This morning the New York Times told me that the San Francisco Summer of Love was 40 (forty!!!) years ago. No, I wasn’t there. I was still in college, and that summer I was working a the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh, Pa, taking pictures in various buildings and helping with community organizing.
It was the days of VISTA and there were volunteers all over town, working with residents to learn how to budget, how to prepare nutritious food, child development and work skills. It was moving, exciting work – a job I’d gotten for myself after the director initially told me that “no nice girl from Smith belongs in the projects.” He was from the original public housing establishment and a great teacher, once I convinced him I wasn’t some Muffie prepazoid.
But the Summer of Love… my boyfriend was out there – his family lived in Berkeley – and it all looked so romantic. I was far too committed to what I was doing – and too much of a coward to ever tell my parents I was going. I also knew that hanging around stoned was not the way to help people who couldn’t help themselves – and that was what I most wanted to do. Even so, it was tough thinking that all the action was “out there” and I was on the shores of the Monongahela River in Head Starts and food banks.
Between my house and “downtown” there was a bridge that went through the famous Homestead neighborhood where the Pinkertons beat up the steel strikers so brutally. Crossing between a smoking mill with a red aura generated by molten steel and the Mesta Machinery plant, it rattled and clanked with age and instability. Ever since we were little we had called it the “rickety bridge.” I loved it.
One day that summer, somehow emblematic to me of the whole three months, I was driving along and, just as I began to cross the bridge, Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Goin’ to San Francisco” came on the radio. At first I smiled, then – suddenly – without warning, I began to cry. I ended up sobbing, almost unable to drive. I still don’t know why. The song was moving, of course, and very seductive, but now as I recall that day I think I was also crying for the side of me I couldn’t allow to rule. I loved the ideals of the counterculture, adored the music and light shows and communes and home-made bread — but either my fear of the risk or my commitment to politics or both kept me home.
It was probably better. I later left college to work in the anti-war campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy – a risk more suited to my nature and dreams. Even so – remembering that day, which I do, with particular intensity – I’m still sad – for what I may have missed, for what the movement disintegrated into, for those shiny dreams that even then seemed a bit naive. You know that old Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that ends: It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for. True then – and sometimes, just as true now.