Selling his bundles of lilies, freesias and peonies on the corner of Noe and 15th streets for 38 years, Guy Clark has seen San Francisco at its finest and not-so.
“As long as they’re fresh and the price is right, people buy flowers,” he said.
“People come by with strollers who I remember when they were in a stroller,” said Clark who smiles when regulars ask for a hug and long-lost customers squeal, “You’re still here!” which happens pretty much all the time.
“I planted all these things for people to enjoy this part of Noe Street and people do,” he said pointing to potted palms and orchids that line the little piece of paradise he’s licensed as a small business to occupy.
After selling flowers for so long “You become a part of the community,” he said. He lived in one place for 28 years until he was thrown out by a greedy landlord.
A well-intentioned neighbor turned him onto a roommate situation but it turned into a nightmare.
“It was difficult. I’d never lived with anybody. I was sleeping in the pantry, no windows, no nothing. It’s a different dance when you get out there after 28 years,” he said, having since secured public housing.
“When I lost my house and my garage and my mom all in the same year, this white haired old lady from up the street came down to sit with me everyday like someone was paying her,” Clark said. “She told me, ‘That man who owns that house and that man who owns this garage, they don’t define who you are.”
She told Clark to ask himself what he really wanted to do and an answer came back loud and strong: Stay and sell flowers.
“It’s a spiritual thing. I’m not governed by money, I’m governed by beauty. More than anything I love being the Flower Man.”
Clark grew up in Baltimore where his father was a police sergeant. His summers were spent down south where his grandmother had a country store with fruits and vegetables.
“My grandfather had a broom factory and when he made enough brooms, he’d put them on a truck we’d take them around Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Chapel Hill. They were those kind of people and they inspired me to get this ball rolling.”
After a try in New York, where he worked for IBM and studied at Mannes School of Music, he hitchhiked Europe from Norway to Greece, finding work as a model.
“I loved Greece, I loved the people. Flowers are a big thing for Greeks. That’s where I was really anointed in flowers,” he said.
Upon his return to the states, he saw his friends doing well with flowers in Los Angeles. He moved north and gave it a try at Haight and Fillmore.
“The cops told me, I like you, this is a good idea … on any corner except this one where the guy across the street with the flower shop is standing with his arms folded,” Clark laughed. Later, as he rode away from the spot , he told his friend, “Stop! Here! I feel it.”
This time he asked if it would be ok and the woman running the corner clinic said she’d welcome him.
“I gave her a bouquet and Guy’s Flowers was born,” though it hasn’t exactly been all roses and daffodils since.
“I’ve had hate crimes out here. They put a swastika on the door, they wrote the N-word in dog feces, I’ve had all kinds of things,” he said. Just a month ago he was sent to the emergency room after he was bit by a three-legged off-leash pit bull that belonged to a group of overnight campers.
“That was the second time. It wasn’t their fault,” said Clark. “The dogs were laying there and when I walked over, they attacked. I guess it comes with the territory.”
And then there are the neighbors whose dogs, off leash and on, like to lift a leg on the merchandise. He asked one woman to please curb her dog and she called the cops on him.
“The police said she’d reported a black guy on the corner, large, no mention of flowers,” he said, shaking his head. He’s also been profiled while driving his Zip Car on his early morning runs to the Flower Mart.
“They come to the car with guns drawn at my head, get me out of the car in front of Safeway, 430 in the morning,” explained Clark.
On the ground, palms up he asked what he’d done wrong and the answer came back,
“‘I’m asking the questions here,’ they said, and then they asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I thought, I gave you my ID…do the math! I’m going to be 70 years old on my birthday.”
Between the street hassles and the pit bulls, you’d think Clark would be ready to leave the buckets and baskets behind.
“People ask me all the time how long I’m going to do this. I tell them, I’m gonna drop dead out here selling flowers,” he said. “What a way to go to heaven.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.