From the time I was 12 until I was 17, I worked summers and vacations for my dad in his store on Haight Street, saving my money for milk shakes, school clothes, and college. When I started in the early ’60s, the Haight was a middle-class white neighborhood with a smaller community of black families. Over the next couple of years many of the whites left and more blacks moved in. The black families moved away when the gays took over, then the transvestites and transsexuals came, then the hippies, then the drug addicts, then the black-gay-transvestite-drug addicts.
Dad managed the Sprouse-Reitz at 1644 Haight Street from 1954 until it closed in 1968; dime stores didn’t do well in that grittier climate. Wrong stock.
At times Dad amazed me. One late July afternoon, two tall, brassy, beautiful black bombshells with high cleavage and spiked heals promenaded through the front door and over to the yardage section, browsing the Butterick patterns and dime store velvet. Unless it was Christmas or New Years, our customers tended toward solid cotton and calico. I thought they were hookers.
As the redhead fingered the shiny sateen and taffeta, the bleached blonde settled on the scarlet velveteen. While I ran the bolt through the metal measuring machine anchored to the pullout shelf, I surreptitiously observed them from the corner of my eye as they picked out two spools of matching crimson thread. Their deep voices and large hands hadn’t caught my attention until I rang up their purchases. I checked out their false eyelashes, arched eyebrows, red lipstick, and faces heavy on the pancake makeup. As they primly adjusted their tight mini-skirts and sashayed out the glass front doors, Dad, staring right along with me, elbowed me, nearly knocking me over.
“Quit gawking,” he said under his breath, barely moving his lips. I couldn’t help it. I’d never seen a transvestite.
In the summer of 1965, thousands of young people and runaway middle-class kids descended on the neighborhood to join the flower-power phenomenon erupting in San Francisco, seeing a whole new world through granny glasses and windowpane blotter acid. The hippies swapped flowers, love, and sex for peyote, mushrooms, and mescaline. Teenagers from Des Moines, Dayton, and Duluth tripped on purple haze and orange sunshine, joining the spiral dance.
Kids often slept in front of the store. Dad stepped around them in the early morning fog to open up, muttering, “Good-for-nothin’ dirty hippies.” After mopping the floors, he’d throw the bucket of raunchy cold mop-water on the young runaways sleeping against his red-tiled storefront. Later in the day he’d take his big push broom and sweep them off the sidewalk as they loitered in the lazy afternoon sun.
A policeman tried to stop him once. “You can’t do that, Mr. Clemens,” he said, holding his hand up to halt my father. “When I see crap,” he retorted, “I sweep it in the gutter where it belongs.” With a final push, he turned on his heel back into the store. I pretended like I’d never seen him before.
My father was straight, white, middle class, Catholic, and German, and generally treated his customers with utmost respect. However, the dawn of his final undoing happened in 1967 during the Summer of Love. My dad hated shoplifters, abhorred riffraff, and detested hippies, who in his eyes encompassed all three categories.
With their light fingers, dirty long hair, and love beads, they came in mainly to steal ribbon, gum, and balloons. They didn’t bathe, shave, or work. They smoked pot and dropped acid. They engaged in open sexual behavior. On a cosmic peace train, they wanted to stop the war, stoned on love, love, love. The boys in their Nehru jackets, tie-dyed shirts, and paisley bell-bottoms—the girls in their flowing skirts, patched jeans, and braless tops represented everything my father stood against, and it was more than he could take. He hated the Summer of Love.