Incense and Patchouli Oil


In the early sixties on Downey Street there was mostly a family environment that mainly consisted of working class families in a relatively quiet inner city setting, which typified most of the streets in the Haight-Ashbury District at that time. The day-to-day business of living never changed much, the parents went to work, kids went to school and played, dogs barked occasionally and in short, life went on.

Then came the summer of 1967… With Haight Street being only a short walk away and Ashbury only a block over, it probably should have been no surprise that our street would become one of the many streets in the neighborhood where the Hippies had chosen to make a home. It was as if they appeared with a suddenness of a rush of wind, popping up here, there and everywhere in what seemed the blink of an eye.

How colorful they were, tied dyed t-shirts in a rainbow of swirls in their thrift store chic, strings of beads, sandaled feet and sometimes-bare feet, tousled hair, long hair, funny looking hats and let’s not forget the flowers. They even dressed their babies like that too, and so it looked like the whole family was in on it. Many people called them weirdoes and freaks and laughed at the way they dressed.

You could go listen to music at the free concerts that were held on the weekends over at the panhandle and at the Park in the meadow, where they would congregate, many of them getting together to dance, socialize and hang out. We knew there was drugs around at these gatherings, one of the most outwardly signs being the aromatic smell of the smoke from the marijuana wafting through the air. LSD had no smell.

Down on Haight Street and the immediate surrounding streets was where the majority of the hippies were, and their presence there altered the landscape also. I can recall them sitting cross-legged on the sidewalks in small groups, one strumming on a guitar, and others just milling about seemingly watching the world passing by. The free clinic was opened next door to the post office and a head shop around the corner.

I remember the hippies that lived in the flats that dotted our street, and it seemed that many of them were living in commune like fashion; sometimes it was hard to tell how many lived in one place with all the comings and goings. When you passed by their front doors while walking up or down the street, the fragrance of the incense burning and the distinctly pungent scent of patchouli oil hung heavily in the air.

Sometimes on weekends I sneaked out of the house late at night, long after everyone had gone to sleep and went down to Haight Street and just walked around mingling with the crowds. Ralph reminded me of the time Uncle Bob was visiting us from Alaska, and with Dad driving him down Haight Street; he was practically hanging out the passenger side window with his 8MM movie camera filming the “spectacle”.

Flower power, hippie invasion, summer of love, counter culture, peace signs, psychedelic posters, the Dead, the Airplane, windowpane acid, free concerts and whole foods were just some the iconic buzzwords that come to mind, which symbolized the era and truly cemented it’s place in time. A bygone era that’s taken on almost an air of mythical type proportions, a seminal period in society that is still instantly recognizable to this day.

Those hippies were all right by me though; they respected other people’s space and were really mostly courteous and friendly to everyone, regardless of who or what they were. Peace and Love… they lived it… Even to this day, I don’t think any of us will ever forget that smell of incense and patchouli oil.