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 stubble covering his pate and chin is indistinguishable from the soot. He is a fixture on San Francisco's seedier streets, about 30 years old, apparently deranged, a condition exaggerated or perhaps caused by extreme drug abuse. Let's call him Tweaker Boy, since his given name is probably irretrievable. This early Saturday morning, he's decided to bring his horrific act into Tom's Grocery & Deli on Sixth Street. Wrestling with himself inside a grimy oversize shirt, thrashing and flailing wildly, twitching and talking to imaginary foes and friends, he careens through the aisles of Tom's 24-hour market, grabbing candy and pies and swinging a bottle of Yoo-Hoo.

"I need the sweet stuff," he says to no one in particular, periodically making the frantic head swipe of the deeply disturbed. "I hope someday I break apart like a piece of candy." His is the sublime verse of the doomed.

It's 3 a.m. on June 8 at the city's epicenter of poverty and despair: Sixth Street between Mission and Market, where hard-core drugs, booze, poverty, and mental illness guide the rhythms of life. Where beating back the insanity of the street is a full-time occupation. Where Tom McKnight has been doing business for the better part of three decades.

A groundbreaking porn merchant (specializing in interracial films), a mortician, saloonkeeper, liquor store owner, secondhand clothier, and dented-can seller, the 57-year-old McKnight has plied his trade on Sixth Street since 1967. He opened this particular market in 1989. And, in the area's tornado of squalor, his grocery store is the eye. From behind his register, Tom sets abiding rules of conduct. If you respect those, it doesn't matter if you are a junkie, whore, dealer, hustler, maniac, or mental case; you are accorded, in turn, respect.

Tom bequeathed this ethos to his four children; at the same time he spent his Sixth Street dollars to hoist them up the social ladder, sending his three sons to the exclusive Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and his daughter to the San Francisco Art Institute this coming year.

His retirement imminent, he has passed the store to his second-oldest son, 32-year-old Ulan "Tom" McKnight, who can be found pulling day shifts, continuing his father's stern sense of order while he carves out a new role for himself, his store, and the neighborhood. It's all molten now, but Ulan, like all heirs, wants to press a new signet in the wax, which in his case means Sixth Street.

In doing so, he's carefully balancing the demands of community activism against the realities of entrepreneurship. He wants to improve his business and the neighborhood -- complementary goals, to be sure -- but he isn't sure how far he wants to express what friends say is his resonant sense of social obligation. One of his close friends' businesses were eaten up by the street's black hole of need when he took on politics as a sideline, and Ulan doesn't want that to happen to the store. What does it profit him if he improves the lives of the underclass only to lose his father's legacy in the process? Conversely, how can he make his business grow if the community remains the catch basin of San Francisco?

His father sees Ulan running for office at some point, but the details of the family legacy are far from Tom Sr.'s mind on this cool, black morning. Tweaker Boy is still doing his spasmodic dance and improv poetry routine all over the store.

Although vigilant, McKnight seems almost comfortable with the unexpected coherence of his interloper's arches and thrusts. "He's not a problem," he says.

The rest of McKnight's customers, however, are far less aware of their surroundings, and they are creating an awkward -- possibly menacing -- energy. This is 3 a.m. on Sixth Street, after all.

The bars let out at 2 a.m., and ever since, an increasing number of locals -- in between selling and copping crack, turning tricks, fighting off the jones, or reeling through the manic rushes -- have been popping into Tom's store, buying sweets and meats to fortify their dawnward drive.

Though one of Tom's employees is working in back, tearing down boxes and rotating produce and meat, he's a small man given to arriving at work drunk -- little help if something pops off. More reliable are the two video monitors to Tom's right, which spy around all the blind angles in his store; Tom's pump-action shotgun, leaned against the counter to his left; his pistol, which rests, barrel forward, on an upturned Styrofoam cup to his right; one more shotgun in back; his baseball bat; and, most of all, his hard-ass mien to back up the hardware.

He needs all of it to get through his 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shifts. Whenever more than two people enter the store, the distractions increase exponentially with each new arrival. By the time the store exceeds 10 customers -- as it has this morning -- the chances for orderly business plummet. Right now, from where Tom McKnight stands, chaos looms.

He stands steady, eyes scanning, his hands placed atop the counter with arched palms, a finger or two tapping, like a pool hustler ready to make a fatal combination, like a panther ready to pounce.

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."

Doing business on Sixth Street, Ulan says, means following the same rules observed by the police. "If a cops gets beat up, they have to catch the guy. They have to put 'em away. Otherwise you have no credibility."

In other words: Lose once, lose forever. Every punk knows you're an easy mark.

"We can't afford to lose," he says. "We will kill someone before we will allow ourselves to be beaten up. Me and my dad are just dying to jump on someone who tries to pull something. You can't continue to do business if you lose in that situation. If you get me to the point where it's come to blows, I am not going to lose."

For 29 years, this code has served the McKnights well. After leaving the Navy in 1964 -- where he faced off foreign gunboats during the Cuban missile crisis, 72 hours at general quarters, falling asleep standing up -- Tom McKnight Sr. and his brother Phil came to San Francisco. Being black they had a hard time getting union jobs. So they decided to make adult movies.

"Sixth Street was the only place back then where they'd let a black man own a business," Ulan says.

A coin was flipped and it was decided that Tom would go to City College to learn filmmaking. By this time, he'd met and married his wife, Christina, a newly arrived UC Berkeley student from Sweden with the blue blood of royalty running through her veins. She'd arrived in 1961 to do a summer program at Berkeley and, seeing as it was Berkeley in the '60s, decided not to go back, she says.

Early on, the couple decided on their mission: to send all their children to college. City College was Tom Sr.'s only education, and he'd be damned if his sons -- and eventually his daughter, Ulla, the youngest -- didn't have more.

The McKnight kids grew up on Sixth Street -- though they lived in the East Bay. During the skin-trade days, the kids helped their father edit movies; played pool with topless waitresses at the family bar, the 162 Club; and changed videos in the stroke booths at the Film Festival, the McKnights' first business, which opened in '67. The McKnights later expanded their businesses by opening up a movie theater and a topless bar in Stockton, Calif.

"When I was about 11 years old," Ulan recalls, "I was changing tapes while I was playing chess with my brother, Utz. Part of the job meant watching the first few seconds of the movie to make sure the tape worked. I still remember one day sitting there watching the movie trying to figure out what was going on and hearing my brother calling me, saying, 'It's your move.' I still remember not thinking twice and returning to the chess game. I've never seen a porno movie since."

Tom Sr. says he got out of the porno business because of his family. "I didn't want to embarrass them," he says.

But he does like to reminisce about the good old days, palling around with the Mitchells and Francis Ford Coppola, who was running Zoetrope Studios out of a place on Folsom Street at the time.

The McKnights left Sixth Street only twice in their 29-year stretch in business there, once when they opened a mortuary in Bayview-Hunters Point and once to open an adult theater in North Beach. But after a few years they were back, running a liquor store.

In the early '70s, several black street drinkers came to the McKnights and told them they were having trouble getting served in the white-owned saloons. Tom Sr. decided to open up a bar to accommodate them. "It was nice, like a family place, kind of like Cheers," says Christina.

The hard work of 30 years on Sixth Street is etched on Tom Sr.'s stern, unyielding face. But its more lasting expression is the success of his four children.

The three sons -- Utz, Ulan, and Ulrik -- have all graduated from Swarthmore, a highly respected college in rural Pennsylvania. Utz went on to get a Ph.D. in Sweden. Ulla, the youngest and only daughter, just graduated from high school and will break from the brothers' path, attending the San Francisco Art Institute instead. She is already something of a local celebrity, playing in a punk band called Cipher in the Snow. So resolute is the band's desire to remain authentic that it turned down the opportunity to open for Green Day last year.

The music gets mixed reviews from the family.
Mom speaks proudly of her only daughter's upcoming CD. "They sing very angry political feminist songs," Christina McKnight says. "I thought it would be terrible. But there is a melody and sensible lyrics."

Ulan, however, is less than impressed with Cipher in the Snow. "First of all, I can't understand what they are saying and when I do it is usually potentially repulsive," he says.

Whatever her band's prospects, after Ulla graduates, Tom Sr. will leave Sixth Street, most likely for Finland, where his wife's family owns property near a sea channel. There Tom will sit on the porch of the family cabin, read the litany of military novels he has been saving, and watch the ships and sailboats drift by, confidently knowing that he accomplished his primary goal: to leave a lasting mark on Sixth Street by urging his children to use their education for social good.

"It's like I told the guys back in the old days, back when Ulan was just a baby," Tom Sr. says. "They'd ask why I worked so hard, why I wasn't out on the street having fun. I'd tell 'em I had kids to send to college and the best thing for me to do was to make sure they had something to give back to the community, that they could do something positive for society."

For whatever reasons, the message anchored itself most deeply in Ulan. After getting a degree in engineering and political science from Swarthmore in 1987, Ulan returned to San Francisco and joined other neighborhood activists in what has been a seven-year fight to redeem and promote Sixth Street. His son's part in the crusade comes as no surprise to Tom Sr. "He was the kind of kid other kids followed," he says.

But the intervening years have radically altered the neighborhood, stripping it of its communal moorings -- churches, for instance -- at the same time they brought in new, more dangerous populations with problems vastly more intransigent than simple alcoholism.

When Tom Sr. landed on Sixth Street, most of the residents were older men, living alone in the single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, drawing welfare and pension checks and drinking wine -- lots of wine. "It was wine country down here," he says, ringing up a customer buying peanut-butter-flavored sticks, one of the more popular snacks in his store. "Franzia was king."

There was a saying, his wife reminds him. "They used to chant, 'What's the word? Thunderbird. Who's it for? The urban poor.' "

But today, where there were once relatively harmless old drunks there are now frenzied crack dealers and addicts, speed jockeys and the mentally ill. Ulan keeps the Brillo pads behind the counter because they are popular with crackheads, who use them as pipe screens, and he only wants legit customers having access.

The declining quality of life on Sixth Street troubles a young man who wants to upgrade the family business with catering and home-baked goods.

In the right front corner of the store is perhaps the most telling symbol of ambitions: an Odwalla case and an L-shaped produce section, with all the fruits and vegetables resting in rustic wicker baskets and adorned with pygmy palm trees. "I want this to be the Rainbow of Sixth Street," he says, referring to the socially conscious grocery.

But the progress of his business is naturally linked to the surrounding community. And to succeed Ulan will have to correlate his personal ambitions with the community's engrossing needs.

It will be a difficult balancing act for the younger McKnight, this twin desire to help himself and others. He knows more than most the personal and professional perils lurking down here. He knows he and the business can get sucked into that pit if he's not careful. One of his close friends, Henry Perez, the so-called Mayor of Sixth Street, recently had to shutter the family pawnshop -- Metropolitan Jewelry and Loan -- after 24 years. Serving on several nonprofit boards, Perez admits that he wasn't minding his business, and when his brother burned out on Sixth Street and he ran into lease problems with the landlord, it was more than his thin profit margin could bear.

Perhaps spooked by Perez's experience, Ulan has been trimming back his community activism lately. He serves on the boards of the main nonprofit community groups in the area -- the South of Market Problem Solving Council, the Sixth Street Merchants and Residents Association, and the SoMa Foundation -- but he has trouble making it to meetings to discuss the perennial issues of community renewal: affordable-housing construction, small-business loan packages, crime, cleaning the streets, and lobbying the area's main funding source, the Redevelopment Agency, to continue the revitalization of Sixth Street.

Still, he's deeply committed to the area, currently involving himself in launching a new community initiative: a low-income housing clinic to bring together residents and landlords of the approximately 30 SRO hotels on the street to agree on how to keep ne'er-do-wells out of the hotels as they perform much-needed repairs. "I have a flair for social action," Ulan says.

That flair could draw him into a debilitating political fight, if this housing clinic idea gets off the ground. Already organizing in the Tenderloin and in some Sixth Street hotels is one of the city's most territorial and belligerent activists, Randy Shaw.

If Shaw decides to attack, Ulan will find it close to impossible to strike his personal and professional balancing act.

The way Ulan sees it, there's no better place to be than Sixth Street. Anywhere else he'd have to compete with the chains -- Safeway, Just Desserts, Starbucks. "It's the last place you can have a mom and pop store," Ulan says as he starts the day shift. "It's the only place you can start with little more than an idea."

But the street is more than a last resort. The hum of life here is as attractive as the constant foot traffic that brings in the steady customer base, Ulan says. "There's a lot of life down here," he says. "Which you don't get in some safe suburb. We don't get off on it, but we also don't want to move to a high-markup area where everyone is so homogeneous."

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.

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.

Two hardened IV-drug-using neo-druid punks come in with a Billy Budd character in tow. "Billy's" about 20 and apparently from an affluent family. His brand-new street-wise clothes -- color-coordinated baggies and stocking cap with brand-new bike messenger replica sling-back satchel -- are strictly hipster boutique. His newfound friends, on the other hand, are street-hardened, with fresh works in their pockets from the needle exchange down the street. The male, about 30, has the gray-green pallor and dead eyes of a junkie with a bottomless hunger. The female looks stupid and malleable, the crazy, goofy, amoral type, willing to follow Dead Eyes into anything and giggle about it later. Both of them mercilessly ridicule the poor rich kid, who remains oblivious to the feral nature of his company as he tries to make friends. From the seamless, senseless patter coming from Billy it is hard not to believe his newfound acquaintances just tied him off.

"What kind of music do you like?" Billy asks.
"I'm not musically inclined," Dead Eyes sneers.
"Well, what do you like?" Billy persists puppylike.

"I like painting," Dead Eyes says, rolling his eyes at his snickering companion.

"What kind of painting?"
"Paintings of the soul, of hell."
"Is the soul hard to paint?"

Dead Eyes tires of the joke, grabs his pile of Ramen noodles, and heads out the door with his companion, followed close behind by Billy, still peppering them with insipid questions.

Despite the best intentions and hard work of merchants and residents, Sixth Street's prospects for redemption seem to hinge at some point on divine intervention. And according to everyone with a stake in its renewal, that's exactly what began the turnaround down here.

God came to Sixth Street on Oct. 17, 1989, at exactly 5:04:15 p.m., when the Almighty ripped open the San Andreas fault. The resulting earthquake ruined some of the hotels on the street and for the first time drew the attention of government to the area. One year after the quake, the Redevelopment Agency drew a line around the neighborhood, meaning millions of dollars would be available for economic development.

"I've always said that the quake saved Sixth Street," says Henry Perez, stabbing into a chicken Caesar salad at the Roxanne Cafe.

Whereas Ulan McKnight's hard-eyed social conscience is cloaked by a deadpan personality, Perez is ebullient. He's the fast-talking preacher for the salvation of Sixth Street, a one-man Chamber of Commerce for the area. When he tells the story of Sixth Street, its descent and slow rise, he runs over his sentences like a bullet train skidding off the rails.

By the time Loma Prieta struck, Perez, whose family had operated a pawnshop on the street since 1972, had been trying for four years to get the attention of City Hall and the police -- to inform them that the demographics had been so radically altered that he and many of the other businesses were on the brink of extinction.

"We had somewhere in the vicinity of 40 people hanging out in front of our stores," Perez says. "They were smoking crack and beating up on our clientele." Letters to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and calls to Southern Police Station drew no response. But with the quake and the ascendancy of Mayor Art Agnos, all that changed. Agnos poured $6 million into the area to fix up the housing, and merchants began finally to get a sense that something could be done, Perez says.

In 1988, Perez organized a march from Howard to Mission. He was joined by Agnos and his family and then-Police Chief Frank Jordan. A political charge coursed through the neighborhood for the first time, he says.

He and other merchants soon formed the Sixth Street Merchants and Residents Association (SSMRA), an ad hoc group. Unlike most other San Francisco neighborhoods, South of Market had not been organized in the 1960s and '70s under the succession of anti-poverty programs and crusades. No calcified leadership jealously guarded its sinecure. South of Market was the virgin territory -- so virgin that a Republican pawnshop owner could make headway, earning the title the Mayor of Sixth Street and getting his face painted on a neighborhood mural along the way.

The SSMRA also shredded the rule book on how to construct a power base in San Francisco. In most areas of the city, politics is defined by class warfare: tenants vs. landlords; merchants vs. street people -- even if they are legitimate residents; and the cops vs. everybody. "Here it's very important to us that we don't segment people," Ulan says.

Immediately, the SSMRA allied itself with the police, pressing the point that crime on Sixth Street was fixable, not inherent. At the urging of the group, two aggressive street cops -- Ross Laughlin and Jim Miller -- volunteered to go undercover to fight the crack trade. Nearly a decade later, the Laughlin-and-Miller team is still on Sixth Street, their telltale white cruiser signaling dealers that it's time to go.

From the beginning, Ulan McKnight became a resource whom activists drew on. When Dino DiDonato, then the executive director of the South of Market Problem Solving Council, was drawing up reports and proposals for government money, he would more often than not run them by Ulan for approval, to make sure he knew what Sixth Street needed.

Ulan would prep DiDonato before he went into meetings with agency officials. "His primary interest was always the welfare of the residents," says DiDonato, who is now the executive director of Oakland's Festival at the Lake. "There are very few people I've met in my life with such a deep level of social consciousness. He is absolutely critical to that area." To this day, Ulan serves as a hub of political activity. On Mondays he allows a social worker to use the room in back of the grocery to counsel people.

"If people miss a crime meeting or need an update of the Redevelopment Agency's facade loan program, they know they can come in here and find out," he says.

As the community began to coalesce in 1990 and 1991, both Ulan and Perez knew that merchants and residents would require rapid change if they were to hold together. At the same time they helped advance long-term projects like affordable-housing construction, launching the kind of quick-hit initiatives that jazz a constituency.

First, they won grant money from the mayor and detailed 72 Conservation Corps workers to spackle and paint business facades all along Sixth Street in a one-day assault. "That day was important in an attitudinal sense," says Amalita Pasqual, the executive director of the SoMa Foundation, the area's economic development firm. "It was a turning point. It was something that didn't take forever. It was really ... I will never forget that day."

The choice was obvious for the next rapid-response project: clean streets. But when the SSMRA brought a steam clean machine to the neighborhood, it would provide Ulan's first lesson in nonprofit corruption.

The SSMRA contracted with the Mission Economic Development Association (MEDA) to run the operation. Alas, when the streets remained gritty, Ulan and Perez sniffed around and found that MEDA was siphoning off SOMA money to feed its projects in the Mission. With that, they convinced the Redevelopment Agency to break ties with MEDA and give the contract to the SSMRA. In 1992, Pasqual, a MEDA staffer at the time, set up the SoMa Foundation to package agency-backed loans to small businesses in the area. The same year, the SSMRA received nonprofit status, making it eligible for government funds.

More important, community groups struck a revolutionary agreement with the Redevelopment Agency. For the first time in its history, the agency agreed not to eradicate blight by bulldozing a neighborhood. Some had suggested a new economic engine for the area, a mall even. Instead, the SSMRA won approval for a mix of small business, light industrial, entertainment, and low-income housing.

In the intervening years, several affordable housing complexes have been built, and Pasqual has been steering a steady stream of loans to small businesses in the area. Still, the progress has been glacial, illustrating the difficulty of saving, not replacing, a neighborhood.

paula Zenti, an SSMRA volunteer and SoMa Foundation staffer, stands behind the counter at Tom's Grocery. Her lunch is heating in the microwave. And she's nagging Ulan about the grape boycott and recycling as he prices bags of the offending fruit. "Go ahead with your moneymaking, killing people," she says, referring to pesticides.

"I can't take this PC stuff," Ulan says with a groan.
A customer arrives. "Hey little shit," Zenti says. "We got a picture of you up at the office and we throw darts at it."

"You know what you can do with that," the customer, a man named Bill, says.
"We got a crime meeting tomorrow night," Zenti says. "Why don't you come by and stir up some more shit."

Bill leaves. "Bye, little shit," Zenti calls after him. The microwave bings, and she sits down in the chair by the register, throws back her curly blond hair, and begins to eat.

Yesterday, Zenti was even feistier. She ran into the store announcing that one of the women who work for the SoMa Foundation had been robbed. A homeless man had come and taken a wallet from a desk and escaped. Pumped up about crime, she nagged the neighborhood cops -- Officers Chris Pedrini and Dave Falzon -- when they came in to McKnight's store, as they do every day.

Why so much crime? she asked. Why can't you stop the drug dealing? She pointed to a dealer by the door, and said she'd been watching him deal day in, day out. She gave the cops the hotel room he used as a base of operation. Ulan cringed, and motioned to Zenti. The message: Ratting off drug dealers to the cops -- especially when you are in my store and within earshot of the dealer -- requires a little more decorum.

Of course, informing would just add one more job to Zenti's current resume: SSMRA volunteer program coordinator, SoMa Foundation administrative assistant, weekend waitress at It's Tops, and now, perhaps, police agent.

For Ulan and other merchants, Zenti is indispensable. She's their alter ego, the conduit through which they keep track of the community organizations they belong to without leaving their stores. In large part, she allows Ulan to strike the balance between entrepreneurship and activism that bedevils him.

Zenti tracks available funding streams and other projects. She comes into Tom's Grocery several times a week and updates Ulan -- and gets a free lunch -- allowing him to get the word out from behind his register.

In many ways, Zenti is a foil for the would-be saviors of Sixth Street: white, from a comfortable socio-economic background, and untethered to the area. But she is as committed as she is ubiquitous here on Sixth Street, zipping around on her red scooter with her matching helmet, which she tends to wear for overly long periods of time after parking her metal steed. It's the geek in her.

She's also a delightful nag. "Are you coming to the board meeting tonight?" she pesters Ulan as he prices the grapes.

"Is Amalita going to be there?" Ulan asks.
"I thought you said you were over the Amalita thing," Zenti says. (McKnight and Pasqual, the SoMa Foundation director, broke off a relationship several months ago, and for comity's sake McKnight hasn't been going to meetings where he would see Pasqual.)

Zenti doesn't have time to counsel Ulan, however. The SSMRA is having its weekly medical clinic and condom and needle giveaway tonight at its offices down the block, and Zenti is running late.

Striding down the street, Zenti -- yes, she's a social work major -- reaches into a crowd of street drunks and, without slowing down, grabs an inebriated young woman by the arm. "I want to talk to you," Zenti says, dragging the woman along. "I haven't been seeing you at the medical clinic."

"I got jumped," the woman sloshes. "Look at my black eye."
Once inside the SSMRA offices, Zenti bores in. "Aren't you getting tired of this?" she asks, handing the woman a list of free places to eat in the city.

"I'll take this just to keep you quiet," the woman says, looking over her shoulder at the door every few seconds.

"I know where you live," Zenti says. "I'll come wake you up."
"When was your last [HIV] test?" Zenti asks, steering the woman into the back room for a private conversation.

Leading the girl out later, Zenti asks, "Are you registered to vote?"
Zenti has no success that evening when she tries to keep her charge at a drug prevention meeting and health clinic the SSMRA runs twice weekly. But plenty of the residents show up for the following evening's crime prevention talk. It's their chance for an extraordinary and frank exchange with Cmdr. Dennis Martel (pretty far up on the cops' totem pole, by the way) and two of his Southern Station cops.

It may sound corny, but this is the real meat of community organizing, putting cops in the same room as residents, making sure that lines of communication stay open and the cops are made to have a stake in salvaging the area. The churches aren't coming back. But if the residents can strike a relationship with the Police Department, they won't feel torn loose from the rest of society.

The SSMRA is out to facilitate another unexpected alliance. If a grant proposal goes through in September, the group will add a plank to their organizational platform: addressing the horrible living conditions in the SROs and attempting to heal the fractious relations between tenants and owners.

SRO residents and owners typically loathe each other. The owners don't maintain their buildings; residents trash the property.

In taking on this new crusade, the SSMRA will most likely butt heads with Randy Shaw and his Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Shaw's Modified Payments Program administers welfare checks for hotel dwellers, paying the rent and negotiating for improved living conditions. But Perez and Ulan question the amount of time and energy he puts into improvements -- and the very process used by Shaw.

By contrast, the SSMRA wants to develop a more ambitious plan to improve SRO hotels by steering funds and loans to owners on the condition that they upgrade their properties. It's a big job. About 30 hotels and 500 to 600 SRO rooms lie between Market and Howard.

The SSMRA clinic would also counsel tenants. "We propose to do tenant screening," Perez says, "to do a personal touch." This is the kind of collaborative approach Ulan says distinguishes Sixth Street organizing.

And what about Shaw? "If this means war with Randy," says Perez, who once organized tenants with Shaw, "then it's on. I'm ready for it. I've waited five years to do this."

Perez may be ready. But for Ulan, a war with the politically savvy Shaw is just the kind of distraction that could hurt his business. He would soon find himself juggling his competing objectives -- politics and business. And engaging in a political war from behind a cash register could prove costly.

But as any day with Ulan will show, he just can't seem to stop involving himself in the intractable struggles of Sixth Street

In the middle of the afternoon, Dale Smith, a 42-year-old ex-con who's been drinking hard since he was 9, shows off his son and his 60-day sobriety token, which hangs around his neck.

"You're in the danger zone," Ulan reminds him. "Are you still going to meetings?"

Yeah, Smith replies, and he says he's volunteering at a detox center three days a week. As his son puts a handful of candy on the counter, Ulan gently scolds the man. "You know you can't just have them eat sugar all the time," he says. "It ruins their minds."

The next day, Ulan lays out the sugar speech again, this time to a young mother of two beautiful children, one of whom is by her side picking out candy. Seems the older boy is having trouble paying attention in school and he was recently pulled from a gifted students course. The mother is upset.

After counseling lower sugar intake, Ulan begins to advise the woman on ways to facilitate her child's education, all the while testing the early grammar schooler's math skills with the change from the candy bill.

"Studies of black males show that if you give them sugar in the morning you can't get them to concentrate in the afternoon," Ulan says. "I was always hyperactive in school."

"His dad buys him Frosted Flakes," the mother admits. "I can't win."
"I was totally dyslexic and they wanted to hold me back one year," Ulan says. "But my dad went down there and said, 'You will not hold my kids back because they are black; you're racist.' They were too scared to hold me back."

He tells her he was expected to pursue extracurricular activities like computer classes at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

"I wish we had that," the woman says as she pats her son's head. The boy listens, eyes wide, and takes another sip on his soda, which he holds in a paper towel with both hands.

"You do," Ulan says. "Down at Bessie Carmichael Middle School down the street. They offer after-school classes. Give me your number and I'll have someone call you from the Sixth Street Merchants and Residents Association."

Two minutes after the woman and her son leave, Ulan is on the phone asking about computer classes at Bessie Carmichael.

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