A few months after I moved here, a friend and I were struggling to get a massive dresser up Page Street when a beat-up Corolla sputtered to a stop next to us. An older man with a big white beard slowly got out to confirm his flat tire. I offered to help and a moment later, I was putting on his spare. As a thank you, he reached into his flea market of a car and pulled out a wooden box. I opened it, and there was a beautiful pocketknife – sharp blade, wooden handle; this was a well-crafted tool. I’d had a short stint as a Boy Scout, but hadn’t been around a knife in a long time. But after getting reacquainted with it, I ended up carrying it around and using it daily.
And I’m not alone: SF is a knife-carrying city. I’m sure while waiting in line at Walgreens you’ve seen a metal clip sticking out of someone’s jeans, or have friends who carry knives. The reasons vary from needing it for a job to making a fashion statement. In a city of creators and tinkerers, I can’t think of a more useful tool for people to have on hand.
And knife carrying has a strong lineage in this city: Whether you were a cowboy, gold miner, or gentleman, a knife was a necessity. By the 1850s, the strong artisan knife-making community here became responsible for the first American renaissance of custom cutlery.
Anyone who calls a knife a weapon should not be carrying one. Yes, it’s sharp and potentially dangerous, so one needs to have respect and be knowledgeable when using it. But seeing the interesting ways people use knives might make a convincing argument for you to carry one, too. And just remember to leave yours at home before heading to the airport!
Galen remembers getting his first knife at five – and has the scar to prove it (six stitches in his head). Two years later he cut off the tip of his finger. And over the years, while his wounds have waned, his obsession hasn’t. Which, he says, is one of the reasons he became a chef. Getting paid to use knives at restaurants like Town Hall, Magnolia, and Quince, Galen recently left to start his own business: a full-service knife and cutlery shop on Bush St. Whether he’s using a knife to cut foie gras, chop wood, or shave, the man is seriously passionate about knives. He’ll help you find the perfect one for your kitchen. He even manufactures custom leather sheaths.
Derek’s knife is the true definition of a gentleman’s knife: it’s thin, light, sleek, and pretty darn handsome. The company that makes it was founded by Al Mar, a Chinese immigrant who served in the Army’s Special Forces before getting his master’s in industrial design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. All this to say, his is a well-built knife. He uses it for everything from opening boxes to candy wrappers. “Just carry a knife for a few days, and you’ll see how useful it is – for things you never thought imaginable.”
I thought taking out a knife in a San Francisco playground would trigger some sort of urban- progressive-alarm. But no one seemed to mind at a Bernal Heights playground as Kelly took out her vintage jackknife to cut apple slices for the neighborhood kids.
She’s been carrying knives since her early 20s. She’s used them when working as a stylist on photo shoots, and for mounting and laying tillandsia onto cork at Paxton Gate (where she met her husband Josh, who owns Bernal Cutlery).
“I always carried my knife in my front pocket. But when I was pregnant with my first kid, it wouldn’t fit in my maternity pants, so I had to take it out. I remember reaching for it and always being so surprised it wasn’t there.” Kelly and Josh’s oldest son Charlie is now eight and has a few pocketknives himself, which he uses mostly to whittle. “We’re not exactly in the free-range parenting movement ,” Kelly says, “but we don’t want our kids to fear knives – we want them to learn how useful they are.”
I met Todd while we were in line at El Metate. The beautiful wooden handle of his knife was peeking out of the sheath on his belt, and I had to ask about it. It was custom made with Damascus steel, a type of forging that creates beautifully intricate patterns, yet yields a strong and sharp blade. Todd has as many uses for it as he does hats. He’s a member of Langton Labs , works for Black Rock City's Department of Public Works , helps set up network infrastructure for humanitarian aid in countries like Afghanistan – oh, and he’s also mapping the brain in an effort to eventually migrate our minds into The Cloud after our organic bodies are 86’ed. So you can only imagine how useful his knife can be. (Spoiler: The knife he uses for brain mapping is made out of pure diamond.)
I feel perfectly comfortable around Isaac and his knife. That being said, while I was at his house we ended up partaking in a regular ritual of his: throwing knives into his coffee table. He doesn’t do it out of anger, instead, “There’s something cathartic about it – it’s kind of like throwing a dart.” When asked if he’d ever use a knife for self-defense he said, “No, it’s really just like a security blanket.”
Along with using it for mundane shipping tasks around The Rumpus office, The General also has some rather unconventional uses as well: to repair sunglasses with a loose screw, to open bottles of beers (at the handle), and to groom his cuticles (yes, he uses this knife for this).
Tiffany had been eyeing a fellow Blackbird bartender’s knife for years, and last year he finally got her one for Christmas. Tiffany’s fallen in love with how useful it is. In the bar, she says it’s great for cutting citrus in a pinch and opening bottles. But she also works as an interior designer at Ken Fulk , where it comes in handy for unwrapping furniture, and throughout the whole installation process.
She even brought it to the airport on accident one time, and after a beep at the security gate, a check, and the risk of losing it, she ran back outside, gave it to her friend, and ended up missing her flight. “It didn’t matter, I wanted to keep my knife – it’s way more important than making a flight.”
Want to carry a knife? Here’s the legal stuff you need to know: Under California state law, non-switchblade pocketknives of any length in the closed position can be legally carried, concealed, or open-carry (though it’s best to show the clip on your pants pocket). Fixed blades (like The General) must be openly carried. Knives that are disguised as something else (belt buckle, shotgun shell, etc.) are completely banned. Switchblades may be owned privately in the home, but not carried on the street.
If you’re “loitering” with a knife, there’s a whole new set of rules. And while the term loitering isn’t really defined, it just means don’t go waving your knife around – be responsible, use common sense, and you'll have a great tool at your disposal.