When I was very young – about two or three – I had a recurring dream about a hillside that looked exactly like the hillside in the opening credits of the TV series Little House on the Prairie. You remember how the sequence ran, right? – first Laura and Mary run down the hill, and then Carrie runs down the hill, but because she’s young and is wearing something that looks like a burlap sack, she falls down and gets back up. Well, in my dream, then-San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein is running down that hill, except that when she falls, she has several compound fractures and all kinds of other horrific injuries. I still think of this image every time I see Feinstein – now a senator – on TV. Oh, good, I say for a split second. She’s recovered really well from that terrible fall.
As far as I know, David Talbot knows nothing about this dream. However, his book Season of the Witch seems almost designed to explain the combination of people and events that could prompt a three year-old to have such a dream. I didn’t even know how desperately I was searching for this book until I read it.
I have always felt out of sync with my native city, and I’ve always felt uncomfortable and awkward talking about San Francisco with non-natives. I love the fog, for one thing, and have no interest in commiserating with anyone about it. I would never go to the Mission district just to avoid the fog, and I would never voluntarily go to the Tenderloin or Visitacion Valley for any reason, no matter how much these areas have been gentrified, and if the words “Historic Dogpatch” ever escape my lips, you can be sure they will be dripping with sarcasm.
About a year ago, when I was helping a friend develop the plot of a screenplay she was writing, I questioned the actions of a character who was supposed to be a San Francisco native. Natives just aren’t like that, I complained, struggling to find the exact words for what was bothering me. It wasn’t until I read Season of the Witch that I was able to put my doubts into words. The central thesis of this book is that San Francisco has repeatedly been the locus of cultural changes that have resulted in miniature “cities” that have not replaced the culture of the previous city but that have sprung up precariously in the midst of the old. The 1906 earthquake precipitated the first such change, when the opium dens and burlesque halls of the Barbary Coast region of the city were destroyed either by the earthquake or by the fire. The libertine quality that defined this city during the Gold Rush era and the final decades of the nineteenth century didn’t go away entirely, as many of the opium dens and brothels and burlesque halls were rebuilt, but in a nature-abhors-a-vacuum kind of way, the empty space created by the earthquake and fire made room for another miniature city: one of Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants.
This “city” is the one I know best – the one I grew up in, really, although Talbot would say that this city had already been supplanted by the time I was born. This San Francisco is liberal on many political issues – the rights of labor unions in particular – but conservative on many social issues. Between 1930 and 1960, according to Talbot, a Catholic old-boy’s network developed in city hall, the police department, and many of the city’s most influential businesses. This bloc clamped down on gays and lesbians and banded together to block mixed-race couples from renting or buying property in the city. This power nucleus is the reason that the neighborhood I was born in – a large one by San Francisco standards but average-sized by the standards of many cities – contains four Catholic parishes, complete with K-8 Catholic schools, plus at least one alternative Catholic church and the large Catholic high school where Jill and I learned about radical isolationism and diseased romanticism from Fr. Murphy in 1993-4. Nobody ever talks about this San Francisco – and this San Francisco is the only San Francisco I fully understand.
The bulk of Talbot’s book traces the gradual movement of Catholic San Francisco from the center to the margins of the city’s culture during a twenty-year period beginning in 1967. Most of the events in the book were familiar to me and are likely familiar to many other readers, even non-natives, since for much of these two decades, the entire country was watching San Francisco – sometimes with disgust, sometimes with envy, sometimes with fear, and sometimes with pure bewilderment. However, Talbot makes connections between events that helped me to see these years in a new way. I wasn’t aware, for example, that the city government under Joe Alioto (to whom I, as a ten year-old working at a school carnival, once refused to give a goldfish because he had cut to the front of the line in order to win it, by the way) deliberately allowed the Fillmore district (once a thriving bastion of African American culture) to go to seed so the city could reclaim it, raze it, and sell the land to developers at an unfathomable profit and later tried to do the same thing to the Haight, going so far as to forbid the police and fire departments to respond to calls coming from this neighborhood. I wasn’t aware of just how fleeting the heyday of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood really was (Talbot marks 1969 as the year its decline was recognized to be underway). I remember the Hell’s Angels, but I wasn’t aware what a local bunch they were (I think I thought they were a nationwide phenomenon), and I wasn’t aware that the massacre at Jonestown and Dan White’s killing of George Moscone and Harvey Milk happened within hours of each other, and that Milk was reading the Chronicle’s report on the Jonestown killings at the moment he was shot.
This book contains the most honest writing about San Francisco that I have ever read. Talbot refuses to oversimplify this city and its history – which in general is probably one of the most chronically oversimplified cities in the world. This book leaves room for the rabid conservatism of a significant minority of students at my high school, as well as for the fact that not one student that I knew of in my high school – with a student body of 1300 – was openly gay. It asks us to remember that San Francisco is not only the city that gave a home to Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsburg, and the other Beat poets but also the city that put Ginsburg on trial for obscenity. It acknowledges the fact that a place that is open to social experimentation will also sometimes be a place of violence, confusion, and grief: “If you’re going to have a Ken Kesey, you’re going to have a Charles Manson – the one basically gave permission to the other” (140).
After an introductory chapter, this book begins with the Human Be-in and the Jefferson Airplane in 1967, and its last chapter covers the first decade of the AIDS epidemic. What Talbot does best is point out the connections between these events – connections that in many cases I had never thought of or heard stated before. The San Francisco Talbot describes in this book is conflicted but compassionate, libertarian rather than liberal, and – while not in awe of itself the way recent transplants tend to be – recognizes itself as something special. Maybe on some level – without even recognizing it is doing so – the city hides its true nature from people who come here looking not to be absorbed into this city but only to skate across its surfaces. I don’t know how recent transplants – the kind who view this city as the backyard of Facebook and Google and hop on their shuttle buses to work in Silicon Valley each morning – would feel about this book, but I think most natives I know will love it.