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

Or as his dad puts it: "Sixth Street doesn't have any more problems than Nob Hill. It's just played up here because it's a poor area. You have closet people in rich areas who can do all their business in their homes and private clubs. People here have to live their lives on the street."

That's the essence of Sixth Street: People do live their lives, quite literally, on the streets. With the housing limited to tiny SRO hotels, the residents in the area are forced onto the streets to have any significant social interaction. Their lives, in all their frequently sordid detail, are on display. The untrained eye may find the buzz of Sixth Street disconcerting, frightening even. But after spending awhile on the street, it's easy to see past the squalor and detect the vibrancy of life that keeps the McKnights and other merchants here -- though, be sure, the misery is never far from view.

A walk from Market to Mission yields interlacing and contradictory images: a group of children happily licking on massive peppermint pinwheels mere feet from the old Indian woman, wrapped in a flowing white robe, who floats like some haunted ghost in front of her son's liquor store at Mission and Sixth. Sometimes the contradictions exist in the same image: a huge black man dressed in rags pushing a shopping cart loaded down with scraps of rug and rubbish listening to gospel on a radio, a look of pure religiosity on his face, his body and arms swaying as if channeling Mahalia Jackson.

Like a river, the neighborhood's eclectic population flows in and out of Tom's Grocery. Their faces precede them, telling much of their story: Some are sullen, withdrawn. Others stalk into the store as if chased by someone or something, a menacing beat to their gait. They are the ones who send a charge of alarm through the store. Still others are clearly defeated. They mutely hold out their merchandise and money like children seeking approval.

The more obscure markers and their importance come to light with time. "People with hospital bands on their arms and without any visible scars are most likely recent releases from the psych ward," Ulan says. "All that means is you have to be calmer with them."

Ulan knows everyone on the street, their histories, their scams, their drug habits, everything. The young heir enjoys displaying his knowledge of the neighborhood. After all, it's part of his inheritance.

"He's one of those guys who Reagan kicked out of the mental hospitals in the '60s," he says as a Latino man leaves the store.

The man who comes in two or three times a day to buy taffy for the women he works with at an insurance company around the corner has an interesting history, Ulan allows. He was once busted packing $1 million worth of Southeast Asian heroin in his false leg -- it was blown off in Vietnam -- into San Francisco airport. His celebrity stems from his story upstaging Patty Hearst on the front page of the papers at the height of that drama.

The creepy dude who always has his hood pulled around his face has an interesting scam. He steals packages of crackers and wraps them in Sunday supplement ads from the Good Guys. He does it so well, with hermetic sealing, that he easily passes them off to rubes as cellular phones. The bread delivery man almost fell for it today, but Ulan warned him off before money was exchanged.

"What happens when you're busted?" Ulan asks the con man when he comes in for some sweets. "I just tell them I found it in a car or something," he says, grinning.

"You get to play it off like that?" Ulan asks incredulously.
"Sometimes," the man replies.
Everyone knows Ulan and his family, too.

"Watch out for my dog," says an oldster in a dusty gray fedora and unraveling cardigan as he trundles in. "He bites." There's no canine in sight.

Coming in one evening during Tom Sr.'s shift, the same man plops a plastic bag on the counter and pulls out a replica of a yellow Labrador on a wooden pedestal. "Just got this," the man says, adjusting his dentures with his tongue. "They says it's made of lemonstone. Yeah, lemonstone, that's what they say. Sent away for it from Time-Life."

The next day, a longtime heroin addict sticks her head in the store, looking for Ulan's father. She just completed a long stint in jail, which is readily apparent to Ulan because of her remarkable weight gain. "You just get back from vacation?" Ulan asks, using the street code for prison. "Yeah," she says and does a sudden double take. "Hey, I know you, I used to change you're diapers." Ulan nods and smiles at the allusion to his Sixth Street childhood.

Every new customer brings in a fresh story to feed the reciprocal exchange of news, gossip, and pleasantries. There's no time to sit around and chew the fat. It's quick exchanges mostly. But on a street that's lost most or all of its social capital over the years -- there used to be two black churches and two black barbershops many years ago -- it falls to whomever and whatever is left to provide avenues of community. Tom's Grocery is the most wholesome such outlet. The only other gathering points are bars and the sidewalk out in front of liquor stores. The sole barbershop has been all but taken over by drug dealers, residents say.

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