In 1967, just after the Summer of Love, The Atlantic published “The Flowering of the Hippies,” a profile of San Francisco’s new youth culture. “Almost the first point of interest about the hippies was that they were middle-class American children to the bone,” the author noted. “To citizens inclined to alarm this was the thing most maddening, that these were not Negroes disaffected by color or immigrants by strangeness but boys and girls with white skins from the right side of the economy ... After regular educations, if only they’d want them, they could commute to fine jobs from the suburbs, and own nice houses with bathrooms, where they could shave and wash up.”
A middle-class boy from the right side of the economy: That was my mother’s cousin Joe Samberg. When they were growing up, she spent every Thanksgiving at his family’s home in the upscale Long Island suburb of Roslyn Heights. His father was a successful businessman who, somewhat incongruously, had far-left sympathies. Throughout the 1960s, Joe and his four brothers became more and more radical. Two of the Samberg boys eventually went down to Cuba to cut sugar cane for Castro’s revolution.
In 1969, when Joe was 22, he moved out to California. By then, the Haight-Ashbury scene described in the Atlantic article had mostly migrated across the bay to Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. Rents were a little cheaper there, and for those who couldn’t pay rent at all, the weather was a little warmer. The college town was also more sympathetic to the long-haired kids who crowded the sidewalks day and night—talking, protesting, kissing, dancing, fighting, and taking lots and lots of drugs.
Joe was part of it all, but he was also slightly outside of it, watching everything through the lens of his camera. Years later, when he was a highly regarded professional photographer—after he’d settled down and raised three children (including the comedian Andy Samberg)—he showed me some of his early portraits from Telegraph Avenue. They’ve been in my mind’s eye ever since, a counterpoint to all the popular images of peace signs, daisy chains, and Aquarian circle dances. The reality Joe saw was very much like the one the Atlantic author described: hordes of kids who had been lured to California by utopian ideals and then settled into a life of sex, drugs, and lethargy.