968 (Howard Bingham photo)

1968 was the year Eldridge Cleaver published Soul on Ice. He and his wife Kathleen banked at my window on Fridays; I didn’t know they were famous, I just knew she had this huge hair. It was the year of the Yippies and the Black Panthers, and the year Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots across the nation. The day after his death hundreds of black kids from Poly High rolled down Haight Street in a tidal wave breaking storefront windows and overturning cars. While Dad boarded his windows, the bank sent us home in cabs to get us off the street. 1968 was during Viet Nam, the year of sweeping anti-war protests, the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre; the year the war turned our country inside out. It was the year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, the year of the Chicago Democratic National Convention riots, the year women were branded as bra-burning feminists and the year the Summer Olympics in Mexico City was boycotted by 32 African nations. It was the year Apollo 7 and Apollo 8 were launched, and the year Richard Nixon was elected.

Haight and Belvedere circa 1948

I existed in the center of this turbidity—not oblivious—but neither overly concerned nor connected to the chaos around me. Dressed in my starched white buttoned-down blouse, navy blue A-line skirt, white pumps, and Coral Sea lipstick, I watched the swirl of tie-dyed humanity through the plate glass windows of a five-and-dime and a neighborhood bank. In my world it was the year the neighborhood stores closed one-by-one, leaving empty shells with boarded windows: first the barbershop, then Mulreadys, then Margo’s and Riley’s. The shoe store closed, Superba Grocery, and then the Glen Ellen Diner, followed by the meat market, Woolworths, the bakery across from Riley’s, the Russian restaurant down the street, and the movie house. The holdouts were Holcombe’s Jewelers (where Bob and I bought our wedding rings), Robert’s Hardware, the Aub Zam Zam Club, and Sweeney’s.

The once steady customers, no longer willing to fend off grungy panhandlers constantly asking for spare change to feed their mangy dogs, now hailed street-cars and shopped on Irving, took the bus to Market Street, or moved out of the Haight altogether. They were tired of tripping over stoned fourteen-year-old longhaired runaways looking like five miles of blank road six days in from Wichita. They’d had it with being hustled by dreadlocked junkies, spaced out punks, and the barefoot bums flashing back from too much blotter acid. They were fed up with the potheads vying for joints, the druggies peddling bennies and black beauties, the dealers hawking balls of opium, balloons of heroin, and bindles of coke.

Theater closed in 1964

Grayline tour busses, overflowing with flabby, white–thighed Midwesterners in souvenir tank-tops and Bermuda shorts, slowly tootled down Haight, past what used to be the Haight Theater and was now the Straight Theater. Looking like bird-watchers with their cameras and binoculars hanging from their necks, the tourists searched intently for dwindling hippies or their children who hadn’t overdosed or left for communes in the country by this time.

In the aftermath of the Be-In and the Summer of Love, the Haight slid straight downhill. Many of the deteriorating Victorians were now a mixture of psychedelic-colored crash pads and rundown heroin haunts, with an element of criminals and pimps pervading the streets. Rows of empty store windows were plastered with the Diggers’ “Free Love, Free Food, and Free Huey” handbills.

1968 was the year Dad closed the store. The Summer of Love, the riots, and the changing times did my father’s business, and my father, in. The pounding reverberation of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll that he had survived fifteen years before finally cracked my Dad’s foundation and walls. He surrendered, and for the second time sold his stock, boarded his windows, locked his double glass doors, and left town. Adding insult to injury, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic moved into 1644 Haight Street, letting the hippies and addicts—hoping for some spare change and a ray of sun in the morning fog—finally rest in peace against the red and gray storefront.

1968 was also the final straw for my mother. 1968 was the year she ended her life in a small motel in Whittier, closing a chapter in mine.

to be continued…

© 2018. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Susie Price says

    Cathy – you were at the epicenter in 1968. At the time, I was living at home in East Whittier with my family after high school graduation and felt so left behind by my generation. I worked at the credit union in Fullerton at night where the night manager felt that MLK “had it coming.” I attended classes at Cal State Fullerton and met no one because I immediately left for work after class. I felt I was too square, but did not know how to break free of penny loafers, skirts to my knees, and Peter Pan collars on my blouses. I remember being hurt when a co-worker told me that I could never be a hippy… In the fall of 1968, I spent my savings and moved to Florence, Italy as part of the Cal State International year abroad where I was the youngest student and lived with 50+ other students from throughout California in an old monastery on the side of a hill in Tuscany. All hell broke lose that year as the Italian universities shut down due to student riots… Without parental supervision, I started to drink coffee, then wine, then smoke weed, and then moved on to birth control pills due to having a boyfriend. When I returned to Calif the following year, my parents did not recognize me…and I knew I could not stand living at home any more. I would have envied you as being so hip to be living in San Francisco…because it was all about being cool and hip…

    • Actually, your life was much more involved and evolved than mine. I stayed behind that plate glass window of a five-and-dime, and from that place of safety, observed the world float by. I’m glad I was there, but it was rather like my relationship with my family. I was of it, but never felt in it.

  2. Jonathan Farrell says

    Reading this almost made me weep. The Haight Street you described is the one my grandparents used to talk about and how it “all got run down with all them doped up hippies,” as my grandma used to say. My grandfather would call them “bums.”

    There was a dividing line if my childhood recollections serve me. Those under 30 were long-hair, casual dress and unconventional. Mature adults and those who listened to them wore sensible clothes, had a sense of propriety and didn’t get carried away with all the turmoil that was happening in the world.

    I was 5 years old in 1968. Being the youngest of five in a family that was experiencing the 1960s in full force was definitely a memorable journey, even if in my mind at the time I saw it as a turbulent one. All of my siblings were teenagers and most of the friction was about their changing from “kids” into very conscious and very unruly young people. I could always tell if mom wasn’t home when I got home from school by the rock and roll music that was blaring from the house as I approached the door.

    Even though at that time we lived on the Peninsula, we made frequent trips to the City to visit with relatives as my parents were native San Franciscans. But, there were times we made trips to retrieve a sibling who got stranded, stoned, or lost in the City during a concert or a jaunt with peers taking in San Francisco and all its happenings.

    Apart from what was happening in the Haight-Ashbury, life in the Avenues as I recall it was respectable, middle to working class and very ordinary. My grandparents and other relatives lived very plain ordinary lives. Their routines were orderly, they all worked, and few wavered from convention.

    I do believe there is much to be said about the impact the drug culture of the ’60s had upon all of society. In some ways it is still with us. Yet, the war in Vietnam and other problems also left a profound change upon the nation and then the world. As a child, I thought the world was going crazy. But now as a grown up, I see that the young people were simply responding/reacting to a world of change. It was certainly a change from what they had experienced when they were five to seven years old. Only a decade earlier, in 1958 America was at a zenith, its peak of Americana, the “American Dream.”

    Who could have known that in 1963, that “Americana” so full of promise, optimism, and anticipation for brighter things would implode. I am sure you have heard this said more than once. If you take a snap shot of America in 1960 and place it beside a photo of America in 1968 it is like two very different places.

    And, just think, you were in the midst of it all there on Haight Street, at an epicenter of change in a time-frame of tremendous alternations to society; at least it was so at the time, when compared to what things had been.

    What you post and share is so much of a time and a place that is no more. The City I knew, the California I knew, yes, even the nation – America I knew as a little kid is so wonderfully displayed and expressed on your blog and in your books. Thanks for sharing your stories.

    • Jonathan, the first time we met, BEHIND THESE DOORS had just come out and I read this piece from it at the outdoor event, shaking like a leaf. I suffered a terrible case of stage fright and barely got through it, which surprised me. I must have been feeling extremely vulnerable as it was my first exposure as a published author. I’ve always appreciated you writing an article about the event, and how this particular piece brought you back to your childhood. It connected us from that point forward, and I thank you for that.

  3. In 1967 my Dad was running a pizza place in the Haight called The Benches ($1.00 mini pizzas). As a 14-15 yr old I hung out in the neighborhood and the park a lot.

  4. Catherine I am so sorry about your mom. Those times put things in perspective—I honestly did not realize. Thank you so much for sharing it. You are such a beauty by the way in every sense of the word.

    • Thank you Rachel. It was a long time ago, actually 50 years today. I didn’t sleep well last night and asked her to come to me in my dreams. I woke up with the word “dancing” on my lips. Maybe we were.

  5. Bruce Reid says

    How did any of us get past 1968?

  6. My mom was part of that crowd. Had us living in communes. That was not the ending I expected for your mom. I’m sorry.