San Francisco is a world class travel destination and my hometown. Native San Franciscans like to use the phrase “born and raised in The City.” One of my favorite rhymes about The City is credited to writer Charles K. Field after the 1906 earthquake and fire. There were folks who said the catastrophe was God’s way of punishing The City for its sinful ways.
“While millions of dollars worth of normally non-inflammable material was reduced to ashes,” the Argonaut newspaper observed, “barrels of highly inflammable whisky were preserved intact in the heart of the tremendous holocaust.”
That inspired Field to write:
“If, as some say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the Churches down
And save Hotaling’s Whisky?”
San Franciscans consider ourselves lucky. But what we may consider “normal” is not always thought of in the same way by outsiders. It’s been that way since The City was founded, and continues to the present day.
My goal is to take readers on a journey back to the late 1960s in The City, to learn more about what life was really like from the people who were here in 1967, 1968 and 1969. And from my perspective as a native, I want to help folks appreciate and enjoy the San Francisco of today.
As a newspaper reporter, I am not used to talking about myself. I do enjoy teatime with friends. So at a recent teatime break, I asked my friend and fellow native San Franciscan, Maria, to ask me questions as a means of introducing myself.
M: What is one of your earliest San Francisco memories?
C: Ice skating is not something people associate with San Francisco. But as you know, there were four ice skating rinks in The City when we were growing up. I learned to skate when I was four years old and I took lessons at the Phyllis and Harris Legg Ice Skating School. They had been performers in the Ice Follies. I did my first ice skating performance at the Emporium department store (now a complex called Westfield Shopping Center on Market Street) on the small rink in the Santa Claus department. It was like entering a fantasy land, complete with Santa and the elves. I was in the department store show every year for 15 years to entertain the children waiting to see Santa Claus. In college, skating during the Christmas shopping season was my holiday part-time job.
M: What’s your best memory of high school?
C: Going to Lowell High School meant there were high academic standards. We also got encouragement to create and take responsibility for events, including the sports rallies and dances. Besides the dances at school, we also would arrange for parties at some of the most well-known hotels in the world. It never occurred to us that walking in to the catering department of the Fairmont or the Mark Hopkins Hotels as 16-year-old kids to negotiate a contract for an event was at all odd.
M: We were at San Francisco State at the same time in the late 1960s. How did Professor Gary Hawkins become your mentor?
C: I met Gary – I called him Professor Hawkins then – during my orientation week at San Francisco State. He administered a required speech screening to pick up on any speech impediments that the public school was required to remedy. After he checked off my admissions form, he asked me if I had considered taking a “Speech Communications” class. Considered? No. I didn’t even know what “Speech Communications” was as a discipline. Now, lots of college students choose Communications as a major. Then, our department was only 200 students out of the 18,000 going to school at State. After that first class with Gary, I changed my major. I saw him, and the other Communications Department teachers, almost daily for the four years, including the time of the San Francisco State strike.
M: Your career has been eclectic to say the least. After some serious work with children’s programs, and mentoring at-risk youth, you started working for newspapers and magazines. What was it like to write about social events, fashion and shopping in the 1980s and 1990s?
C: Wonderful and crazy. I worked for two daily newspapers for 15 years, and wrote many stories for local magazines and specialty publications like the California Apparel News. I got to attend premier events, like the opening of the San Francisco Opera and Symphony. I interviewed fashion designers such as Bill Blass, Oscar De le Renta and Carolina Herrera. I remember talking with Jean-Louis Dumas Hermes when he was opening up the Hermes boutique in San Francisco. I did the interview when he had rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt and was hammering nails in the walls to hang pictures. I still have his handwritten thank you note where he graciously says, “See you next time in Paris?”
M: How did you decide to write your last two books about yoga?
C: The short answer is the Hawaiian island of Maui and following my interests. After writing a couple of shopping guides to San Francisco and a part of a series of books about computer security – the company I worked for in Silicon Valley needed to teach folks about “fire walls” – I attended a yoga retreat on the island of Maui. I have always said I am the best yoga-class-dropout you ever met. One day, I was walking back from our morning class with my friend and yoga teacher Elise Miller. I told her that if she could write down the tips she was giving us about how to do these stretches at home in our regular clothes, I might be able to practice more. That chat led to co-writing “Life Is a Stretch” followed by the updated version called “Yoga: Anytime, Anywhere.” In the introduction to the book, I said, “I promise you won’t have to learn to put your leg behind your head.” I meant it.
M: Why do this new book and Web site about San Francisco in 1967, 1968 and 1969?
C: It all started with a visit from a history professor from the Netherlands and my searching for my mentor Professor Gary Hawkins. I was assigned to give a visiting professor a tour of The City by an international friendship organization that I belonged to. This European professor was teaching a course about San Francisco in the late 1960s. I was amazed that such a course existed, and in the Netherlands no less. Then I saw the look in this guy’s eyes when he stood at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. He looked like he had found Nirvana when I was still seeing familiar streets that could use a little cleaning.
I was thinking about my experiences in the The City in the late 1960’s and that’s when I decided to look for Gary. I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his mentoring me at San Francisco State. To my great sadness, I learned about his death. I needed to learn more, so I ended up finding his family and taking a trip to Key West Florida, to ask questions about the circumstances surrounding his death. It’s still a mystery to me.
While I was researching Gary’s life, I started asking friends about what they remember of that time. I know that San Franciscans of the late 1960s are responsible for many ideas that were considered radical then and are now accepted as the norm. I started back in my reporter-mode, looking for a variety of people and collecting their personal stories.
Some stories are funny and some are poignant. At least I know that well-meaning PhD students will not have to tell us what we were doing and thinking. We can tell our own stories.
M: So, after this “reality check” on San Francisco in the late 1960s, is there one important thing that you want your readers to know?
C: Two things. First, the Hippies were right about baking your own bread. It is healthier for you. And second, I hope reading these stories will make folks think about the assumptions and judgments we all make are just that – assumptions and judgments. The hopeful message of the 1960s was about love and compassion. We could use more of both in today’s world.