On Haight Street

photo by my friend Michael (his absolutely stunning Instagram is here)

Several months ago, my high school English class read excerpts of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, partly because 1) we had just finished up a unit on postmodernism, 2) you apparently can’t graduate high school without reading Joan Didion, and 3) because it’s set in Haight-Ashbury, the heart of 1967-Summer-of-Love-era San Francisco, and screams COOL FIELD TRIP OPPORTUNITY.

I immediately loved it. The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem are detailed without being gratuitous and withhold just enough to be slightly mysterious; Didion’s distinctive voice turns the stories into haunting and intimate portraits of complex and imperfect people, painting a perfect picture of the Haight that isn’t overly glossy. Not to mention that Didion is the ultimate cool girl.

My junior class —many of us the same age as the teenage runaways Didion interviews— read the excerpts, visited the Haight one sunny Tuesday morning, and then wrote our own stories, attempting to mimic Didion’s enviable ability to sound nonchalant whilst writing about babies on acid (although babies on acid were nowhere to be seen). The following is my shot at a Slouching Towards Bethlehem-esque story, or, as my English teacher calls it, a pastiche: vignettes of the same people, fifty years later, floating in a world flooded with glamorized soy shakes and Donald Trump.

Evan and Neel and I are walking around Haight Street hoping to get to ask some people some questions, but nothing opens for another half hour so we start doing laps and make plans to get tacos.

Wilder is dipping a paintbrush into a can of dark purple paint and making curlicues on the front of a store, and the peculiar thing is that he is in a pair of blue corduroy overalls with mismatched socks. A joint dangles between his fingers and he is painting so slowly that the woman taking Snapchats of the whole thing finally says to go faster so she can fit a brushstroke into ten seconds. Wilder doesn’t say anything, just takes a drag and flips her the bird. His brush creeps up to the edge of the pristine white paint that belongs to the Blue Bottle Coffee next door and I realize we are all holding our breaths.

We are in a store looking at vinyls and debating whether we like Alex Turner’s hair better floppy or gelled up until the cashier looks at us weird and we walk into the only other open store on the block. It is all Buddha shaped incense holders, sparkly rainbow sunglasses, and bumper stickers that advertise the idea of different religions coexisting.

Evan asks the man in the front about what kind of animal the Haight would be, partly because he is trying to be funny and partly because he genuinely wants to know. The man is wearing a puffy jacket. He thinks for a bit while Evan and I pretend to look interested in the sunglasses. “A wolf,” he says at last, “But I guess a wolf makes us sound like crazy people who want to bite your heads off. So a husky.”

There is a woman in the store too and it’s hard to tell whether she and the man in the puffy jacket are together or not. Her name is Astrid and her bleached blonde hair and glossy black aviators make her look like a celebrity touching down at an airport. Together, her and the man in the puffy jacket seem out of place in the Haight, a polished duo amidst a sea of tie dye and bongs.

“So,” Astrid says, “where you all from?” I describe our school and how it is across from a large new glass building where tech companies work. Just like the rest of Silicon Valley, I say. Astrid’s eyebrows go up. She nods and places a mood ring on the counter. “Living amongst all those people, so stressful,” she says, “you’ll need one of these.” It is seven dollars so I give Astrid five plus a two-dollar bill which she seems particularly excited about, and slip it on my finger. Five minutes have passed after we walk out the door when I realize that I forgot to ask her what color meant I was stressed.

Later that day, I find myself at a coffee shop full of people eating slices of toast and trading conspiratorial whispers about who had just lost their Series A. They own shiny silver MacBooks, enjoy discussing how hard surviving at Burning Man is (with enough weed, not very), think that twenty-eight steps are the difference between a good day and a bad one, and look like they would never be caught wearing mismatched socks.

My notebook is open, with the words HAIGHT-ASHBURY written at the top of the page, and a man wearing a Grateful Dead shirt that isn’t vintage notices and says, “Do you live up there?” I say no, that I was only visiting on a school trip. He looks impressed. “That place is crazy,” he says, spinning his phone around his fingers. “But Blue Bottle just opened there, so I guess that makes it like the new Mission, you know?” I don’t, but he smiles again, turns away, and writes COMPANY HQ IN HAIGHT? on his palm.

I look down at my hands and realize I have forgotten about the mood ring. It sparkles in the sunlight, clear and glittery and blue.