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Posted: May 16, 2018

San Francisco still glitters, but tarnish shows, too

“Perceptions” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

Fifty years ago I was a naïve young lad on the streets of San Francisco.

Pot smoking hippies were lying on the streets blocking traffic. Angry students were rioting on the Berkley campus protesting the war in Vietnam and Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychology professor dropout was handing out “electric kool aid” laced with LSD in Golden Gate park.

The times couldn’t have been more exciting or prescient!

Quite honestly the San Francisco zeitgeist was far too much for this callow youth from the Kootenays and I fled “Baghdad by the Bay,” as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen famously called it, to visit an aunt in Los Angeles, which seemed a much safer and saner place back then.

But a seed had been planted in my brain and I remember thinking to myself, I’ll come back to this crazy place some day. It’s a happening city. And, so I did last week and I’d like to tell you about it, or at least some of it, which as Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner once called a “long, strange trip.”

Sitting in a jet, dropping through a smogless, blue sky it’s a damn beautiful city all right. The orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge towering over San Francisco Bay, the green Berkley hills sloping down to the sea and the sleek tower of the Transamerica Pyramid piercing the sky and toy-like cable cars clanging far below. It’s an unforgettable sight.

But reality hit me between the eyes when I emerged from the BART subway train near Moscone Centre. Below the glittering business towers, it was a grubby, scary, scene. Homeless people lying on the sidewalks. Streets littered with liquor bottles and broken glass. Makeshift habitations of discarded cardboard boxes and ragged blue tarps met my startled gaze. “I flew all the way to San Francisco to see this!” Maybe Thomas Wolfe (RIP) was right. “You can’t go back.” But I did and now I had to make the best of it for a “holiday.”

Later that evening in the Chutney House Restaurant just down the street from my modest (extremely modest) hotel near Union Square, I couldn’t help but notice a decrepit street person lying literally in the gutter beside the curb below my widow table. Every once-in-a-while, he’d sit up on his haunches extending a twisted arm to passersby begging for spare change then collapse in the gutter again in a stupor.

Later on, he staggered to his feet and directly accosted pedestrians for money but was completely ignored. I tried to ignore him too, but I finally snapped and grabbed an American greenback out of my wallet and went outside and thrust it into his filthy hand. His reaction startled me. “I can’t buy a sandwich with a dollar you son of a bitch, I need more!” Needless to say, I felt conflicted. He was right. But nobody else offered him any money. I slunk back into the café and tried to enjoy my meal. But I didn’t.

The next morning, I began to explore the Union Square area, which is lined with palm trees and features a heroic metal statue of Admiral Dewey, who defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay. Yes, the statue was a tribute to American imperialism, but it was inspiring in its own way and it reminded me of the wonderful statue of Eros in Piccadilly Square in London. And then I walked across the street into the magnificent gilded lobby of the St. Francis Hotel. O.M.G. That’s all I can say. Marble steps, dark oaken walls and crystal chandeliers hanging from the sculptured ceiling. Great Corinthian columns made of green marble line the lobby and I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t impressed. It was almost enough to make me forget about that poor, homeless beggar lying in the gutter the night before. Almost.

A few days later I caught a ferry ride passing by ‘The Rock’ (Alcatraz) in San Francisco Bay on my way to the University of California campus in Berkley. I wanted to go there again because I was there in 1967 when the university exploded in riots against the Vietnam War and a firebrand student by the name of Mario Savio ignited the ‘Free Speech Movement’ which led to more than a decade of Vietnam War protests and protest in general against the so-called ‘Military Industrial Complex’ and repressive governments and institutions everywhere.

The irony was heavy as I walked around the leafy campus with its expansive lawns and wonderful neo-classic buildings. The Vietnam War is nothing but a bad memory now and today many Americans vacation there in the country that killed almost 60,000 of their troops while losing a million of their own. But thousands of American troops are still fighting around the world and “Yankee go Home” remains a potent cry in many Third World countries.

But that’s not what they’re protesting in the plaza in front of Sproul Hall these days. No, today’s issue is suicide. In particular, suicide by Berkley students and I was assured by one of the activists in Sproul Plaza that at least 10 per cent of Berkley’s 42,000 students contemplate suicide every year.

That’s an awfully frightening, if unproven statistic, but one I can’t deal with in a short column like this. What about the homeless suicide rate? Doesn’t it deserve some attention? At the same time, isn’t it ironic that one of the most heavily financed research projects in Silicon Valley next door to Berkley is the quest to come up with a bio-medical formula to extend human life indefinitely? It’s all the rage now for elderly Silicon Valley CEOs to have their bodies (sometimes just their heads) cryogenically frozen after death so they can be thawed out and revived when the death algorithm is finally figured out.

Yes, it’s all algorithms and technology in Silicon Valley, but some Berkley philosophers say an endless life may be the worst punishment of all.

Nevertheless, if you want to visit a beautiful city and get an insight into living forever while dodging half-dead bodies lying on the street, go to San Francisco. You may enjoy it forever. Then again, you may not.

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist, who loves San Francisco, but is not interested in living forever.

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