Night Crawler

From a distance, the motley crowd covering People's Park and neighboring Haste Street last Sunday appears engaged in the kind of Dionysian revelry that knows no bounds of age or hairstyle, but 18-year-old Nathan sets me straight. "The basketball court is the line," he warns, as he perches like a sentry on a wooden stump. "It divides the hippies from the punks. You got to know where you stand."

People's Park, long a countercultural haven for free spirits, activists, the homeless, local kids, and the occasional thug, is currently in jeopardy of becoming a playing field, and this 27th-anniversary fete is purportedly as much a call to arms as it is a celebration. Banners read "UC Out of the Park" and "Democratize the Regents," but it's the free grub, live music, craft booths, and skate ramps that seem the main attractions. In any case, the event belies the old saying that "the freaks come out at night." It's a bright afternoon, and the boiling heat is bringing out the exhibitionist in us all. "They're all naked," exclaims an awe-struck ragamuffin as he stares across the court to the grassy lawn. "It's totally gross!"

Concluding a -- yes -- all-nude set, a pale ensemble of folk musicians pads off the main stage, which is strung with the proclamation: "Truth is a virus to power." "Wow, that's a hard act to follow," a female Gray Panther quips into the mike as she watches the line of bare butts descend the stairs. Another unnamed speaker admonishes the "Babylon beast called Berkeley" for not standing up to the leveling of the park. After all, landlord UC Berkeley already converted part of People's Park into volleyball courts a few years back, a move that generated much negative publicity on campus; proponents of the plan cited the measure as a blow to the crime and drug dealing that has beset the lingering symbol of the hippie era.

Bored with the speechifying, kids turn back toward the street where dozens of skaters in all shapes and sizes fly off ramps at alarming speeds. Onlookers -- mostly other skaters -- line the sidewalks and sit in trees to get a better view. It's not an official competition but a demonstration in controlled chaos: Arms flail, decks shoot into the air, and athletes crash into each other and hit the pavement. "Yeah," concludes one skater after he returns from a brief sojourn into the park, shaking his head in dismissal, "if they hadn't put the ramps in, this whole event would just be a bunch of burnouts."

In the park, the African Rhythm Messengers bring the lounging "burnouts" to their feet with some red-hot soukous. A man wearing a constellation of rainbow-colored balloons bobs by. Multicolored skirts swish, and more women peel their shirts and bras off. "Dude, it's not cool to stare," one guy explains to his gape-mouthed friend. "Just try to look at their feet or something." On the basketball court the game rages on just like it would on any other weekend day.

Suddenly cheers erupt from the skateboard-half of the crowd as one kid catches some particularly good air. "Skating is just cheap transportation," sneers Josh, an apocalyptic-looking 16-year-old with several safety pins shoved through his nose. "It gets me from Point A to Point B. And I don't give a fuck about People's Park!" Rolling his eyes, he plows through the dancing hippies to score some free chow from the Food Not Bombs table.

Meanwhile, other street punks rifle through the "Friendly Neighborhood Free Box," while two teen-age girls ponder the meaning of the "Remember Rosebud" graffiti that adorns its side. "I think it's from that movie about some rich guy that that fat dude made in the '40s," one lass argues. "No, I think it's about some stalker woman who got killed trying to break into someone's house," her friend counters. Under a tree, a boy with a shaved head and a Rancid T-shirt flops down next to his mother, a fortysomething woman with feathers in her hair and an armful of bangles. "I'm so fucking hot," the boy complains. His mother smiles indulgently and says, "Just listen to the music for a while, honey."

"But it sucks!"
Mom calmly continues peeling her orange.
"Punks and hippies are similar, you know," says a man selling tie-dye shirts. "They're both about rebelling against the status quo and making your own rules. People's Park is a symbol of that freedom. That's why we can all come together like this."

"Yeah, the park's cool," agrees a high school student who lives nearby, "but I think it would be cooler if it had a skate ramp year round. Look at all the cute guys."

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.
By Silke Tudor

 
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