Merchant of Redemption

During his first three decades on Sixth Street, Tom McKnight Sr. used his various businesses to educate his children and counsel them in the doctrine of social obligation. Now his son must balance the demands of activism against the realities of commerce

The night owls at the front of the line each leave and rejoin the queue, bringing back more items, sometimes while Tom is trying to ring them up. They toss and drop -- rarely place -- their purchases in untidy piles that intermingle. Each trip creates confusion -- whose stuff is whose? -- drawing Tom's attention from the video screens and making it easier for someone in the aisles to snag something undetected.

People in the rear of the line are digging in the two-tiered row of 55-cent candies on the counter, creating another distraction. Arriving at the front of the line, most of the addled customers wrestle with food stamps and coins, dumping both onto the counter in a confused exhale. Each mumbled, half-coherent request has to be sorted out one tiny detail at a time:

Those ribs, can you heat 'em up for me?
"Then I have to charge you tax, and you can't get hot food with food stamps."

Tom, which Newports are 40 percent off?
"The ones in the box. Which ones do you want?"
Nah, how much your Benson & Hedges?
"Which ones, the longs or the shorts?"

The face scrunches up. The pause gives Tom the chance to light a cigarette and scan the room.

Longs, the answer finally comes.
More people join the line. More hands go into the taffy and candy jars. Another customer enters. Yet another asks Tom to travel to the meat counter, 10 yards to his left, leaving his guns and his video displays, to pick out a rib, a chicken breast, a turkey leg, or, his store's most popular item, the 59-cent turkey butt. Many customers try to draw Tom's head far into the meat case, purportedly to chase the meatiest piece. Each inch his head goes into the case, though, increases the chances that the customer's cohort is in the aisles filling his or her jacket.

"Nah, my friend, you take what I give you," Tom says, revealing the remnants of his Virginia accent.

The line extends. Tweaker Boy contorts and drools. "I won't be pretty until it wears off," he says to an imaginary suitor. "You can't have me until then."

Meanwhile, Tom has found his groove, running back and forth to the meat counter, heating and bagging breasts and butts out of the microwave, helping people count food stamps, explaining the prices of cigarettes, counting scattered change, and testing lighters before he sells them, all the while shouting directions to customers who can't find the flour or the beans or whatever.

But here comes this young hood -- we'll call him Cigar Boy -- all pumped up to mess with Tom's timing and sovereignty.

"Hey man cut this," Cigar Boy says, thrusting a cheap stub of a cigar -- most likely full of crack -- in Tom's face.

"Man, can't you see I have a line here," Tom snaps. "I am conducting business here."

Cigar Boy, a very large gentleman, has a line of more than 10 people to show off for. "I'll fuck you business up," he says, thrusting his hand -- cocked street-wise -- into Tom's face.

"Take your best shot," Tom says, his hand inching to the right.
"Bitch," Cigar Boy responds, swiping his hand at the counter in a mock gesture of knocking things to the floor.

Tom just smiles, ever so slightly, and narrows his gaze, ever so seriously, letting Cigar Boy know that if it's go-time, he is more than ready. He seems totally relaxed.

Cigar Boy sees this. So, having satisfied the manly requirements of confrontation, he makes a strutting, cussing retreat. Tom's hand pulls back toward the register. "I'm glad he didn't hit me," Tom says. "Because God would not have blessed him."

Order restored, Tom sinks back in the chair to the left of the register and lights up.

It's been a relatively peaceful morning at Tom's grocery.

So what makes for a stormy shift at Tom's joint? Only gunplay, bloodshed -- or a woman falling from the sky and landing in the store.

The woman survived her suicide leap many years ago -- through the skylight of the McKnights' adult movie theater -- and Tom Sr. still sees her out on the street. But when guns come into play, chances of survival diminish considerably in Tom's place.

In all but one instance, every gunman who's ever tried to take down a McKnight business has left wounded -- or dead. Two drew their last breath in a McKnight store. Two left full of lead and ended up in prison. One of the deaths resulted in a wrongful-death suit for half a mil. But the McKnights won. They have to.

The latest brush with a gunman occurred two years ago when a handsome young robber -- they still keep his mug shot behind the counter though he's in prison -- took 50 bucks and put a gun to the back of Ulan's head. "Lay down with your face down," the robber said. Well aware of the customary way in which shopkeepers are murdered during robberies, Ulan made a break for his gun and, as the gunman tried to flee, shot him in the back. "I was angry," Ulan says. "He showed no respect for my life."

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