ONE MORNING SEVERAL YEARS AGO, at a bus stop in front of the American Embassy in New Delhi, an Indian man wearing a turban and rubber flip-flops (plus what might once have been someone's draperies) asked me where I was from.
"Oh, how lucky you are!" he fairly sang, when I told him I was from San Francisco. "Everyone knows that San Francisco is the spiritual center of the world."
Really? This assertion would jolt any American who'd drifted to India seeking, well… something better.
"Oh, yes-yes," the India man said. "The Earth's spiritual center shifts every few hundred years or thousand maybe. It used to be in India, but now it is San Francisco. All our gurus are moving there to open ashrams."
My bus's arrival cut short our talk, but during the next couple of months I ran the man's thesis past several other Indians I met. Surprisingly, every one of them regarded my conversational tidbit as old news. All unquestioningly accepted San Francisco - not India, not Tibet, not Mecca or Jerusalem or Rome - as humankind's new spiritual center.
You are scoffing right now, of course, and so did I - initially. But that first night, when I asked the desk clerk at my hotel in New Delhi to define "spiritual center of the world," his response wiped the smirk right off my face. "Oh," he said, as matter of factly as if I'd asked directions to a chai shop, "that is simply the place where new ideas meet the least amount of resistance."
Voila! I have circled the globe four times, and if there is some place where new ideas meet less resistance than they do in San Francisco, I have neither seen nor heard of it. If you can't be what you want in San Francisco, you don't have a chance elsewhere.
MY INDIAN FRIENDS had differing ideas on the boundaries of the earth's spiritual center. Some said it was specifically limited to the area burned by the post-quake fire of 1906 - the purifying flames were said to have left behind an environment as fertile as the field in which Jack grew beanstalks. Most, however, included the entire Bay Area in their spiritual maps - although one woman in Calcutta drew hers from the tip of Baja to the tip of the Aleutians. Regardless, all agreed that spiritual San Francisco did not follow trends, but - like the San Andreas fault - unleashed movements. Harry Bridges seized the waterfront and galvanized the Labor movement. The first television was invented at the base of Telegraph Hill, unleashing whatever you call that. The United Nations convention was held and its charter was signed inside Herbst Theater. The beats, the hippies, and the Free Speech Movement burst from the hills and the bay as though they couldn't help themselves. When Jack Kerouac hit the road a nation of readers took it as a given that he would wind up in North Beach.
THE MUSIC BLASTING out of San Francisco - the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin - forever changed the world - with help from Owsley's LSD. Seemingly overnight the idea that gays were human flourished in the Castro District, and Harvey Milk, the "Mayor of Castro Street," became America's first openly gay elected official. The American Indian Movement scored its biggest victory (since Custer, and before casinos) on Alcatraz. Oakland's Black Panthers awoke a complacent nation - some say two. And the human potential movement leapt naked and quivering from the hot tubs at Esalen. Now the world's economic engine throbs in Silicon Valley, while the creative heart of the Internet beats south of Market Street. North of Market, Charles Schwab leads a brokerage assualt that rocks Wall Street and mints new millionaires at a rate not seen since the first Gold Rush.
India had its run - giving civilization the zero, infinity, and the Taj Mahal. Now it's San Francisco's turn. That shaky ground under your feet may be as good as ground gets. Throw down the best you've got, and stand back!
San Francisco Chronicle, November 21, 1999