Mercy of the World: May 1967
May 1967, chapter from the memoir in progress, Mercy of the World
I walk with my suitcase from the Greyhound bus station to the YMCA Hotel on Turk Street. San Francisco is exhilarating. Cool air, fog. Sunshine. Adventure, freedom. Nothing more to lose. So far life on my own has been disastrous. But here, something
good can happen.
I pay for a week at the Y. In the hall I hear sweet flute music. I find my room, unpack clothes, toothbrush, books, Maxwell House instant coffee. It feels good to have a place. It feels great to be in San Francisco. I go out and walk around. Kent is on my mind, even though I know a woman named Sharon is on his.
The next day I walk up Market Street to Western Girl, apply for temporary work. I get a receptionist job at Planned Parenthood of Chinatown, no end date, start work the next day. The job pays enough for me to live on, I like it, I like my co-workers,
especially Effie, the nurse who runs the office. Effie helps a lot of women. Lunch hours I buy a bowl of rice, walk through the crowded streets, seeing plucked chickens hanging in the windows, smelling incense, filling up with the beautiful sounds of Chinese all around me.
Back at the Y I hear the flute again, follow it down the hall, knock on the door. The music stops. The door opens. There stands a tall slender black man. Young like me. Holding the flute. I’m enjoying your music, I say. Would you like to come in? His room is tiny, like mine: twin bed, chair, dresser, mirror, window, four walls. I sit on the bed. He sits on the chair, plays “Mercy” for me, all the way through. Then he plays it again. Have mercy on me. Then he plays The Work Song.
His name is Glenn. He had moved to The Coast a few years earlier from Baltimore. He decorates windows at Sears. He’s engaged, and he collects under his bed dinnerware, flatware, pots and pans, bed linens, towels and washcloths for his marriage.
We become lovers. He pawns some of his marriage treasures to give me the money to get an apartment. His engagement is off. I move into 817 Eddy Street, cheapest place in the newspaper, $50 a month.
On moving day I meet Toni in front of 817 Eddy. She has just moved in. She invites me up to her apartment for tea. We talk. She’s just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, found a job in San Francisco with an insurance company. Her father is a judge in Connecticut. In her refrigerator is carrot curry, and in the freezer a bottle of Vodka. She says she’s slept with 11 men. Toni is shorter than me, voluptuously round, with long blonde hair she often wears in a French twist. When she lets her hair down, it’s because she’s invited a man in, is smoking marijuana, sometimes when she plays her guitar, sometimes when she reads the Tarot cards for me.
I am in awe of Toni. I’ve recently decided to be a liberal. I was raised ultraconservative but see for myself that liberals are better looking and have more fun. Making friends with Toni means I’m liberal material.
817 Eddy is in the Tenderloin, in a residential area, with a corner market down the street, Foster’s 24-hour diner, at Van Ness and Eddy. The flophouses and topless clubs are closer to Market Street. 817 Eddy is a Victorian divided up into apartments. A large gypsy family lives on the first floor. The men sell used cars. Toni babysits for the gypsies until they begin calling her at all hours to come downstairs immediately to babysit.
My apartment is at the back of the top floor. Toni’s is in the front. Between us lives Abdul, an older man who repairs TVs. We all share the bathroom in the middle of the hall. My apartment has two rooms, the large room with bay windows facing the backyard and a kitchen at the other end, and a bedroom.
My Aunt Mary in Oakland and her boyfriend John truck over a bed, an easy chair, a TV, bottles of California red from John’s personal collection.
Soon after moving in I go down the hall to take a bath and find the bathtub coated with shit. I go and get Toni. She says the hippies who were evicted for not paying rent probably did it. Toni and I clean the tub together. I think I’ve caused it somehow.
How do the Beatles know I came in through the bathroom window? The song comes out around the time I get stuck on the roof of 817 Eddy and climb barefooted around the steep roof and come in through the bathroom window. And I do have my Granny’s silver, dated 1917 on the back and engraved with my initials but in a different order. And I do suck my thumb and wonder. No lagoon.
I don’t tell anyone the Beatles are singing about me. Nor that I am somehow responsible for the assassination of JFK, the riots, maybe even Vietnam. I learned long ago to keep quiet. It doesn’t work for me anymore, but I don’t talk about myself with anyone. I don’t know how. I don’t know I could feel better by talking things out, or even that it’s a good thing to feel better. I’d learned early on that there is no one to tell how I feel, so I forget how I feel and rely on playing a role. But what is my role now?
I’m a secret, even to myself, but feel transparent, intimately known by the world. I am special. I am on a mission, with no idea what the mission is, except that I have a contract with Power: I’ll have a good time, then die. I’m terrified by horrible events, because they’re my fault, and the time will come when I will have to pay with my life.
Meanwhile I try to have a good time. I am between selves. So much has happened to me that I don’t understand. No longer Lovely Young Daughter, not yet whoever comes next. For sense of self I substitute other people. I throw myself on the mercy of the world.
Toni and I explore the city. In the Haight we eat piroshki at the Russian café. We have a delicious free meal courtesy of the Diggers at their storefront. A rich dark bread, brown rice, cantaloupe, leafy greens. The Haight is wild, a constant party. Thrilling and scary. I’m a lost girl at that party.
Abdul lends Toni and me his VW bug and we drive to Half Moon Bay to see Mark and then to San Gregorio, a nude beach where it’s cold but we do see one naked couple walking hand in hand on the beach.
I introduce Toni and Glenn. The three of us hang out, and we hang out with Glenn’s friends from Sears. We go to concerts at the Fillmore, Steve Miller and Paul Butterfield. We sit in Union Square and sing “The Letter” and “Grapevine,” feed the pigeons.
Glenn is still living at the YMCA Hotel, I sometimes spend the night with him there. One morning as I leave to get the cablecar to Chinatown, the desk clerk stopped me.
Just a minute, he yells across the lobby. You are not a guest here.
I was visiting a friend, I say.
Get out and don’t come back. I think he thought I was a hooker. That was the end of my nights with Glenn at the YMCA Hotel.
Toni and I go with Tim and Joe, friends from the Haight, to a house in the Haight where some of their friends live. We sit around the dim living room on broken down couches and easy chairs covered in colorful fabrics. They smoke marijuana. Tim passes Toni a joint. Toni takes a drag and passes it to me. I pass it on to Joe without toking. I had tried marijuana before and didn’t like the heightened paranoia.
The woman, Harmony, a petite blonde: Haight-Ashbury is changing. All kinds of people are coming into the Haight now. You don’t know who’s a real hippy and who isn’t. Straight people are infiltrating, posing as hippies. We have to be careful. What are they doing here? Bad scene, man.
“Yeah, man,” Tim says.
“Yeah, man,” her friends say.
This makes me nervous. She probably means that all real hippies smoke dope. She probably means me.
Tim is in love with Harmony, who is in love with Jack, who has joined the Merchant Marines to avoid Vietnam and is shipping out that night. Right there in the living room Harmony slips out of her jeans and black velvet blouse and into a rose princess gown. Harmony and Jack are going out. Jack holds Harmony. Harmony cries. We understand they are making the most of their last hours together before Jack will be gone for a long time.
Jeannie Lupton moved to the San Francisco East Bay from Northern Virginia in 2002 and has been active in the poetry community there, and in the tanka community more generally worldwide, ever since. Her work has appeared in various journals and booklets over the years, culminating in her collection, But Then You Danced: Tanka (Raw Art Press, 2007), followed by the publication of a second collection, Love Is a Tanka (Blue Light Press, 2021). Jeannie hosted the Second Saturday Poetry and Prose Reading Series at Frank Bette Center for the Arts in Alameda, California, for over 13 years. She has also given several short solo performances at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, as well as leading a memoir writing group for seniors on Zoom. She is a member of the Fresh Ink Poetry Collective and Bay Area Poets Coalition, and writes with Clive Matson's 2-Busy-2-Write group every Tuesday night. She lives at Strawberry Creek Lodge in Berkeley with 150 other elders and her cat, BB.