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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

Wednesday, Jul 3 1996

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:

About The Author

George Cothran


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