It’s a chilly San Francisco morning in February, and outside Zendesk’s office at 989 Market Street—in the heart of the city’s rough-and-tumble Tenderloin district—stands the Mayor. Not interim mayor Mark Ferrell, but the real mayor of this part of town: David Lofton.
For the past six years, Lofton has kept a close eye on the patch of brick sidewalk outside the building’s tinted windows, ensuring the safety of tenants while building relationships with people on the street—neighbors, visitors, and those who face a difficult day-to-day experience.
“It is definitely getting better,” says Lofton, who can be seen rain-or-shine wearing his trademark military-style beret. “When I first came there were often drug dealers and fights all up and down the street. Today it just feels like it is getting better.”
Originally from Vallejo, California, a working-class town overlooking San Pablo Bay, Lofton and his siblings moved to Mississippi in the late ’50s to live with their grandparents. It was there—when he was just four years old—that Lofton first experienced racism and the humiliating effects of Jim Crow-era segregation, when he unknowingly drank from the “wrong” fountain. He recalls his grandmother having to not only apologize to angry whites for his supposed transgression but being forced to clean the fountain “so white people could drink from it again.” It’s a memory that remains raw, all these years later.
“It taught me not to let anyone feel as low as I did when I was four years old,” Lofton says. “I hold my head above no man or woman. I hold to that to this day.”
At age 17—after getting into what he admits was a “bit of trouble”—he slipped his grandfather a piece of paper that was supposedly a permission slip for school. Instead, it was a waiver that allowed him to join the US Marine Corps. Soon he found himself in boot camp, which then led to duty with two tours in Vietnam during the early ’70s as part of the Marine Corps’ Force Reconnaissance, where his job was “green operations”—finding the enemy, assessing its strength, and reporting back without engaging those forces.
After serving for a decade in the military, Lofton found himself back in the Bay Area, adrift and battling both post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. That might have been the end of his story had he not met his future wife, who helped him land a security job at Kaiser Permanente. Her support and love helped get him back on track, Lofton says.
That egalitarian worldview gets tested everyday outside the door of 989 Market Street, where pedestrians can see Lofton standing upright, feet slightly apart, eyes always scanning for trouble. Behind his no-nonsense air—an unavoidable necessity in a neighborhood plagued by homelessness, drug addiction, and despair—lies a deep compassion for those who have hit hard times.
“You will see them walk by—maybe they’re dirty, haven’t had a shower in a while,” Lofton says. “But you look them in the eye. And it opens them up, because no one pays attention to them.”
Lofton’s compassion extends to everyone who walks through the front door, from Zendesk employees to delivery workers. Without fail, he greets every person by name (or with a playful military rank such as “admiral” or “LT” for lieutenant). One moment he’s teasing an employee about eating French fries in the lobby, the next he’s playfully ribbing a deliveryman about not being around “in a month of Sundays.” His ability to read emotions at first seems preternatural, but as he points out, he simply pays attention. “I can tell when they have too much work on their minds,” Lofton says. “Everyone has that gift—to see what people are feeling—they just don’t use it.”
Lofton, who lives with his wife and daughter in San Francisco’s Baypoint neighborhood (he has an 18-year-old son studying psychology at Sonoma State University), has become a beloved figure for Zendesk employees.
“The very first time I came to this office for my interview, David greeted me with a smile, asked my name, and wished me luck,” says Zendesk employee Kate McMahon. “On my first day of work three weeks later, I walked in and David said, ‘Miss Kate, welcome to Zendesk.’ I was floored.”
For Lofton, showing that kind of attention to detail and kindness comes with the territory, but behind it all lies a sense of gratitude and an intense loyalty to Zendesk. “Zendesk is like the older brother of the other tenants here,” Lofton says. “They’ve taken care of me since day one. This is my house.”
To learn more about building empathy in everyday interactions in your life, check out this article on our Zendesk Relate blog.