Sunday
March 26, 2017

Flavour of the week

Monday, March 20, 2017

Of love and loitering

By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald
This year marks the golden anniversary of the Summer of Love, the bursting forth of a flower-bedecked counterculture in the United States, especially in San Francisco, with a few overseas offshoots. It may be thought that it had little lasting impact — that all that remains of that brief interlude are the memories, the music, some psychedelic posters and some faded colour photos and home movies. By October of that same year, 1967, “funeral parties” were being held for it, although it fitfully lived on at least through a prodigious blast at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
Then, as we know, most of the kids, having failed to stop the Vietnam War, turned more materialistic than before, and once-carefree hippies mutated into money-grubbing yuppies.
However, I submit that the short-lived countercultural bloom did change US society in a deep-down way — and that the case for this can be built around the issue of loitering. I base this on first-hand observations at the time, for I had the fortune to be making a first visit to the United States just as the flower children were beginning to sprout that year precisely half a century ago.
It was the winter that preceded the capital-letter Summer. As I bussed around the country, many of the things I saw were “familiar” enough. To me, the snowy New England landcapes seemed lifted from the covers of the Reader’s Digest, rather than the other way around. Looking in on a Senate session in Washington, only a handful of senators were present, but it wasn’t hard to recognize two, Mike Mansfield and Chuck Percy, from their photos in Time.
The things that, on the other hand, were new to me, were even more interesting. In San Francisco my main original pursuit, other than the glorious cityscape, had been the traces of the earlier Beat Generation. But I was told, “Go to the Haight-Ashbury district. There are some strange, colourful people popping up there.” They turned out to be long-haired individuals wearing clothes with fringes, making music and selling handmade sandals. The harbingers of the hippies who would emerge in full when the weather warmed up.
There were some aspects of US life that I hadn’t read about — though they could be seen in some US films — because they were simply too ingrained to require mention in US publications then. One was women working at jobs that were men-only in Argentina, where some still are: restaurant waiters, taxi-drivers, bus-drivers. Obviously I’m not talking about high-level jobs, where the US glass ceiling remains lower than in some other countries. There were signs of persistent segregation, like the “Hotel for Colored” I photographed in Houston.
A pleasant discovery was that girls were much more approachable. In Argentina, if one tried to strike up a conversation in the street, they tended to feel honour-bound to act as offended as if one had propositioned them outright. In the US, they talked. That didn’t mean that things would necessarily advance from there, even to a first date; but they reacted to a remark on the weather or the sights like normal human beings, not sneering duchesses.
Sad to say, the number of young men who were away in Vietnam was large enough to be distinctly noticeable. Maybe for that reason, some mothers I came across were utterly shameless in promoting their daughters. “You’ll see when you meet her. She’s such a lot of fun.” “She can cook wonderfully.” “She hardly spends.”
Now, one thing that also struck me was the quantity of “No loitering” signs posted all over. I came away with the conclusion that in the US, unlike Argentina, you could, within flexible  reason, do anything you wanted — except do nothing. It wasn’t only that someone who was “loitering” was suspected of casing nearby joints, or looking for someone to mug. It was worse. To do nothing was to undermine the US way of life, which entailed energetically doing something all the time. If you had nothing else to do, you could find yourself a broom and start sweeping. Just don’t stand or sit around doing nothing.
Well, that shifted that year. The counterculture was ephemeral, was ridiculed and was often drugged silly. But somehow the hippie idea of making love, not war, of giving up a harried life and setting up laid-back communes, of seeking other values than the dollar, of taking it easy, dropped a seed that survived.
Quitting the rat race was no longer morally outrageous. Standing and staring idly might be eccentric, but not necessarily felonious any more. “No loitering” signs started coming down  — proof that in one sense, flower power won. w

meyercolumns@hotmail.com
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