The Summer of Love

Sprouse Reitz, 1644 Haight Street

1965 thru 1968 • The Haight, San Francisco ~ I worked for Dad in his store on Haight Street during the summers, saving my money for French fries, milk shakes, school clothes, and college. 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 from 1954 until it closed in 1968; dime stores didn’t do well in that grittier climate. Wrong stock.

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, “Goddam 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 shit,” Dad 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.

1967 was the Summer of Love. My dad hated shoplifters, abhorred riffraff, and detested hippies, who 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. He hated the Summer of Love.

My father was straight, white, middle class, Catholic, and German, and generally treated his customers with utmost respect—unless he caught them stealing. I seldom heard him swear except in those moments. If it happened to be a young black kid, he’d grab him by the scruff of his neck and seat of his pants and dropkick him out the storefront door, muttering “goddam little pick-a-ninny,” and worse. I worried an older brother would come back and break Daddy’s legs, or at the very least his windows.

Dad was funny though, and at times amazed me. One late June afternoon a boy, not quite my age, maybe fourteen—slender, blonde, and nervous—needed help. He wanted to buy a bra. Too embarrassed, especially when I realized this kid wanted it for himself, I summoned Dad. My father measured and fitted him, rang him up, bagged his purchase (he bought two 32AAA’s), politely thanked him, and never batted a lash.

The next day, two tall, brassy, beautiful black bombshells with high cleavage and spiked heals promenaded through the swinging 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 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. And for the second time in two days, I was stunned my father didn’t raise an eyebrow. For a man who was a complete and absolute prude—who made it quite clear that anything having to do with sex was improper, indecent, and unacceptable—it didn’t compute.

1968 was the year to spread my wings. Dad couldn’t pay me more than the girls (who were all making $2.00 an hour) so after seven summers and five Easter and Christmas vacations working in my father’s five-and-dime, I flew across the street and got a teller job at Great Western for $2.25 an hour. I was newly married, nineteen going on twenty, ensconced in a one-bedroom apartment in Daly City located just below all the boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tacky that all looked just the same.

1968 was the year Eldridge Cleaver published Soul on Ice (he and his wife Kathleen banked at my window on Fridays; I didn’t know they were famous, I was simply awe-struck by her huge head of hair). It was the year of the Yippies and the Black Panthers, and the year Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots across the nation. The day after his death hundreds of black kids from Poly High rolled down Haight Street in a tidal wave—breaking storefront windows and overturning cars. While Dad boarded his windows, the bank sent us home in cabs to get us off the street. 1968 was during Viet Nam, the year of sweeping anti-war protests, the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre; the year the war turned our country inside out. It was the year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, the year of the Chicago Democratic National Convention riots, the year women were branded as bra-burning feminists and the year the Summer Olympics in Mexico City was boycotted by 32 African nations. It was the year Apollo 7 and Apollo 8 were launched, and the year Richard Nixon was elected.

I existed in the center of this turbidity—not oblivious—but neither overly concerned nor connected to the chaos around me. Dressed in my starched white buttoned-down blouse, navy blue A-line skirt, white pumps, Coral Sea lipstick, and a helmet-head Summer Blonde flip, I watched the swirl of tie-dyed humanity through the plate glass windows of a five-and-dime and a neighborhood bank. In my world it was the year the neighborhood stores were closing one-by-one, leaving empty shells with boarded windows: first the barbershop, then Mulreadys, then Margo’s and Riley’s. The shoe store closed, Superba Grocery, and then the Glen Ellen Diner, followed by the meat market, Woolworths, the bakery across from Riley’s, the Russian restaurant down the street. The holdouts were Holcombe’s Jewelers, Robert’s Hardware, the Aub Zam Zam bar, and Sweeney’s.

The once steady customers now hailed street-cars and shopped on Irving or took the bus to Market Street or moved out of the Haight altogether, no longer willing to fend off grungy panhandlers constantly asking for spare change to feed their mangy dogs. They were tired of tripping over stoned fourteen-year-old longhaired runaways looking like five-miles of blank road six-days in from Wichita. They’d had it with being hustled by dreadlocked junkies, spaced out punks, and barefoot bums flashing back from too much blotter acid. They were no longer willing to deal with the potheads vying for joints, the druggies peddling bennies and black beauties, or the dealers hawking balls of opium, balloons of heroin, and bindles of coke.

Theater closed in 1964

The Grayline tour busses tootled past what used to be the Haight Theater and was now the Straight Theater. They were overflowing with flabby, white–thighed Midwesterners in souvenir tank-tops and Bermuda shorts, looking like bird-watchers with their cameras and binoculars hanging from their necks. They searched intently for dwindling hippies or their children who hadn’t overdosed or left for communes in the country by this time.

In the aftermath of the Be-In and the Summer of Love, the Haight slid straight downhill. Many of the deteriorating Victorians were now a mixture of psychedelic-colored crash pads and rundown heroin haunts, an element of the criminals and pimps now pervading the streets. Rows of empty store windows were plastered with the Diggers’ Free Love, Free Food, and Free Huey handbills.

1968 was the year Dad closed the store. The Summer of Love, the riots, and the changing times did my father’s business, and my father, in. The pounding reverberation of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll cracked his foundation and walls. He surrendered and sold his stock, boarded his windows, locked his glass front door and left town. Adding insult to injury, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic moved into Dad’s store at 1644 Haight Street, letting the hippies and addicts—hoping for some spare change and a ray of sun in the morning fog—finally rest in peace against the red and gray tiled storefront.

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Comments

  1. Terry Conway says:

    I was just going through some old military records of mine and realize that I was in San Francisco during the last week of June in 1968 on a trip to Hamilton AFB, now closed. We had an afternoon and evening free and a dozen or so young AF lieutenants wanted to review what was going on and we visited the corner of Haight and Asbury. Had your dad (my uncle) closed the store by then? I thought he had but could not have been too much before my visit.

  2. David Juarez says:

    Catherine you really described the area, and the era, very well. I passed thru that part of the city a few times back then, and recall feeling uncomfortable because I didn’t have long hair and wasn’t scuffy. I found your written memories interesting because you recalled the turbulent events of the times as they related to you and your neighborhood, and I was reminded of where I was, and who I was during that time. Thanks for the memories. David

  3. Jim Chatfield says:

    You out did yourself in telling about those days. You described it so perfectly. I was stationed up at Hamilton AFB just north of San Fran from 1966-1969 and everyone who came to visit us just had to be taken for a drive to San Francisco to see the hippies, the streets, and always wanted to get a newspaper with all those wild adds. When Mother came out and we took the drive, she just couldn’t believe it. Thanks again for the memories.

  4. Love this story. Grew up in San Francisco, graduated in 1968 from Balboa. Used to cut school dressed as hippies and go to Haight St. Lived on the top of Masonic in the early 1970s and shopped on Haight. My favorite store Far Out Fabrics. Thanks for the memories.

  5. Forrest Brown says:

    Without a doubt, THE best piece you have ever written Cathy. It spoke to me in ways of texture that captured those days of 1967, 1968 and 1969. You and I graduated high school in 1966 going our separate ways. Who knew that my frequent visits to the Haight in the summers (college time outs) and falls (college football games) of those same tumultuous years would cross your path without connection. You and your dad working and me looking for a “connection” while I played hippie for a weekend. It is conceivable that your dad “broomed” me to the curb! I will never know as I don’t really remember to this day those lost weekends. Your piece brings ALIVE the late 1960’s, the Haight, and changing social times. Thanks, Forrest Brown

  6. Amazing experience for your dad and you! I didn’t get to SF, CA until 1968 and I did stand on the corner of Haight & Ashbury for the classic photo! I just love that you were in the heart of the phenomenon of the wave that actually brought me to SF from CT! So incredible!!! ☮️

  7. Posting stories that have a connection to current events (50th anniversary of the Summer of Love) makes all kinds of sense to me.

    I arrived right after Labor Day of 1967 and was certainly in SF during 1968 for a few months before I moved to Berkeley. I remember checking out the Haight occasionally on weekends and it being so outside of my rather “straight” reality working in downtown SF for Sunset Magazine in the advertising department.

    As I’ve told you, I definitely remembered your Dad’s store (and the kids in the doorway), but not the Free Clinic, since I had moved to Berkeley by then. Thanks so much for the reminders of that time.

  8. Susan Lee Price-Jang says:

    In August 1968 I left for Italy (CSU International Year Abroad) after living at home, going to Cal State Fullerton, and working nights at the Orange Co. Credic Bureau and feeling that my generation was leaving me behind. But first i went to SF with Scott, Don Florence, Louise Manuel, if I remember correctly, to see the Summer of love… strange, exciting, confusing times…

  9. Especially fantastic writing in this one, Catherine.

  10. Charlie Price says:

    Sprouse-Reitz to Free Clinic! I needed some bright ribbons for my dashiki in 1967 and within a few years I was using training films from the Free Clinic when I worked with addicts in Oakland. I feel for your dad … good heart struggling with too much change, too soon, too strange. The summer of love I was in Montana organizing against the war in Viet Nam and having about as much fun as your dad.

  11. This one really spoke to my soul Catherine. One of my favorite pieces you have written. I graduated in ’68 and all of these things were a piece if my world too. So cathartic somehow to read about the same time through your experiences.

    • 1968 was such a big year for our country, and for all of us. If I waited to post this one in chronological order, I’d have to change it to the Winter of Love and then that would just confuse everyone.

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