City of madness, city of resilience

If I were running a local bookstore these days, I would prominently display a sign in my storefront window helpfully reminding people what happens to Kindles and iPads when they get sand in them.

As long as there exists the time-honored phenomenon we know as the “beach read,” then that brilliant little invention we call “the book” will always have a fighting chance. I know of one local bookseller who reacted in horror when I suggested that perhaps the book, as we know it, will inevitably be tagged with a language upgrade, like the awful “brick-and-mortar” nomenclature we’ve attached to real places to distinguish them from Internet retailers.

Do you want to live in a world where we commonly refer to a “dead-tree” or “paper-and-glue” book? Yeah, me neither. Can we all just agree on “book” and “e-book,” please?

On the subject of beach reads, I’m not one who leans toward the kind of pulp literature that serves as a sort of chewing gum for the brain. I’ll admit such things are perfect for the kind of dozing, alpha state that makes a day at the beach, well, a day at the beach.

When it comes to summer reading, I’m a high-fiber kind of person, with a taste for a sweet story. Essentially, I look for the literary equivalent of a granola bar. I think I’ve found exactly the thing in a new book called “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love” (Free Press) by journalist David Talbot.

Because we live in Santa Cruz County, we exist, whether we like it or not, in the considerable cultural shadow of San Francisco. We’re far away enough to have a separate civic identity, though close enough to know better than to call it “Frisco.”

“Witch” is an utterly absorbing cultural history of San Francisco in the insane period between the Summer of Love and the Reagan-era AIDS crisis, and now that we’ve all gotten a good 30 years distance on that period, it makes for a stone-cold amazing story.

Of course, many locals lived through that time in varying degrees of immediacy. But if you’re under 40, or lived in another time zone during that era, you might not be completely aware of how scary and bizarre it was then. And even those who were around might have forgotten the prevailing mood of cultural apocalypse that pervaded that time.

It’s difficult to overstate just how much the country was in the grips of deep cultural anxiety in the 1970s. Me, I was a teenager living in the suburbs of Atlanta at the time, so my deepest loathings never got much beyond “Disco Duck” and cantaloupe-colored leisure suits. But many grown-ups at that time were seized with the notion that America was sliding into madness and the vortex of those anxieties was the beautiful City By the Bay.

Talbot, the founder of the pioneering on-line magazine Salon.com, tells the story in gripping but detailed candor. San Francisco was, of course, the siren which lured so many young people wearing flowers in their hair from heartland America back in the 1960s – we’ve all heard the song.

But even if the sunny grooviness of the 1967 “Summer of Love” was overstated – Talbot reports on how the tough-guy Irish SF cops made life miserable for incoming hippies and gays – the ugly aftermath was, if anything, underplayed.

What began with such high hopes quickly spun out into a hellscape of drug addiction, crime and violent radicalism. That last element found its most prominent voice in the Symbionese Liberation Army, a small but seriously crazy left-wing splinter group that made national headlines by kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.

That tawdry episode was followed by the even more sinister rise of the Peoples Temple under the sway of the smarmy Jim Jones which perverted the liberal values that San Francisco has always embraced into one of the country’s most dangerous personality cults.

Then, of course, came that horrifying month of November 1978 when Jones, whose insanity was protected and rationalized by the highest levels of liberals in the city, moved his whole shebang to Guyana, murdered a U.S. Congressman who was visiting and led his entire flock to mass suicide. Then, in a matter of days, S.F. supervisor Dan White murdered both Mayor George Moscone and fellow supervisor Harvey Milk, the Martin Luther King Jr. of the gay-right movement, in their respective offices in San Francisco City Hall.

Mix in lively personalities of the era including Bill Graham, Willie Brown, Herb Caen, Scott Newhall, Armistead Maupin, and even Joe Montana and you’ve got a lively if frightening tale of a city wrestling with madness.

From a conservative point of view, San Francisco in the ’70s was an instance in which evil was unleashed in the form of murderous leftists and deranged cultists. And certainly the liberals of the era take much of the blame for the anguish of the times – though, it must be said, that Dan White was a right-wing vigilante.

In fact, the book asserts that it was center-left political style of Dianne Feinstein that saved the city after Moscone/Milk and during the AIDS pandemic. Even today, many conservatives use the term “San Francisco values” as a kind of code word for the evils of liberalism.

But Talbot touts “San Francisco values” as a marker of pride, of tolerance, community and, in the case of the maddening 1970s, survival.

So, the next time you’re strolling the Embarcadero, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, or shopping the funky stores of the Haight, take a good look around and keep in mind, the city that gleams like a jewel in the fog-filtered sunshine, she’s seen some things, some pretty ugly things. And she’s still looking good.

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