31 Destinations in Time #2: San Francisco, 1991


On The Road by Jack Kerouac

I was mildly obsessed with this book back in the 1990s.

In my early 20s, I fell in love with the beat poets and writers. That lifestyle represented everything I had been brought up NOT to do – and so I lived it vicariously in books and biographies, before eventually making three of my own road trips across the States and living the hippie dropout dream myself.

Etched in that memory is the end destination of San Francisco, another earthquake-prone, destination of dropouts that I fell for big-time (the other being Indonesia’s islands). Being brought up as a dogmatic Catholic and with annual holidays to Northern Ireland had obviously had its effect.

San Francisco was by far the prettiest, friendliest, easiest-going and most colourful city on our east-west coast trip. And after three days on the Greyhound buses, it seemed like we had reached Shangri-La. Even the cabbies in their suspension-challenged cars, though aggressive as drivers, were as welcoming as family. I put it down to the sea air and the fact that ‘the big one’ might hit at any moment.

We couldn’t afford much – just a cheap Days Inn Motel but one night we splashed out on a rather unusual place in Haight-Ashbury, the legendary home of the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’, which, overshare ahoy, was when I was conceived. I like to think my Irish Catholic parents somehow caught a vibe of California sunshine back in 1967 and that’s why the hippie thing is in my DNA.

We stayed in an eclectic B&B on Haight St called the Red Victorian, which consisted of a haphazard collection of differently themed rooms above a café, a bookshop playing swirly 60s music, and a meditation centre.

Red Victorian Inn, San Francisco
A spruced up Red Victorian Inn in Haight Ashbury

Our ‘Japanese Tea Garden Room’ had vivid blue silk bed spreads and a bonsai garden outside the window. I remember another room had a cat flap for the hotel cat to come stay with you and yet another had a cistern in the bathroom that doubled as an aquarium. There was also the Flower Child Room, the Redwood Forest Room, the Summer of Love Room, the Teddy Bear Room and the huge Peacock Suite.

The next day I bought my best ever pair of Levis in a vintage shop on Haight St, for £13. My behind never looked so good as in California in 1991.

27th September 1991, San Francisco, USA

There are new and old generation hippies wandering Haight St. The shops are mainly vintage secondhand clothes and vinyl record shops. I lost count of the number of times we were offered little green bags. Leigh took some pics of a crash-battered Kharmann Ghia before some old hippie came up and tried to sell the thing to him. In a trendy health food shop we armed ourselves with ginseng, Rolling Rock, apples, bananas and organic kettle chips, and went for a late afternoon picnic in Golden Gate Park. Tonight we hit Union St to catch the Muni no 41 to North Beach – the ‘happening scene’. We went straight to the old Beat generation bookshop, the City Lights Bookstore, still owned by the writer Ferlinghetti. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassidy had all been here. City Lights was the focal point. It was raided for stocking Allen Ginsberg’s Howl poem, which was said to be obscene. The media hyped the Beats to national notoriety after that and the Beat generation was born. That’s a lot of history for one shop. I bought Howl; Leigh bought a vampire novel.

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