Note to reader
The following is an excerpt from my historical fiction novel, Love Haight ‘69. It is a coming-of-age story, set in 1969, about a runaway teen from Canada, living in Haight-Ashbury and struggling to immerse herself in the counterculture scene. A square with hip aspirations, she finds love, community, and a sense of purpose across the Bay when she joins a diverse group of volunteers who transform an abandoned lot on the UC Berkeley campus into a “People’s Park.”
Verity is 18, shortish, blondish, and bright yet naive. Her activist boyfriend, Richard, is a handsome 26-year old Political Science major. In the following scene, they and Richard’s roommate, Gerber, an affable African American hulk, are returning from a camping trip.
Thurs., May 15, 1969; noon
Under a hazy mid-May sky, the white Chevy cruised northward up Telegraph Avenue. Having dropped Gerber’s girlfriend off already, the carload of grungy campers was tired and eagerly anticipating assimilation back into a world of creature comforts.
“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…” One tanned leg pressed against the dashboard, Verity counted mosquito bites, then dabbed them with toothpaste. Unlike her friends, she was covered in itchy red bumps. “How is that fair?” she demanded of the universe, waving her near-empty Pepsodent tube.
Richard glanced over from the driver’s seat and shrugged. “Guess we’re yesterday’s leftovers when, clearly, you’re dessert.”
“Yeah, be flattered you’re so special,” said Gerber, who lay sprawled against a pile of bed rolls in the back seat, chewing on a strip of beef jerky.
“I’ll feel a lot more special after a nice hot bath.” Verity put her leg down and gave her neck an unsatisfying scratch. Her body felt grimy and drained and in need of more substantial fuel than peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix.
As they drove past Haste Street, an almost smothering scent of lilac blossoms filled the car. Turning to Richard, she ran her fingers over his three-day stubble. “You know, we haven’t been down to the park since last weekend. I almost feel guilty.”
Holding a hand up, he crooked four fingers. “Bath—razor—food—park, in that order.”
“And a nap,” she yawned.
Much as she enjoyed her nights with Richard, her slumber was frequently interrupted when he cried out or thrashed about in his sleep, in the throes of what was later sloughed off as bad dreams. He’d eaten too late, or read one too many gruesome news stories about the war.
She slumped down in her seat and gazed out the window. Midday traffic on Telegraph was blissfully light. When they reached the southern edge of the campus, however, the sound of angry voices chanting rested their attention. Over by the entrance to Sproul Plaza, a mob of young protestors looked to be spilling out onto Bancroft Way.
“Christ! What’s going on?” Richard followed the one way traffic lane left, then swerved the car to the curb at the first opportunity. Everyone piled out and scrambled up the sidewalk in the direction of the Student Union building. By the time they reached the Parthenon-like structure positioned at the entrance to the plaza, most of the crowd was funneling itself down Telegraph Avenue.
“Guys! Over here!” shouted a familiar voice over the din.
Like the last few grains of sand stuck to the sides of an hourglass, Bo and some friends from the park tailed the hind section of the crowd. They waved Verity and the others over.
Gerber’s feet stopped moving before his belly did. “What the hu-hell’s going on?” he panted, crushing Bo’s shoulder under his beefy forearm.
“It’s the park, man! They fenced it up early this morning, not two blinks before a bunch of uni lackeys turned up, posting No Trespassing signs.” Bo’s sneakers shifted like they were tap shoes. Generally the laid back one in the group, it jarred Verity to hear him sound so agitated. “It’s total bullshit,” he yelled, his voice getting higher. “We gotta do something!”
“I was watching from upstairs,” said Sal, a swarthy young Sociology student Verity recalled planting tulip bulbs with at the park. His dark curls trembled as he spoke. “First, it was just a few dozen people, trying to figure out what to do. Then, hundreds more showed up, and someone said something about taking back the park. That’s when the cops moved in.”
Pam, a young Asian woman clutching a textbook to her chest like a bulletproof vest, pointed at the plaza steps. “Yeah, the pigs freaked out, all right. They turned off the guy’s microphone, so now everyone’s pissed!”
“Come on—let’s catch up!” Bo led the pack as they jogged past a cluster of onlookers, crossing the street where traffic had been forced to a halt.
Flip-flops slapping the pavement, Verity clutched Richard’s hand, trying to keep pace, while her heart pounded its own frenzied rhythm. A block down, the crowd became log jammed. Outraged voices reverberated up the avenue as police sirens sounded in the distance.
“Shit—roadblock!” shouted Gerber, spying an elbow-to-elbow row of blue uniforms.
Richard poked his shoulder. “Let’s duck over a block. We can cut down to the park from there.”
Making their way up a side street, the coast seemed clear enough, until they neared the corner of the park, where they were quickly absorbed by a wave of protesters splintering off from another direction.
“Take back the park! Take back the park!” raged an irate but unified chorus.
The current of wedged bodies sucked them slowly westward. As they neared the intersection at Telegraph, Verity began to make out the edges of a sawhorse and barbed wire barricade, erected obviously in hopes of driving people back up the avenue, away from the park. She had no choice but to go with the flow, but every nerve in her body screamed to flee as far away as possible.
Pressure from the rear intensified. Craning her neck sideways, she saw Pam drop her book, only to be shoved forward as she tried to retrieve it. Bo, too, was struggling. Pitched about like a destabilized tether ball, his feather-light frame suddenly bounced and disappeared into a riptide of bodies pouring in from yet another direction. Even Gerber seemed to be straining to keep his ground.
Verity clung to Richard’s arm as the backs of her flip-flops became pinned to the ground. He was breathing hard, trying to keep them both afloat.
“Take back the park! Take back the park!”
The demand grew to a fever pitch. Amorphous, like a flock of starlings, the mob convulsed suddenly, converging on the park from all sides. Many lost their footing as faces and bodies were squeezed against the sea of chain link metal. Clearly overwhelmed, police inside the lot waved their weaponry, guns, batons, trying in vain to compel the horde backward.
It was only going to get uglier. Verity could feel in her bones. She tried to tell Richard they should leave, but her words, like her airways, were compressed by the push of compacted bodies.
Tear gas canisters were lobbed, sending panicked bodies fleeing en masse. A cloud of noxious gas descended upon them; burning eyes, stinging throats. Up became indistinguishable from down.
A lone voice pierced the din. “Fuuuuck! It’s the Blue Meanies!”
Squinting through the smoke, Verity felt a chill like the finger of death tickling her spine when she spotted a row of bright blue jumpsuits. The Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, a.k.a. “Blue Meanies,” had earned their Yellow Submarine-inspired nickname, having devised a particularly brutal brand of crowd control. The ground beneath her began to rumble as hundreds of feet began pounding the pavement, attempting to flee in every direction.
Keeping a vice grip on Verity’s arm, Richard did what he could to plow an escape route back up Haste Street, until the crackle of gunfire made him jump, hugging her low to the ground.
Like an upturned ant nest, the mob scattered. Richard’s body was ripped away from Verity’s as those ahead turned to stampede backward. Terrified of being dragged into the undertow, she fought to regain her balance. Bodies collided. Feet stumbled over the fallen, crushing toes and fingers.
For a second, Verity caught sight of Richard’s burgundy T-shirt. His arm reached for hers. At the same moment, she felt herself lifted, thrust forward as arms and shoulders shoved her from behind. An opening appeared, so she ran, stopping only when she found a strip of unclaimed space at the side of a building. “Richard!” she screamed into the fray, but all her ears detected was the terrifying discord of bodies in flux. Then, she spotted Gerber’s lopsided afro above the crowd and the air returned to her lungs. “Gerber—!”
“Run! They’re shooting people!” He bellowed it with so much force, her legs reflexively jerked into motion. It was only when her feet made contact with a patch of gravel that she realized she’d lost one of her flip-flops. She kicked off the remaining one and ran on tiptoe until Gerber caught up, grabbed her by the arm, and dragged her like a rag doll down the street.
“C’mon!” he barked. “We can’t stay here.” Rounding the corner onto Telegraph, he tried the first door they passed, but it was locked, blinds pulled. The same with the restaurant next door, and the clothing shop next to that.
Behind them, police at the intersection had abandoned their barricade to deal with the flood of people streaming in from Haste Street. A steady rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire sounded while clouds of tear gas mushroomed, blanketing cars and low-lying buildings.
“Wh—where do we go?” wheezed Verity, trying not to breathe the fouled air.
Gerber pointed up the street to a breached portion of the barricade. “The campus. If I know Rich, he’ll head there, too.” Pulling his T-shirt up over his nose and mouth, he motioned for Verity to do the same.
Fighting the instinct to curl up and hide somewhere, she tailed him up the sidewalk, navigating an obstacle course of upturned trash cans, shopping carts, and a ground littered with garbage, broken glass, and buckshot pellets. As they ran, she prayed to whatever god might be listening to keep Richard safe and unhurt.
Windows were being smashed and a geyser of water shot across the street from an open fire hydrant. Halfway up the block, a tear gas canister rolled to a stop in front of a young man armed with a brick. Instead of fleeing, he picked up the metal cylinder and lobbed it back at the cop who’d flung it at him.
At the next intersection, Verity spotted a row of police decked in riot gear. Legs spread, visors down, rifles drawn. “Fucking pigs!” yelled Gerber, yanking Verity backward. Spinning on their heels, they were knocked apart by a gang of wild-eyed youths, ducking a hailstorm of buckshot.
A canister of tear gas rattled to the ground in front of Verity.
“Run!” ordered Gerber’s voice from somewhere.
Bodies scattered every which way as the plume of sickly white aerosol began to disperse. Eyes stinging and screaming Gerber’s name, Verity followed a group of people darting up a sidestreet. Her feet, by now, were embedded with so many pebbles and bits of glass, it was all she could do to keep them moving.
On the next street over, an empty police car resting on its roof blocked the sidewalk. A heady mix of lilac and some sort of chemical agent hung in the air, making her nauseous.
Trying to get her bearings, she watched as a frizzy-haired teen sprint past her, only to be shot in the back. Coughing through her T-shirt, she helped him to his feet. The backs of the young man’s arms were peppered with angry red puncture wounds. “I—I—I—” he stuttered, tears streaming down his face. Following his gaze, Verity’s eyes locked on a pair of rifle barrels directed their way. With a panicked yelp, she turned and peeled off after the young man, who hobbled away as fast as he could.
Someone with far longer legs sped by like a battering ram, shoving her violently against a brick wall. Disoriented for a moment, she lingered there, glued to its warm, gritty surface, grateful for the support.
How could this be happening? begged her incredulous brain, when what seemed two seconds ago, her biggest complaint had been a few pesky bug bites. Then the sound of gunfire jolted her back. Her eyes searched the residential street, looking for somewhere to hide, but her brain cautioned, no. She needed to keep moving to escape the tear gas.
Outside a large apartment block, a club wielding silhouette became visible through the smoke. It took her a moment to realize he was pummeling the daylights out of some poor body slumped across the hood of a police car. It wasn’t Richard, thankfully—the body was much too slight, but it easily could have been. The thought gave her just enough courage to stop and yell at the cop. To her surprise, he did in fact stop, but when he directed his visored-covered brow her way, she immediately regretted opening her mouth. Choking out a scream, she turned and raced off up the road.
The cop was fat, but the guy could move. He dogged her up the sidewalk and across the street, giving up only when Verity disappeared round a corner into yet another plume of thick grey smoke. Despite covering her mouth, an ash-like taste mixed with the metallic tinge of blood made her want to stop and vomit, but all she could do was keep moving and pray her inner compass would guide her towards the campus.
Coughing, limping, straining to see, she nearly banged into a metal street sign. Puffy eyelids shifting upward, she made out the words Bancroft Avenue. In her half-blind panic, she’d failed to notice the university grounds right across the street. Her breathing steadied a fraction at the thought of finding refuge in one of the buildings there.
Before making her move, however, there came another eruption of gunfire behind her, followed by a stampede of terrified fugitives peeling round the corner. Too slow to react, she collided with a straggly-haired teen who sent her flying across the pavement. There was a sickening whack as her forehead hit the sidewalk. Bodies stumbled, feet trod over her. Someone stopped, tapped her arm, then gave up and fled.
A dull humming noise droned in her ear, then nothing. Her body lay limp for an eternity, or perhaps, no time at all …
When she came to, the humming noise was still there, until it slowly morphed into words. “Are you okay?” a voice kept asking. “Can you get up?” A pair of gentle hands rolled her onto one side and a wrinkled face leaned in. “Young lady, can you move? You must get up now. If you don’t, you’ll be trampled.”
The old woman slipped her arms under Verity’s shoulders and helped her to her feet. Behind them, the door to a small shop stood ajar. Steering her inside, the woman perched Verity against the windowsill, then quickly locked the door and pulled down the blinds. “Sit here,” she said, locating a chair, dragging it near. “You rest. I’ll see what I can find to clean you up.”
Verity’s ears were ringing, but she did as she was told. Something warm and wet was trickling down her face. Looking down, she began to shake. Was that her blood splattered across her clothes and limbs?
Her eyes were so sore she could barely keep them open.
Screaming, banging and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire continued outside the door. From inside, a fierce yapping sounded, followed by the scampering of tiny feet on linoleum as a small dog raced towards Verity and began circling her chair.
“Don’t worry. Thomas won’t hurt you,” called the old woman from the back of the store, which appeared to be a small greeting card shop. “He’s just scared and wondering why the world has gone to hell in a handbasket.”
Extending a limp hand, Verity noticed her palm was skinned and bleeding. The Yorkie licked it anyways, then began nuzzling her bare ankles.
The old woman returned, carrying a small blue bottle and a neat stack of folded linen.
“Here we are, dear. I brought a damp cloth for your eyes. Try not to rub them, though, it only makes the burning worse. Now, let’s see what we can do to sterilize those cuts.” The sting of disinfectant made Verity flinch. Tending to her forehead, chin, and split lip first, the old woman blotted them clean, then applied a pair of Band-Aids above her eyes.
“I’m sorry I don’t have proper bandages,” she said, as she tied strips of cloth around the scrapes on her knees. “But these rags are clean. Do you think you broke anything?”
Verity looked down and made her brain focus on specific body parts. After each limb and digit responded, she shook her head, relieved.
“Good,” said the old woman, looking pleased. “Not much chance of getting an ambulance here with all this ruckus going on. Oh my, your feet are a mess!” She dabbed at them and hummed soothingly, while Thomas whined and curled up next to the chair.
“I was a student here at the university once myself,” muttered the woman. “Years ago. Hardly any of us girls in those days. I’m glad that’s changing, but if someone had told me then that I’d live to see a day when police were shooting our own kids—” She shook her head. “Well, I never would have believed them.”
The woman kept up a gentle patter while securing bits of cloth. “You know, these kids aren’t all bad. There might be a few I’d like to grab by the scruff of the neck and give a good shake, but most of them have their hearts in the right place. I thought the park was a lovely idea. The first time Thomas and I wandered over there, we met so many nice young people. It gave me the warmest feeling.”
Verity gazed at the woman. Eyes welling, she whispered, “Wasn’t it beautiful?”
War-zone noises continued in fits and blasts from outside the door. Eventually, when a period of extended calm fell over the neighborhood, Verity drained the remains of her tea cup and decided she felt strong enough to continue on her way.
“My boyfriend’s place isn’t that far from here,” she told the elderly shopkeeper. “If I keep off the main roads, I think I’ll get there okay.”
The old woman gave Verity a skeptical look as she fitted her feet with a pair of fuzzy-lined slippers. “Well, if you must. But I hope you’ll let me know that you got there safely,” she said, handing Verity a business card with the shop’s telephone number on it.
Together they peeked through the blinds. Seeing no sign of trouble, Verity hugged and thanked the old woman, then limped away across the street in the direction of Sproul Plaza. Her heart sank, however, when she reached the lawns beyond Sather Gate and spotted a unit of policemen roaming the grounds. Communicating via walkie-talkie, they skulked around corners and huddled next to garden beds, eyeballing all that moved.
The walkways were empty save for a few nervous looking students or faculty members darting between buildings. A clash of angry voices could be heard just beyond Bancroft Library. Verity warily eyed the sprawling white building, where Richard and his friends routinely searched for obscure-titled research texts.
Seeking cover where possible from foliage and shadow, she wended her way west, eventually emerging onto Shattuck Avenue. Sirens whined in the distance. Then a pair of squad cars squealed by, heading north to where a parked car sat blazing at the curb.
Behind her, the Campanile bell clock tolled ominously in the distance. Summoning her nerve, she crossed the gaping four-lane avenue and traveled west an extra block for good measure, before continuing northward. Tuning out complaining limbs and wounded feet, she soothed herself, softly singing, “All you need is love…”
About the Author
Tanya Coad is a Nelson-based writer, working on her first novel. She has written for a number of health magazines, including Alive and Shared Vision. She also wrote, produced, and co-hosted the award-winning, syndicated Kootenay Coop Radio series, Climate of Change.