"Buds," he says, uttering the most common expression among dealers in the Upper Haight. "Got buds," he adds, sounding like a secret agent carefully passing along a coded message.
William -- a pimply, freckle-faced 19-year-old with short-cropped bleached-blond hair and spanking new black-and-white sneakers -- is just one of the legion of teens and post-teens who maintain this strip's reputation as a farmers market of marijuana. When I tell William I am a reporter, he stops, backs away nervously, and reaches to pat down my black leather jacket, probably looking for a badge or gun. He is in the middle of a deal, I learn later. A customer wants an eighth of an ounce of marijuana and William is going to sell it to him for $60, thereby making a $10 profit. It is his second sale of the day, and he is feeling good. The way police have been cracking down on dealers on this street recently, it's no wonder William doesn't run like hell from me. But after a nervous interchange, I assure him I am just interested in a few minutes of his time.
I follow him around the corner of Belvedere Street to the bank machine at First Interstate and wait as his customer withdraws enough cash to complete the sale. The transaction is done quietly, in the open, as if the two are exchanging phone numbers. Hands pass green for green, and they part as casually as might acquaintances who'd stopped to chat on the street.
"How do you like my shoes?" William says, pulling his pants leg up to display a pair of black Adidas with white stripes. "I spent 38 bucks on them. I'm proud of myself, you know. I could have just as easily spent it on something else."
The sneakers replaced an old, beat-up pair that were full of holes, and that William had worn night and day since flying out here from New Jersey three weeks ago. Like most young dealers on the street, William is a transient and a drug user. He shoots heroin and smokes crack but claims that he quit three days earlier and is trying to put his life back in order. For him, the sneakers are a sign of progress. He wants to attend Academy of Art College and study theater, and he plans to get there by dealing marijuana. It's obvious from the tic in his neck and the nervous shuffle of his eyes that most of his earnings are coursing their way through his bloodstream. He lives on the street most of the time, he says, and, when he's lucky, lodges with friends in cheap apartments and motels. Like many dealers who do business here, he says he came to the Haight hoping to find something of the easygoing, carefree lifestyle imagined in so many Grateful Dead songs.
"All I know is that these kids typically score their drugs in the Mission," says Mark Sabin, director of the youth program at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics off Cole Street. "They are selling so that they can use, and usually make just enough so they can cover what they need on a particular day."
The clinic has for decades provided a haven for runaways, outcasts, and the addicted who wander these streets, appearing and disappearing like shadows in a dream. Among the young, there are few regulars, says Sabin. Many move on to other towns in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. While they are here, though, the clinic opens its doors to them, offering free condoms, clean showers, hot food, and someone to talk to.
"Things have definitely not gotten better," Sabin says. "A lot of these kids have chosen to live on the streets, instead of with their parents. For most, it's better than being home."
SFPD narcotics detective Capt. Gregory Corrales says officers from the Park Station Drug Task Force are in the Haight every day making buys from dealers.
"The kids are drawn to this place because of the history," Corrales says. "They are the young hippie types selling marijuana. Some have apartments. Some make money to earn a living. Some are addicted. There's a wide range of them."
Phil, 21, moved out of his mother's house in Pennsylvania when he was 18. He says he never met his father. While traveling the Dead circuit, he saw much of the country (and says that he has 19 states to go). He moved here last summer when Jerry Garcia died.
Phil deals on Haight Street to have fun and stay alive.
"I earn just enough to get by and eat and maybe sleep in a motel," he says, breaking from a circle of friends getting high on the Panhandle. "It's stressful at times, but usually I'm hanging out with my buddies. It's cool."
Phil shot heroin regularly a few years back but says he has kicked the habit. He only needs to make about $50 a day dealing to get by, he says. In some ways, he's a kid: He's wearing a baseball cap with an "EXTC" logo parodying an "Exxon" logo and dressed in oversize jeans and sweat shirt. In other ways, he's very much an adult: smart, insightful, candid, aware of the people around him. As long as he's smoking pot with his friends, making a few bucks on the sly, and doing his own thing, he says he's OK.
It's not the drugs, Phil says, that are the allure. It's the lifestyle.
"We get stoned together and have fun all over the place," he says. "When things get rough financially, my mom helps me out a lot."