DECEMBER 30, 2018
HISTORY, ESPECIALLY in times of revolutionary change, never progresses as assuredly and purposefully as accounts written decades after the fact would have us believe. Historians have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, and can gently rearrange events in such a way as to show how all signs pointed more or less inevitably to the now-familiar outcome. Even contemporaneous newspaper stories tend to hide the more shambling moments of human doubt and indecision that make up the bulk of real daily life during even the most exciting times. But a look below the surface — at diaries, letters, and other unscrubbed, under-the-radar communication — will always fill in essential pieces of the big picture that received history has little room for.
One now-famous example is “A Bintel Brief,” a section in the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper that ran starting in 1906. “A Bintel Brief” was an advice column that aimed to help Forward readers (mostly Yiddish-speaking immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe) who were attempting to navigate the manners and customs of their newly adopted home, often with great difficulty. A book-length compendium of the column, first published in the 1970s, today gives a valuable glimpse into the not-necessarily-mundane social and cultural struggles that this hugely significant wave of American immigration had to contend with: How much of my modest salary should I send to my blind father back in Russia? Should I accept a proposal of marriage from a friend of my dear deceased husband, whom I loved more than anything in the world? How do I respond to my new progressive friends, who mock me for going to synagogue?
In a similar vein, if not quite as ambitious, is Where to Score, a booklet-sized collection of classified ads culled from the pages of the newspaper The Oracle of the City of San Francisco (more commonly known as the San Francisco Oracle) during the momentous period of 1966 to 1968. Though the Oracle, founded by poet Allen Cohen, only published 12 issues in a run of less than two years, its importance to the seminal Haight-Ashbury hippie and acid scene — with its plentiful drugs, free love, underground book and record shops, alternative businesses, explorations of non-Western culture and philosophy, and general disdain for the straight world — should not be underestimated. The paper, sometimes referred to as “Haight-Ashbury’s newspaper of record,” operated as a worker-owned cooperative with a typically unorthodox distribution network and was a founding member of the Underground Press Syndicate (which included the East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, and Detroit’s anarchist paper Fifth Estate). Its staff helped organize the legendary Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, and it sponsored events and symposiums featuring the likes of Zen evangelist Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg. Today it’s remembered as much for its revolutionary rainbow-colored printing (an early harbinger of the Bay Area’s tech obsession to come?) as for its editorial content, which was a fairly representative slice of the LSD-fueled mystico-psychedelic culture around the Summer of Love.
And then there are the classifieds. It’s hard to imagine that anyone taking a serious look at the Oracle at the time would even have mentioned them: their completely utilitarian function would have been overwhelmed by the higher-wattage writing by and about Leary, Ken Kesey, and Buckminster Fuller, among other counterculture luminaries. But what the classifieds provide that the editorial content of the Oracle doesn’t, is a look at the real community surrounding the paper — that is, its readers. Most of these Haight-Ashbury denizens may have been eager to learn about the discussions of philosophy held in Alan Watts’s Houseboat Summit — a discussion about drugs, governmental systems, and the underground; with Leary, Ginsberg, Cohen, “Zen monk” Gary Snyder, and others — after the fact, but certainly wouldn’t have attended the summit. More significantly, in the largely unknown new world that Haight-Ashbury represented in 1966, the paper served as a central hub around which denizens of that world virtually gathered. Quite a few of these denizens were literally still kids, “lost” in various ways. Like the new arrivals to New York’s Lower East Side in 1906, many of them had recently made the life-changing move to a happening but strange new place promising unlimited riches, whether material or spiritual — now what?
Many of the classifieds reproduced in Where to Score — which was, incidentally, the tongue-in-cheek name of the section for the Oracle’s first few issues — are typical classified fare:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SHANE
SMITH BROTHERS, basement – attic – cleaning – hauling, reasonable rates.
Freelance artist needs work, illustration, fashion, lettering, signs, etc. Reasonable, reliable. Jim.
But we also see twists that are more or less unique to this time and place:
ARTIST: Experienced in black velvet. Room salary and commission.
The Reno, Nevada, address in that ad suggests that while black-velvet artists may have been popping up all over the country circa 1966, the market for their work was still geographically limited. It’s notable that many Oracle classifieds seeking some kind of response were placed by people in other parts of the country (or Canada) — some of them ready to make the move to the Haight, others simply seeking contact with other freethinkers, in a place where such people were known to congregate.
The hippie/leftist politics of the Haight surface in various forms:
FOOD: Bishops Cafe, 315 Divisidero, S.F., will be feeding people for 25¢ & free if they don’t have it.
Summerhill School to be started. For info write …
DRAFT RESISTERS–YOU ARE NOT ALONE. We have no magic answer to the draft. We can’t tell you how to dodge it. We can tell you how to resist it. Send 10¢ for “Uptight with the Draft?”
Summerhill was an extremely free, democratic, student-centric school model started in the United Kingdom. The draft-resisters ad was, notably, placed by the New York City–based War Resisters League, which raises an interesting point: the editorial content of the Oracle was generally nowhere near as capital-P political as the fiercely confrontational writings of, say, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, the Youth International Party, the Black Panther Party (based in nearby Oakland), Students for a Democratic Society, or the White Panther Party. The Oracle’s focus was more on mind-expansion than “pigs” or the Vietnam War. Allen Cohen addressed the issue of the Oracle’s less confrontational politics in a look back at the paper years later:
Some writers have seen an escapist gap between the Oracle’s point of view and the antiwar movement, but the Oracle was as committed to the movement as anyone else. We emphasized the unity of political and transcendental ideals, and we had a preference for nonviolence. The mass movement against the war had equal parts of LSD vision, marijuana sensory delight, political ideology, and moral rage.
So, via the classifieds, it seems the War Resisters League and their more overtly militant politics slipped in through the paper’s side door.
Some aspects of hippie or “alternative” culture that surface in the classifieds anticipate the Whole Earth Catalog–inspired DIY/utopian movement that was to blossom in the area a few years later. Again, this is more tuning in and dropping out than taking up arms against Amerikkka’s oppressive racist government:
THE ELECTRIC GARDEN OF EDEN could use any discarded electronics you might have. We are constructing data processing machines to be used by community institutions like the Oracle & the Hip Job Co-op.
Want to build Drop City type geodesic domes in Mendocino. Need materials: 2×4’s, sheet rock, tools, electric shears, chicken wire, cement, tar paper, sheet aluminum, insulator.
PIONEERS WANTED. If you are interested in starting up an out-of-town colony, or if you already have one going, contact — — ,. Donations of land [and] money cheerfully accepted.
Drop City was an artists’ community in Colorado organized largely around Fuller-style domes, which were to figure prominently in the utopian city-planning schemes of many Whole Earth Catalog disciples.
And, of course, there are the hippie entrepreneurs — a group that, for better or worse, turned out to be one of the most enduring legacies of this time and place. How many of these were well-meaning hippies just trying to make a buck, and how many were cynical businesspeople looking to cash in on the latest craze? Who knows?
Psychedelic black lights for the wildest psychedelic lighting.
Hippi-Kits: Flowers – bells – chants – flutes – headbands – incense burners – skin sequin-feathers.
BLOW YOUR MIND, BABY! For our fantastic free list of Underground buttons, posters, and psychedelic goodies (wholesale & retail), write Underground Enterprises…then freak out.
HEAD CLEARING HOUSE. Information exchange for hip businesses.
But flipping through Where to Score, the classifieds that are impossible to avoid, and which add more than a tinge of sadness to the entire project, are the ads from parents and other relatives in various stages of desperation seeking contact from their runaway children. The number of these ads outweighs any other type in the collection, and whether this was the editors’ choice or not hardly seems to matter, since there were clearly a lot of them in the Oracle:
MINA — Please call us or Art at work. We miss you very much. Nothing will upset us if we could only hear from you. We love you.
BETSEY EPSTEIN: Need you — baby. Call collect anytime. Freedom with or without home base. Daisies to you. Mom & Dad.
Debbi, please contact us collect. We love & miss you very much and want you to come home. Kevin & Kerry ask about you too. Love, Mother and Dad.
WANTED: Debbie & Vickie, contact mothers at once or Dee. We really care
Linda-Kim or Mari L. Will you trust me enough to call collect and let me know you’re alright? Love Mother.
It’s worth noting that none of these parents panicked and called the police, though no doubt plenty of others did. But what information can we glean from this apparent outpouring of “please call home” classifieds? Obviously no parent is going to be thrilled about their son or (especially) daughter running away from home, and from a mother or father’s perspective the reputation of Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 was reason enough to be doubly concerned.
But let’s not be so quick to dismiss these concerns as the cluelessness of a bunch of hopeless squares. Since we can assume that at least some of them skimmed the occasional copy of the Oracle, they would presumably have seen the numerous ads in the very same classified section from men who appear to be located at various points on the creep/perv scale. These characters have certainly always existed, but were perhaps emboldened by the Haight’s libertine atmosphere, and the presence there of any number of kids who were lost, lonely, or broke:
girl wanted, natural type preferred
Drop out of time out of myth into mystery. Join me in a pastoral sojourn, euphoric wonder, a trip into Yosemite…beautiful girl, poetic soul…My social identity: male student history classics, UC Berkeley age 20.
Healthy, discreet, male, 37. Desires healthy, discreet, lusty woman looking for excitement.
A girl that is looking for a good home, in the beautiful land of NM in Santa Fe, all girls interested should please send photos of themselves. I will pay their fare out here.
Need young female to take care of and help in finding peace & truth in Nature, Sierras, free to pursue varied interests. Can be temporary or permanent escape from concrete desert. Write “Chuck” …
American age 27 would like to correspond with girl interested in God, yoga, LSD, etc. with the object of having her spend some time with him in Ecuador, S.A. with the possibility of a prolonged relationship. All expenses paid write — enclosing photos.
If any of these parents had the power of time travel, they may also have seen the interview George Harrison gave near the end of his life, where (though it should be noted that he made a generous donation to the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic during his Beatle days) he describes his summer 1967 visit to the Haight as decidedly different from the blissfully far-out picture we usually get:
I went to Haight-Ashbury expecting it to be this brilliant place. I thought it was going to be all these groovy kind of gypsy kind of people with little shops making works of art and paintings and carvings. But instead it turned out to be just a lot of bums. […] In the end we [Harrison and Beatles press officer Derek Taylor] just said, “Let’s get out of here.”
True, in part these may have been the grousings of an exhausted rock star who was just looking for an excuse to ditch the material world and shove off to India, but there’s also a certain astuteness to Harrison’s impressions of the Haight: among other developments during this short period, drug use in the neighborhood shifted unfortunately but steadily from hallucinogenics to heroin and other hard drugs, with a concomitant shift in atmosphere from Love and Peace to something uglier. (The very existence of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic may in fact have been a canary in the coal mine.)
So it seems likely that Mom and Dad were onto something. But that aside, what’s most striking, and most valuable, about this collection is seeing the Haight’s residents simply going about their business in their own voices, free of adornment and self-consciousness, and certainly never dreaming that their words would show up as part of the historical record 50 years later.
Dave Mandl’s writing has appeared in The Wire, The Believer, The Register, The Comics Journal, The Rumpus, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. He was the longtime music editor at The Brooklyn Rail and an editor at Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia. He hosts the radio show World of Echo at WFMU and plays the bass guitar in various groups.