Stephan named himself after his business.
"Everybody called me Smitty," he says, noting that "Smitty" was superior to his legal first name for a variety of reasons: It was easier to remember and pronounce; it seemed more neighborly than Mr. Stephan; and it afforded the Greco-Palestinian immigrant a lower profile among area roughnecks.
Smitty owned and operated the store near the Cow Palace from 1977 until 1994, when he sold it to its current proprietor, Mr. Lee. The place still does a brisk trade under the name Smitty's Grocery, and the moniker isn't the only thing that remains the same at the shop. Left glued to the counter and walls are a dozen placards hand lettered by Smitty that extemporize on his basic philosophy: "Smile Life is Good."
"The reason I wrote the signs is that I see people who are unhappy and miserable," says the 64-year-old Smitty over coffee at his son-in-law's restaurant, the Crepevine. "So I try to figure it out."
The first sign Smitty posted was less a reflection of his personal philosophy than it was a public notice that he would not be trifled with. Many of his patrons, in addition to being unhappy and miserable, were "rowdy" residents of the nearby Sunnydale projects. After working in the neighborhood for five years, Smitty finally acquired the nerve to intimidate the rowdies with this notice:
If you feel you are going to be an asshole today. Please just stay away from me. You must know I hate assholes by now.
And please don't tell me you are a good asshole. There is no good or bad asshole. All assholes are the same. Smile. Life is Good Smitty's
The proclamation worked, Smitty says, distracting the most rambunctious ("We only had one holdup in 18 years"), charming the cops who dropped by, and entertaining the average Joes who swooped in for a pack of smokes, a quart of milk on the way home, or a road kit to smuggle into Candlestick Park just up the way.
Later, Smitty added this codicil to the asshole aphorism:
We respect people that respect themselves.
We hate assholes, bullshiters and crooks, shoplifters equally. We love you at Smitty's only if you do what we want. Ha! Ha! Ha! Spend your money at Smitty's join the club. Smile Life is Good. Smitty's.
Smitty's wisdom about assholes spread among his customers, and inspired a regular customer who worked at a nearby sewage treatment plant to action.
"He was an English engineer," Smitty says. "He had cancer in his throat, and a person he knew was giving him a hard time. The engineer couldn't talk back, so he gave the person $5 and told him to go buy lunch at Smitty's and read the signs. He didn't tell him why."
"He got the message."
The reception accorded the posters encouraged the liquor-store guru to expand his list of busted-syntax/fractured-spellings maxims, and he took to punctuating the "Smile Life is Good" mantra with smiley faces, like this:
Smile Life is Good
Be cool, don't try too hard. You can only do half the job, someone else will have to do the other half!! Surprised!!!
Think about it!! Smile Life is good. Don't waiste your life worriying about money. Just live and be happy. Love Smitty's hot link is hot.
(For the curious, the ubiquitous "hot link is hot" references in Smitty's signs hype the grocery's pungent hot dogs, which Mr. Lee still serves by the bunload.)
As you can imagine from Smitty's Tevye/Zorba perspective, not working too hard is essential to living well.
"I never worked to my capacity; I always depended on someone else. Working hard doesn't make you rich. Working smart," he says as he finger-thumps his temple, "makes you rich."
"I know you are going to like this," Smitty says, smiling to beat the reaper because his life is truly good. "I came to this country 30 years ago with a wife and three kids and $300. Now I have a wife, three kids, and $400!!!"
The truth of the matter is that Smitty is flush. He has traveled a good bit of the world (Europe, Africa, Mexico, South America), has seen his three daughters graduate from college, and has retired to San Mateo County. But he remains active, running the Bay to Breakers, investing in real estate, and worshiping his granddaughter. "I do. I worship my granddaughter. I never knew I had so much love in my heart," he says. "Her name is 'Themar,' which means 'fruitful one' in Arabic."
Still, Smitty must have suspected the surplus of love in his heart, seeing as the emotion of the poets ranks No. 1 in his Three Pillars of Wisdom to Happiness sign:
My Three Pillars of Wisdom to Happiness
1. Something to Love
2. Something to Do
3. Something to look forward to. It is that simple Life is Good. Smitty's Hot Link is Hot
"Love lubricates your life," Smitty annotates. "If you're idle, you're dead. And you definitely want to know that tomorrow is not going to be like today, otherwise you don't want to live." And, as everyone knows, Smitty's hot link is hot.
"My wife is my lover and friend," he says. She was also his co-worker, helping to build his grocery's business. "She is my life and inspiration. My everything. But couples today don't take the time to communicate. They hold grudges."
"I've been married for 35 years," Smitty says, grinning that grin that predicts the arrival of one of his jokes. "And no cheating. There's no reason to cheat! They're all the same when you turn off the lights!"
Born in Jerusalem in 1931 to a Greek mother and Palestinian father, Smitty came to the States in 1967, where he lived in Washington, D.C., for three months ("It was too cold!") before moving to San Francisco. Arriving in town on a Thursday, he got a job at the Mark Hopkins that Friday. Saving money on the side, he used his contacts in the Arab-American community to find and buy his first market in 1969, putting down $1,000 in personal savings and paying the remainder with a $5,000 Small Business Administration loan.
Although he owned parts or all of four groceries during his career in the trade, Smitty's Grocery was always his most profitable.
"Lots of traffic," he says. "From morning to close, the cash register never stopped" -- especially when the Giants played or there was an event at the Cow Palace. Smitty estimates that 20 percent of his business was in pints and half pints of liquor; 40 percent in beer sales; the remainder in hot links, groceries, and sundries.
Except for the one holdup, Smitty says the corner-store punks gave him and his philosophy a wide berth. Only one time did he unquiver the baseball bat kept behind the counter: An angry Samoan came in drunk and began tearing up the place, so Smitty cracked him over the head.
The Samoan went down on one knee, looked up at Smitty, and said, "Hit me again you son of a bitch!" Smitty obliged.
"That cooled him off."
By the time the police answered the call, the Samoan had retreated into the bar next door, and because the cops were reluctant to do their duty, Smitty coaxed the man out.
"He went to jail, but he came back and we became friends. He paid for the damage."
Those who imagine that Smitty's philosophy is as shallow as a Care-Bear's should read this brief epistle, composed when Smitty was at low ebb:
When you reach the point where you are not afraid to die!!! then you be strong enough to "not afraid to live" anymore. Ahmad said a voice in the desert. Smile life is good.
"I was a little depressed when I wrote this one," Smitty says. "It means that if I'm not afraid to die, then I'm not afraid to live. It's not bad to get depressed sometimes."
But whatever life's problems -- and they are legion, Smitty acknowledges -- people need to know that they are the source. He has written:
If you have a problem and you are not sick, then it is only between your ears. Because there are no real problems in life. We only make problems in our minds. You are a looser only when you stop trying. Smile life is good Smitty's.
Smitty calls himself intensely spiritual, but having read a good bit of the Bible and the Koran he maintains that both books confuse him.
"It's all blood and adultery and wars," he says. "The world has changed. The books are out of time. But there is a power out there watching you."
"Everything comes to you spiritually. God is up here," he says, pointing to his head. "It's up to you in your mind."
Seemingly ignoring the third tenet of his Three Pillars of Wisdom to Happiness, Smitty says he doesn't have any big plans for the future: watching his granddaughter grow. Helping his family. Moving a little real estate. Using that excess literary energy to write letters to President Clinton ("You don't give the impression of confidence, maybe your advisers should work on that. You come out like an innocent country boy, waiting for someone else to have the answers. This works sometimes, but it will wear off soon," Smitty wrote. "Someday when all this is over, you will shine.")
Mostly he thinks about his family and life in the hereafter.
"I would like to come back as a blackbird," Smitty says. "If a hawk comes around, they send out their raiders and pick it on the head.
"They are full of energy, beautiful, full of life. They celebrate life every day. And they have a ritual at sundown when they settle down to eat dinner together. Then they go up into the air in waves, thousands of them. And then they disappear into the trees.