Flowers in My Hair
By Kevin Ryan, Esq.
Scott McKenzie once advised us (OMG, I’m dating myself now!): “If you go to San Francisco, be sure to wear flowers in your hair.” OK, so I ignored McKenzie’s sage advice this trip – it is not, after all, the summer of love. And besides, I wasn’t going to the City by the Bay in order to wander the streets of the Haight, smoke a little weed, and sit in Golden Gate Park (or Fillmore West) to listen to the Airplane, the Dead, and Quicksilver. I didn’t even plan to leave my heart there. Times have changed.
I went to San Francisco to attend the annual meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives. I find these conferences to be exceptionally valuable: they keep me fresh, they inspire me, and they provide me a chance to mingle and chat with hundreds of others who do the same kind of work I do. We all face similar challenges, and we find that pooling our knowledge, experience, and insights helps us cope with the rapidly changing bar scene (no, not that bar scene!). And this year’s conference did not disappoint. In a series of posts, I hope to share some of what I gained in San Francisco.
Good conferences stimulate insights not just during the formal sessions. Rather, insights emerge in the breaks at least as often as in the meetings, in the spaces between the text as much as in the text itself, in the interstices of the day. They happen in conversations with colleagues over drinks or dinner, in walks around a strange city, in the stimulation provided by new surroundings and fascinating people. They happen more frequently when you have many friends with whom to share the experience.
I used to tell my kids to “never go anywhere without a book.” After all, you could end up stuck in an airport, or caught in a snow storm, or whatever, and if you have a book, you’ll be able to pass the time enjoyably, thoughtfully, even beneficially. Usually I travel with a stack of books just in case — and, of course, I never get through all those books on the trip. This time, however, I decided to pack light and took only one book. Big mistake! I finished that lone book – Julian Barnes’s new novel, The Noise of Time – on the flight from ROC to SFO. Not having a book was not an option, so upon my arrival in San Francisco I headed over to City Lights Bookstore (you know, the bookstore started by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the home of the literate members of the Beat Generation). City Lights has become a regular stop on my trips to the Bay Area: I admire their selection of books and love the vibe of the place, surely one of the best independent bookstores in the country. And where else can you stand and browse where once Ginsberg recited Howl and Jack Kerouac came to rest from his travels with Neal Cassady? And yes, I found a book to buy: Teju Cole’s Open City. (BTW, I recommend these novels, Barnes’s and Cole’s – Kerouac’s too.)
Open City was an appropriate choice. Cole’s city may be New York, but he provides startling insights into the nature of the modern urban space and the people who inhabit it. Take San Francisco, for instance. It is charming, crowded, bustling. Giant skyscrapers rise out of its hills, defying the earth to topple them in its next quake. Other Giants fill the hearts of San Franciscans with the hope of yet another World Series title. The city overflows with marvelous sights, especially for those of us of an age to remember the days of Kesey, Joplin, and Leary (if not the arrival of the Beats). In some ways a living landmark, San Francisco compels its residents to pay outrageous prices for lodging, and makes it nearly impossible to get from one point to another due to its success at attracting millions of tourists. One Uber driver told us (on a one-mile trip that took 25 minutes) that more than a million people pile into the city each day, and several local friends told us that no person with a normal job at a normal salary can afford to live in the city. Cable cars climb halfway to the stars, or at least up into the fog, which in August seeps into the corners of the city like a disease spreading through a body. The cable cars are not mass transportation; they are a reward for tourists willing to spend an hour in line. And August is not summer in San Francisco: it is cold, requiring the use of sweaters and jackets (a welcome relief from the eastern heat, of course, but always a surprise). It makes one wonder when exactly the “summer” of love occurred – certainly not in August.
But there is a dark side to today’s San Francisco. Sadly, a growing population of homeless Californians sprawl and wander amidst the high-end shops and fancy hotels, the banks, the landmarks, cable cars, and tourists. A brisk morning walk around the Union Square neighborhood brings one into contact with countless dispirited, tormented people who seem to have given up hope. These people need help but there seems to be none on offer: medical help, help gaining and keeping employment, psychiatric help, legal help, help making it to tomorrow.
On Friday morning I encountered a man with wild eyes foully cursing a van driver at full volume. The words spewed out, causing one family to hustle their children on in hopes they wouldn’t hear the vile language being chanted (as if the kids had never heard those words before). It became clear that the curses were directed at life in general, not at the abused van driver in particular. What had caused this man (who, in looks, reminded me of Arthur Brown: “I am the god of hellfire . . . “) to go over the edge, to lose his bearings and his control, to become the angry face of modern American life?
But this belligerent man did not resemble most of the street people I encountered. He was white, for one, and outspoken (to say the least) for another. Most of the people I walked past (I accuse myself here) sat sullenly, huddled in worn-out blankets, surrounded by detritus, never speaking. Most of them (though not all) were black. These people need someone to see them, to recognize their humanity, to care enough to help them through the maze of modernity so that they can recover their lives, their dignity, and their selves. Instead, they blend into the background, relegated to being a scar on the San Francisco of the travel brochures. Most people, just like me, quickly walked past them, head down, eyes straight ahead, as if they didn’t exist. The city of San Francisco, it seems, has concluded that it would not be in keeping with the spirit of the place to hustle these people off the streets (San Diego would do that, I suspect), but it has not found a way, the resources, perhaps even the will to help them. Instead, one gets the impression that many lives have been cast away, like so many Styrofoam containers and plastic wrappers, littering the street and blowing in the wind. They are locked in a cold, forbidding winter of discontent in August, and await the arrival of a new summer of love.
Neither the street people nor those who walk on by are the “gentle people” Scott McKenzie told us we’d meet in San Francisco. There is no “love-in there.”
Is this where we have come in America? Have we become a nation that ostracizes people, throws them out onto the street, and walks quickly by without a nod of recognition (let alone any real help)? And how do we feel about this? Do we pat ourselves on the back for our success and condemn those on the streets of our San Franciscos as failures, losers, pariahs? Is that who we are? Is this a new acid test, more serious this time and minus the Kool-Aid, striking more closely to the heart, a bad trip that now defines our national character? Has our summer turned into cold, drizzly winter?