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

Two black teen-agers come in and give Ulan the lowdown on a stabbing the night before. The kid dressed all in black -- pants, T-shirt, hooded jacket, and stocking cap -- does the talking: "She [the victim] was beating on Joyce. She was drunk and Joyce cut her on the face. I could see muscle and shit and the blood was shooting out." He giggles at the gory details.

"Yeah, when she gets drunk she gets crazy," Ulan adds. "She's come in here and told my dad that she's going to kill us. And she's a regular customer, too."

As the two kids leave, Ulan reveals that they are crack dealers. "But they are good people," he says. "If someone screws up, they won't chase 'em down and beat 'em. They just won't sell to them anymore."

The neighborhood cat burglar comes in and is as welcome as the mayor. He's a speed freak, Ulan says, and he only deals in computers and cameras. "He's a two-time loser and he's trying to go straight," he says. "His wife is pregnant with their second child, and they had to give up their first one. But they are good people."

Throughout the week, Ulan notices the cat burglar dragging around more junk: lamps, old radios. "He's getting desperate," he observes.

On a later trip, the cat burglar and his wife come in discussing the man who molested the woman's daughter from a previous marriage. "I swear that was Danger Mouse," the woman says of a man she just saw outside.

"That wasn't him," says the cat burglar.
"Well, it looked like Danger Mouse," she says.
"Honey," her husband replies with sincere affection and patience. "I want to kill Danger Mouse, not some guy who looks like Danger Mouse."

This cracks Ulan up.
Candid conversations like these flow easily in Tom's Grocery, as they do all along the Sixth Street corridor. Only the most ephemeral social membranes separate people and their problems from each other. Everyone knows, for instance, that Jimmy Carter's nephew bottomed out here. The same with O.J. Simpson's first father-in-law. Then there's the formerly prominent Harvard professor who let drink get the better of him. No one has seen him in a while. They assume he's dead.

And even if someone's history isn't made known by the involuntary intimacy of poverty, the potent mix of loneliness and drugs and alcohol impels a mottled sense of community.

Chris Jenkins, a handsome gay man who lives at the Delta Hotel, is a good example. He sashays into the store early one evening, midriff T-shirt and mascara announcing his sexuality. "I'm drunk," comes the first clue to the present status of the preternaturally chipper Jenkins. He waves with one finger, smiles and squints.

"I'm drinking gin tonight," he says. "My friend got gay-bashed, you know. He has this awful scar on his head about so big. So don't you know, I've decided to stay in with him and tend to him."

He goes on about Tom Sr. "He's just the most wonderful man, sent by heaven, don't you know. Just wonderful father figure" -- something Jenkins decidedly lacks, another story he's not afraid to share.

"My father disavowed me," he says with theatrical teariness. "I called him on his birthday and you know what ... (gulp) ... he hung up on me. Oh, it's just terrible. Honey, I am not well in the head." More details are offered -- he's suicidal, on mental disability, and is looking for a break as a singer -- before Jenkins too-de-loos with one finger and returns to his wounded friend.

He is soon followed by a ragged and hairy crew of tattooed men with a theory about the breakdown in social cohesion.

The conversation starts out when a frequent customer -- a barbershop owner from the Mission who lives in the Seneca Hotel -- observes that the press is afraid to tell the truth. "Why can't they just say that American Indians drink too much?" the man says.

A visitor to the store makes the point that race is a false marker, and that poverty is the more probable cause of alcoholism among Native Americans.

Just then, one of the tattooed men, the one with the chain etched into his neck and the tear-drop design announcing his jail record, breaks in.

"It's because Uncle Sam puts the dollar in between people," he says, wild in the eyes and with a machine-gun staccato. "People used to barter things. Like if you owned some land and you were too young and didn't know what you wanted to do you could work their land. But now the government has put money in there and then technology comes in and people stopped working for each other and started working against each other. Me, I'm a tattoo artist and I always barter for things." Obviously for some form of stimulant this evening.

Guessing the origins of customers at Tom's Grocery is an easy pastime. But that doesn't mean it's fun, particularly as the sun goes down, when others -- those odd, portentous combinations of people whose near future you don't want to speculate about -- enter the store.

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