There was a bakery over in the Mission that sold its day-old bread for ten cents a loaf. Every couple of days I would hike over there and bring back as much as I could carry in my rucksack. It wasn’t much of a hike, just a mile or so each way from the Haight. The bread was my contribution to the commune. In return, they let me sleep and eat there, a big old run-down house in a working-class neighborhood. I’d hitchhiked out from New York. I was the only one in the house from the East Coast. At 20, I was also the youngest. I didn’t fit in too well. One of my first nights there, we were all sitting around on the floor in the common room getting stoned, and everyone else was drinking cheap dago-red jug wine. I went out and came back with a quart of Rainier Ale. That somehow made me weird.
Often, the jug wine, or the sangria they fixed to try and make it palatable. would be laced with LSD. This was the summer before the Summer of Love. Lysergic acid was not yet illegal. And in the Haight was a small ghetto of adults who had not so much dropped out of their old world as dropped into a new freedom sphere of their own invention. Psychedelics had freed them. My commune mates were ex-lawyers and -teachers and -real-estate agents. One of the things they all had in common was that they no longer were what they once had been, like married or on a career path.
I had come to San Francisco on a vague poet’s quest. New York was still the literate center of the universe, but it was stale. The so-called Beats had abandoned Manhattan for the City by the Bay. In those halcyon hitchhiking days, a visit west was only four or five days of free rides away. I had been fired from my stat-analyst job at Fortune for showing up one Monday morning with a shaved head. (It was not attractive.) Such expressions of personal freedom were not tolerated at Time-Life Inc. So, I was collecting unemployment, $48 a week, and learned that I could collect it as well in California.
There was a man whose name I then knew, who that summer was sort of royalty in the Haight. He dressed in Oscar Wilde hats and capes and toured his tiny principality with a pair of exotic wolf hounds. Supposedly, he was the font of all local LSD. With caution and diligence, I managed that summer to avoid ingesting any of his product. Though it felt at times as if I alone was the only one not tripping, I confined myself to weed and Rainier Ale and became a non-participant observer of the encompassing alternate reality.
The source of my reluctance was quite simple—the verse the acidhead poets was churning out. I thought it was awful. The purpose of poems, I thought, was to clarify, to distil experience into shareable insights, not celebrate personal confusion. The solo inner vision is not communication. Much of what I read, in my jejune opinion, seemed speaking-in-tongues gibberish. They lacked all discipline, were amorphous, pure personal indulgence. I did not want that to happen to my poems.
This substitute for poetry was emblematic of the scene as a whole. The gaseous comfort zone this mini-subculture subsisted upon was comprised primarily of self-righteousness, a snotty self-righteousness at that—the less sense you made, the higher your status. That defense—it’s not that I’m not clear, it’s your fault for not understanding. The literary analogy was to jazz. But even jazz had rules and framework and was played by groups of men who understood one another. Coltrane always returned to the tune right on beat.
The smells—patchouli oil and incense, marijuana and unwashed bodies—and on the streets, the fog-cleansed air and the always chilled Pacific breeze. North Beach saloons and cheap Chinatown noodle houses. Stoned side trips to Mendocino and Big Sur. In 1966, $48 was equivalent to $480 in today’s dollars. I got to hear the music and watch the lightshows and the people at The Fillmore and The Avalon—the Airplane and the Dead, Big Brother and Grace Slick, Country Joe and the Mothers of Invention. The musicianship was often not the best, but it was the experience you went for, the comradery of crazies.
On the radio, ’66 was the summer of “California Dreamin’,” “Paint It Black,” “Good Vibrations,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Yellow Submarine.” But that was the other, regular world. As the summer went on, the lightshows got more psychedelic, Janis Joplin went beyond extreme, and the Grateful Dead would refuse to stop playing. How many rules can be broken?
Then there was the Oracle. In subsequent years, Haight-Ashbury became famous as a flowerchild haven, a refuge for damaged and disaffected teenagers. But in ’66 there were no kids there. It was all adults. They weren’t adolescent escapees. They saw themselves as pioneers. I was just an inexperienced kid and ignored. So, when a cadre of the senior acidhead elite decided to put out a community newspaper, I got to hang out with them as a goffer, the practical kid who remembered stuff. No one remembered my name.
The money all came from acid sales. A space was rented above the Haight Theater. Someone who said they knew what they were doing bought an ancient press from a shuttered newspaper upstate. A staff of exotic misfits was assembled. I don’t know what they were paid. I never was. At least at first, no one was in it for money. It was a community project. The explorers on the frontier of alternate reality required an organ to relate back their inner discoveries. It took us weeks to get that old press adjusted and balanced enough to print. It didn’t help that everyone else was tripping.
The San Francisco Oracle fulfilled and exceeded its mission. Its success and impact far exceeded the worth of any combination of its contents, much of which was either unreadable—due to the liberal application of colored-ink washes (ala Fillmore lightshows)—or intentionally unintelligible (unknowability being the hallmark of all true wisdom). The few pieces of mine that got published were unrecognizable, chopped up to decorate some mandala or unicorn graphic. Printed badly on cheap coarse paper (a bitch in the press), it had a good feel in the hand. It caught on among those who cared little for words.
At the end of the summer, with $40 in my pocket, I headed north, hitchhiking up to Vancouver to take a new route back to Manhattan across Canada 1. For the next couple months, I acted as East Coast distributor for the Oracle, until it became too popular and profitable. When it started making money, everything changed and I was out. Just as well. Its many-colored inks came off on your fingers.