After 38 years on the same corner, Guy Clark has become a neighborhood fixture in San Francisco's Castro District; he's won the community over with his daily blooms and bubbles. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)
Wearing a baseball cap patterned with bright, colorful flowers, Guy Clark is arranging bouquets of tulips, sunflowers and peonies. It's a sunny morning at his flower stand at the corner of 15th and Noe in San Francisco's Gay Mecca, the Castro District.
“These are called daylilies,” he explains, pointing to the first bouquet lined against the wall. "The color is so vibrant. I love these pink ones — I got them because of Pride Week."
Clark has been selling flowers on this exact corner for the last 38 years. He's witnessed the evolution of the Pride movement, the AIDS epidemic and most recently, gentrification throughout the Castro.
Though the neighborhood has undergone many changes since Clark set up shop in 1981, his presence on this Castro corner has been a constant.
“Every day when I wake up I'm so excited to get out here and just tantalize the community with these beauties,” Clark says with a laugh.
Indeed, a visit to Clark’s flower stand not only involves admiring customers of all ages, but also frequent greetings with locals he's befriended over the years.
“You see that little guy right there?” asks Clark, pointing to a toddler in a stroller pushed by his grandmother. “I remember his father when he was a little kid; they used to come down the street and I would teach him his colors. This is the second generation.”
The 1970s San Francisco Scene Blooms
Guy Clark calls it “a magical moment in history” when he first arrived in San Francisco.
“It was the time of hippies — free love all over the place. And I think it was around one of the first gay parades. Men, women, children — it was almost mandatory at that time that you go to the parade.”
Clark also remembers the small-town, family feel that permeated San Francisco’s queer scene back in those days. He says Castro Street wasn’t the queer center it is now; other San Francisco neighborhoods like North Beach and Polk Street had notable queer communities, too.
“You know, back in the day we used to call it 'Mecca,' ” says Clark about San Francisco. “If you really wanted to live your life fully you come to ‘Mecca’ because you could be yourself here. It was like a home.”
Clark spent his nights at local hubs like the I-Beam, a gay nightclub in Haight-Ashbury, which closed in 1994. He remembers bringing his instruments, playing with conga drummers and dancing onstage to numbers by Sylvester, whose No. 1 hit on Billboard’s dance music chart, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” set the soundtrack for local queer liberation.
As Sylvester became an emblem of gay pride for people in the Castro District and around the country, so did his back up singers, the Weather Girls, who found their own fame with their 1982 No. 1 hit, “It’s Raining Men.”
"That was the song of the day,” laughs Clark. “It was almost like a theme song, an anthem. People just went berserk.”
San Francisco and the Castro have undergone dramatic changes since Clark first started selling flowers here. Still, he insists that the area maintains some of its old charm.
“It's still the same,” he says. “I see people from all over the world coming to San Francisco to enjoy the type of life we have here, the freedom we have here. You can’t be yourself everywhere.”
Giving Away Flowers Through the AIDS Crisis
Clark was selling flowers as the AIDS epidemic swept the gay community in the 1980s and '90s -- an era in which the San Francisco Department of Public Health reported the disease killed more than 18,000 people in the city
Clark explains that the Bay Area Reporter, the country’s longest continuously published LGBTQ newspaper, offered a resource for the San Francisco’s gay community as the disease spread through the city.
“Every week people would look through [the paper] for the obituaries,” says Clark. “It went from one inch to the whole page, and then two pages.”
He says it was common to see a familiar face at his flower stand one week, only to find their picture in an obituary a few weeks later. He also remembers men approaching him after losing a partner to AIDS, asking if he would help them arrange flowers for their funeral.
“‘I don't have a lot of money, but I really want it to be beautiful,' ” he recalls them saying.
“I told them, ‘We'll pull out all the stops. We'll make sure your lover gets to the other side in dignity and beauty,’ ” says Clark. “I just started doing one funeral after the next after the next after the next.”
Clark says he began giving away flowers for funerals weekly while also joining the local community in organized acts of resistance.
“We protested. We marched. We did everything we possibly could,” he says. “And some of us survived. We were able to share the meaning of humanity. We just held hands, and hugs, and prayed.”
That went on for years, until the number of people dying of AIDS began to decline in 1995.
“When the obituaries went back down to just a few names, it was a sigh of relief,” says Clark with a sigh himself. “We we could finally see through the clouds of AIDS. We could finally see the sun shining.”
A Gentrifying Castro
Clark used to live just four doors down from his flower stand.
“Best commute in the world,” he says, pointing to a yellow building just a stone’s throw from where he still works. He remembers the avocado tree in the back, which he planted himself.
“At that time I thought everything was written in stone, that this is the way it's going to be.”
However, Clark says that after 28 years, he received notice that he’d have to leave the apartment building during a major renovation. Though the landlord told Clark that tenants would be allowed to return to the building, Clark says he was unable to afford the hike in rent.
“I just didn't have a million dollars,” says Clark, who was homeless for a time after that. “It wasn't that I didn't have money; I couldn't find an affordable place to live in San Francisco anymore.”
Clark says he spent some time living in a property manager’s garage, but was eventually asked to leave that space as well. After losing both his dad and his home in the span of a year, Clark says he was “ready for the bridge.” Today, he credits his enduring relationships with his loyal customers for helping him recover from his depression.
“When I was evicted out of [my apartment] I was so bitter, I was so angry,” he says. “Finally when I realized that my home and my garage didn't define who I am, it made me stronger. It made me more resilient. I can still sell flowers. I’ve still got my permit, and it did get better. I don't have as many flowers, but I've got more customers. And it seems like it worked out for the best.”
Becoming A Neighborhood Fixture
After 38 years on the corner of 15th and Noe, Clark has become a local icon who is always willing to greet customers with blooms, bubbles and a smile.
Clark says he feels “like the uncle” and has story after story of adult customers he’s known since childhood. He says his flower stand has even introduced him to celebrity customers like Bobby McFerrin and Tracy Chapman.
When asked what his plans for the future, Clark says retirement isn’t in the cards for him.
“I bought a ukulele and I have a guitar,” Clark says. He plans on bringing his instruments to the flower stand to sing songs for his customers.
“If I die out here selling flowers, what a way to go!" he laughs. "Right to heaven from the flower stand.”