IT IS STILL DARK ENOUGH to see the full moon in the west; traffic on State Street is so light one can hear the buzzing of the streetlights. A dark-haired man, standing at the bus stop in front of an office merchandise liquidator watches for the ride that will take him downtown.

"I'm a cook," he mumbles in a thick Hispanic accent, eyeing a busload of droopy-eyed passengers approaching. "I'm at one of the big hotels. The Hilton. No, uh, the Marriott."He steps onto the bus, the interior lights clearly illuminate him as he finds a seat and the bus pulls away.

They're bartenders and bus riders, street-wise punks, prostitutes and business professionals. And at some point each day, their common ground is the north-south thoroughfare that bisects the Salt Lake Valley.

A gauge of social ills, State Street is well-known for its stereotypes: It's a store front for ambitious hookers, a stop-and-shop for drug sales and a reputed gangland.

But beyond the urban folklore are heartening stories of those who simply make their way each day on State; the suburban commuter who pauses for a morning doughnut at Winchell's, the struggling family glad for the cramped motel rental that saves them from living on the street, and more.

In this light, State Street is a kind of community, home to some - as with two Vietnam vets awaiting care at the regional Veterans Administration hospital - and work to others, like the elderly motel manager who single-handedly wards off drug dealers and prostitutes with a no-nonsense attitude and iron fist.

Existing in an environment that is sometimes harsh, always street-wise, they manage to find decency - even humor. And, by their own admission, it's an interesting life.

7:35 a.m.

Outside Wayne's Corner Gas & Grocery, 1300 S. State, two men perch on large rocks under a tree. A backpack lies nearby.

Nicholas and George are homeless veterans. They jovially call out to passengers getting off the bus. "Hey buddy, nice tie." "Going my way, sister?" They swig from their quart-size beer bottles every so often, repeatedly interrupt each other and, after determining the reporter isn't a cop by insisting he show his press card, welcome him to their circle.

"Hey, press man, check this out," Nicholas says, shrugging off his shirt to prove he was wounded as a Marine in Vietnam. Indeed, he carries several bullet-size scars.

"I been on this corner 72 hours," he says. George tells the story of finding Nicholas asleep on the bus bench that morning, with a full beer can placed on his chest by an anonymous nocturnal donor.

"I was expecting pennies on my eyes, a rose on my mouth," Nicholas says.

George is exasperated by Nicholas' naivete - pointing out his buddy was lucky not to have his backpack ripped off while he was sleeping in such an open area. He also scoffs at Nicholas' "anti-mugger attitude adjuster," the handle of a sledgehammer.

"That just shows he hasn't been mugged," George says. "You just try to go for that and you're down - like that," snapping his fingers.

Without warning, Nicholas pulls out a plastic container full of needles, selects one and sticks it in his stomach.

Despite appearances, it's insulin - Nicholas is diabetic. He says that's why he's here - to get his supply of insulin from Salt Lake City's VA hospital. George is in town for treatment of a bad back.

"What are you, crazy?" George says. "If a cop saw you do that he'd come here, hassle us . . ."

"Ah, the cops know me," Nicholas says. "They wave to me when they go by."

8:30 a.m.

A short, thick woman with white hair and missing teeth gets off the bus at Wayne's Corner. She slowly crosses State Street, using a walker. When the light turns, she's stranded. Morning commuters impatiently wait for her to finish crossing.

An Asian youth approaches, wearing sunglasses, a Walkman, sandals, sagging pants and a baseball cap, brim turned back. He guides the woman to the curb.

Not your typical Boy Scout.

The woman, Joyce, and the youth, Tran, know each other. They are both going to classes at Valley Mental Health's Adult Day Treatment Center in nearby Lincoln Plaza.

As they approach the shiny glass building, they are joined by other clients of the center, one of them carrying a tall avocado tree he has nurtured for years.

10:45 a.m.

Statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, containers of holy water, crucifixes and rosaries abound in Mancuso's Religious Goods store on 1792 S. State.

"We're just a little oasis in the middle of all this," owner Carmen Mancuso says.

Although nearby pawn shops often get robbed, Mancuso's, which has been around four years, has been hit only once, and the robber got scared and ran before he got anything.

So are the would-be thieves intimidated by the subject matter of the business?

"I think so," Mancuso says.

Not so for the prostitutes.

"Friday night and Saturday it's really something," Mancuso says. "Just yesterday they were here on the corner, a couple of them."

Recently Mancuso found six used condoms on the drive in the rear of the store.

Even with all that, Mancuso displays a live and let live attitude.

"I've just told the girls I don't like them out here when I'm open," he says. "After hours, that's their business. . . . You know, who are we to cast the first stone?"

Ironically, Mancuso says the prostitutes even help - the nightly heavy traffic of men seeking prostitutes discourages burglars.

Transients on the street aren't confined to prostitutes. When the place was a grocery store, Mancuso spoke to a friend who owned a neighboring business about the possibility of turning it into a religious goods establishment.

You'll never make it work here, his friend had said.

Just then a man with a long beard, apparently a transient, passed by and Mancuso posed the same question to him. The man uttered just two words in response: "Praise God."

He then handed Mancuso a slip of paper: "If we meet and you forget me, you have lost nothing. But if you meet Jesus Christ and forget him, you have lost everything. Jesus loves you."

2:15 p.m.

Through the windows of the southbound bus Chris Nakai rides home, the mid-afternoon bustle of State Street is distorted. The reflected images, like perceptions of the street itself, are slanted and out of proportion.

But Nakai is not fooled. He knows this street well. It is like a friend.

Growing up in Midvale, Nakai felt a certain attraction to the street's nightlife, as his younger friends still do. Now, at 26, he is no longer as fascinated by it, but the street still draws him.

As the bus grinds on, Nakai plots his return. After the heat has given way to cool lights and shadows, he will be back on State.

"Everybody has something to do, or you think you do. Usually we get together somewhere, sit in a parking lot and watch people drive by - until the police come and tell us to move," he smiles. "The police are OK. They're pretty straight up."

Nakai, an American Indian, says he's met every type of person imaginable while hanging out on State. That social interaction keeps him coming back, although there are people he knows to steer clear of.

And many stay away from Nakai and his muscle-bound frame, which towers 6 feet 6 inches off the sidewalk. His voice and manner are soothing, but on the dark of the street he is an imposing figure. It's no wonder he makes friends. A gentle giant is a powerful ally on State.

4:15 p.m.

Lora Quigley wants what any young mother of three wants for her family - a big house with a nice yard in a safe and friendly neighborhood.

Along with her brother Alan and his daughter Heather, Quigley and her children live in one of State Street's few homes, a large four-bedroom house they rent for a reasonable $650 per month. It has a back yard and the neighbors are good folks. And while safety is a real concern, especially for 1 1/2-year-old Alex, the Quigleys have enjoyed their first two months in the old brick house.

Like residents anywhere else in the city, the Quigleys spend occasional evenings on their front porch. Since they're new on the block, they're eager to make friends and don't hesitate to wave at passers-by.

But their friendliness is sometimes misinterpreted - only, it seems, because of their location on State Street. Some cars, they notice, drive by more than once and even pull up to the curb. The occupants, almost always men, might sit and stare or even approach the house.

"I'm standing out here one day and some guy on a white Harley was waiting for me," says Heather Quigley, whose mature appearance belies her tender age of 13. "Some truck drivers thought this was a whore house because we say `hi' to everybody who goes by."

"We like to wave," Lora Quigley admits, her eyes gleaming with innocence.

And they're helpful, too, when they can be. Heather tried to direct a "drunken cowboy" to 500 East, where he said he needed to go. But he kept going west anyway, despite the girl's guidance.

But counseling drunks and being mistaken for prostitutes are not among the Quigleys' complaints, although they'd prefer to be left alone. Their big worry is traffic and the home's proximity to the street. Heather and Alex were nearly hit by a car, Lora Quigley says. There should be a crosswalk nearby, Alan Quigley points out.

On State Street, not everyone is as welcoming of strangers as the Quigleys.

Another of the few homes in the area is unmistakably clear in its attitude toward visitors. No fewer than seven signs adorn the house and fence: "Private Property," "No Trespassing," "Beware of Dog." Plastic covers the windows and an American flag hangs from the porch roof.

Just as residents struggle to maintain some sense of privacy, commercial operators are equally hard-pressed to ward off the curious and criminal-minded.

A few blocks south, Suanne Smith keeps watch outside the Zion's Motel, which she has managed - with an iron fist - for nine months now. Zion's guests can't have visitors after 9 p.m., and those arriving earlier must sign in at the front desk.

And few folks enter Zion's parking lot at 1829 S. State without getting the third degree from Smith, who isn't about to allow prostitutes, drug users or anyone who looks suspicious on the premises.

"There's the potential (for trouble) so we have to police it like crazy. We have to be tyrants," she says. "I want people to feel like they can be safe here. We have quite a long rules list."

And most guests are more than willing to follow the rules, Smith says, because they don't have much choice. Rooms rent for $135 a week, and guests are just happy to have a roof over their heads for that price, she says.

"It's affordable housing for a lot of people who would be homeless otherwise," Smith says. "Most of our residents are coming from better things and trying to get to better things, but they've hit a bump in the road."

4:25 p.m.

As afternoon turns to evening, State Street fills with strangers. But inside the 13th Street Tavern, everybody knows your name.

It's a biker bar, regulars are proud to admit, but it really is a lot like television's Cheers, they say. The same faces show up after work every day. There's a heavyset guy at the bar, and a postal worker will be in later. And if you need a shoulder to lean on, you'll find more than one here.

"I'd say 75 percent (of the bar's customers) live within four miles of this place. And they're all like family, too," says Mike Reed, 46, who's frequented the bar for eight years. "We're just working people."

The bar is a safe haven, but getting inside is the challenge. Little parking is available nearby, and this section of State is at times littered with undesirables, the regulars say.

Kat Davis, the bar's manager, said when problems do arise, response from Salt Lake police is immediate, and overall law enforcement efforts in the area have been "fantastic." But that doesn't change where the bar is located, and no one - from regulars to the ownership - would dare suggest that the tavern find another place to call home, even if there are certain hazards along State.

"We're 13th Street. This is us. We've come a long way with this bar," Davis says. "We've got a lot of (customers) who aren't intimidated" by the area.

6:30 p.m.

The summer sun is benevolent and descending, and State Street is mostly deserted.

On the north end, that is.

But drive down to Wayne's Corner Gas & Grocery, 1300 S. State, and the place is a hot spot.

There's a traffic jam at the pumps. And although the convenience store - with its adjoining tire shop - has a gritty facade, new Hondas, rusty Impalas and souped-up Pontiacs find this common ground.

A steady stream of visitors move in and out of the store, counting change, liberating cigarettes and gulping soft drinks. A few car-less folks line the building's east end, waiting for the bus.

Inside, Thom Brady and Bill Dion work the swing shift. Bill came in two hours after Thom - himself a two-year Wayne's veteran - so he'll be here until 1 a.m. Working here is "insanity, an invading reality," Bill says of the store that never closes.

Wayne Self, an easygoing man who likes to talk, has owned and operated Wayne's Corner since Jan. 1, 1962. It started out as just a full service gas station, but in 1985 he added the convenience store.

Wayne's Corner - just don't let him catch you calling it "Wayne's World," he came first - is one of Salt Lake City's oldest continuously operating small-business service stations.

"It's always been kind of a hang-out for kids," Wayne says. But he laments the rise in gangs and guns on the strip, which was once known only as Highway 89 (it still is, officially), as well as the loss of surrounding neighborhoods.

"I've been through a lot here. (But) I've been here so long, it's kinda hard to change my ways," the 70-year-old Wayne explains. "I have too much invested now. It'd be foolish to sell. I'm an old man: I have few needs and wants."

Wayne owns and operates the business with two sons. But he stays at one of Salt Lake City's most colorful corners because the work is "constantly interesting." Just ask his youngest son, Curtis.

"I've learned a lot about people since working here. I grew up in a nice neighborhood," Curtis says. "I never knew there were so many crooked people in the world. I've gotten taken too many times."

He's also been assaulted by a drug-crazed customer; watched patrons shower the lot with gas after forgetting to take the nozzle out of their tank; and been conned into holding stolen wallets and "hot" rings for customers who claimed they didn't have enough money for fuel.

Wayne says a baby has been delivered on his lot; a clerk has been hit while trying to chase a drive-off; another clerk has watched a policeman be assaulted across the street with his own nightstick; and a lonely man, kicked out by his wife on Christmas Eve, died on his couch.

Last year, Thom, a George Michael look-alike with close-cropped hair, watched "a kid get shot with a fairly large handgun" across the street.

Evening business stalls to a trickle until 8 p.m., when it picks up again. Down-and-out types buy nachos with cheese, young turks come in for beer, parents and children come in for sodas.

10:20 p.m.

A full moon sits high in the sky over the Durango Bar. An hour from now three men, armed with beer bottles, will get into a fight inside the Durango, and not long after that the paramedics will arrive.

But right now State Street feels more like a holiday parade. Teenagers in Ford Escorts and Jeeps and Chevy pickups are doing what teenagers have done since the invention of the car: cruising, parading, showing off.

At this level, State Street is synonymous with motion and flirtation. Seen this way, from a distance, with the car stereos at full blast and the engines revving, and the boys in the pickup from West Valley hollering to the girls in the white Taurus from Bluffdale, there is a certain timeless innocence about it all.

Pretty soon you see that the serious cruising happens between 400 South and Wayne's Corner at 1300 South, and that the real cognoscenti, the ones who really know about cruise control, make their U-turn at 1160 South.

"Meeting anybody?" a reporter asks a blond-haired boy in a truck as they stop side-by-side at a light.

"We had some earlier but they got away," he says.

At another light some boys from West Valley explain how it all works. "You say, `Hey baby, what's up.' " If the objects of desire are interested, everybody pulls over and stops. Conversation ensues. Sometimes romance blossoms.

Kevin and Candi met that way last January. They each drove red Hyundai Excels, reason enough to flirt. They've been going together ever since.

State Street is about cars, which is why the boys standing on the sidewalk in front of the Fred Meyer store at 900 South are so noticeable.

"Call your mom. Tell her to come pick you up," a boy in a Jeep boys yells to the boys on the sidewalk.

Jake McFarland is one of the sidewalk boys. He's from Snowflake, Ariz., but his dad once lived in Salt Lake City. When he heard that Jake was coming to Utah he told him how he used to cruise State when he was a boy.

But Jake, like the other guys on the sidewalk, is in the Job Corps, and the rule in the corps is "no cars." Several nights a week the boys are bused from Clearfield to Salt Lake City for a few hours. They could go anywhere, but they usually choose to hang out on this sidewalk, because State Street is where the action is for teenagers.

Standing on the side of State, with the cars zooming by, you hear stories that can break your heart: how Casey's father left when he was 2 and his mother was always strung out on heroin. None of this is obvious to the boys passing by in the Jeep.

On State, innocence and sadness and danger all co-exist.

And at 11:30, under a full moon, the fight at the Durango will spill out onto State, where all the elements of the night will converge. The paramedics and the police will show up, narrowing the traffic to just one lane. The teenager cruisers will have to slow down and, for just a moment, their attention will be drawn to life on the edges of State Street.