An A-List for an F-ed Year

By NHG Staff

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

For more than three decades, the Nob Hill Gazette’s A-List has served as a cultural touchstone, honoring the region’s most prolific philanthropists, patrons and partyers with a good dose of cheeky reverence. Who made the list? Who topped it? Who was ignominiously left on the cutting-room floor? As legendary former Gazette publisher Lois Lehrman once said: If you didn’t make the list, you had only yourself to blame — accept more invitations and smile more for the camera.

Then again, there’s never been a year quite like 2020. It’s tough to accept invitations to canceled events, and even tougher to fl ash those pearly whites for the camera while sheltering in place in your athleisure finest. The pages of the Gazette last year were still bursting with the names of the accomplished and the up-and-coming, but the dynamic was inescapably different.

With that in mind, we’ve reimagined our annual A-List to better reflect our shared reality. In normal times, the issue reads like the guest list for the Bay Area’s most star-studded, eclectic party. If last year had been a party, we would have left early through the side door. Still, every bad event has its bright spots: the folks to whom we gravitate for solace, humor, commiseration and support.

2021’s A-Listers are the stars who shone brightest amid one of the darkest years anyone can remember. They are those who lifted us up, made us smile and fostered connection in a profoundly alienating time. As years pass and the details begin to fade, these are the people and images that will forever form the broad outlines of our recollection.

Without further ado, we present the 2021 A-List.

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

The everyday citizen’s starring role: Crusader for democracy

Four years ago, President Barack Obama issued a soaring farewell address that appealed to our better nature as Americans. After invoking George Washington’s warning about those who would diminish our collective experiment in self-government, Obama echoed former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in noting, “We all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: citizen.”

In 2020, Obama’s words proved prescient. While our elected officials may represent the end result of our democratic process, the crux of the American enterprise is better embodied by the thousands of Americans who braved a deadly viral pathogen and threats of partisan violence in order to secure the pillars of our democracy: the 2020 decennial census and the 2020 presidential election.

The census was so important that the founders of our country included it in Article 1 of the Constitution. Of course, they probably never anticipated what it would take to pull off the count in a sprawling country of 330 million during a pandemic. “Crazy stuff happened that made my nose twitch,” remembers Douglas Edwards, a census field supervisor in Alameda County. He recalls curious personnel deployments, malfunctioning equipment and a range of technical headaches among the challenges, including one well-meaning census worker being chased from a home with a machete. “It was a frustrating experience filled with extremely dedicated people,” he says.

No sooner had Edwards wrapped up his service for the U.S. Census than preparations began for the 2020 general election. Edwards, now an “accessible voting location judge” for the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, played an operative role in ensuring a safe, secure election process at a key Oakland voting site. “I enjoyed telling people when they came in: ‘We are a super-spreader environment and we will take 110% precautions,’” Douglas says. His role — traditionally focused on ensuring proper voting protocols — had been expanded to include compliance with proper COVID protocols. “It was hard work, but I really enjoyed it,” he says.“There are a lot of people who do it, and they would all say the same thing. I would characterize them as crusaders.” — Frank Holland

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Making sure the band plays on 

KC Turner sounds excited. It’s an almost extinct quality in anyone’s voice these days — even more surprising coming from an artist and concert booker whose entire industry has imploded in the last year. But for the first time in months, Turner is hopeful. Live music in the Bay Area isn’t dead yet. And it won’t be, if he can help it.

Since last October, the San Francisco resident has booked more than 35 private concerts in people’s backyards and driveways across the Bay. Guests have cried tears of joy. Artists, who’ve been banished to the depths of Zoom for the last several months, have rejoiced. And Turner, well, he’s just happy to be doing what he does best again: connecting people.

Since leaving his corporate post at Birkenstock’s Novato headquarters 10 years ago, Turner has been promoting, booking and presenting in the local music scene full time. Through his namesake company, KC Turner Presents, the Columbia, Missouri, native has developed a fierce following for his intimate house concerts and the huge Cookout Concert Series that he puts together every year at the HopMonk Tavern in Novato. (One Gazette editor calls him the “next Bill Graham.”)

After he had to cancel a year’s worth of shows last March and his newfound side projects ran their course — Turner tried his hand at podcasting and even made face masks with his company’s tagline, “i like you” — he and the singer-songwriter Megan Slankard decided to pursue their joint idea of doing socially distanced shows. There would be details to work out. We were in a pandemic, after all. But wouldn’t it be nice, even from afar, to experience live music again?

Turner came up with a set of strict COVID restrictions: a limited number of guests were allowed, and they had to wear masks at all times while remaining 6 feet from each other and at least 15 feet from the artists. There would be a flat fee, ranging from $500 to $3,000, that went directly in the musicians’ pockets (KC’s rate is worked out with the artists and is confidential, he says).

Slankard kicked o the tour with eight shows in two days in October, followed by performances from Poor Man’s Whiskey, Steve Poltz and others. All of them sold out. Now, Turner is looking toward the future with a fully booked spring lineup for his backyard tour (interested parties can find more information at kcturnerpresents.com). “Live music is such apart of the foundation of a community,” he says. “It’s something that can bring together people, no matter what your beliefs are.”

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Devoted to the health of our best friends

Buried in the feel-good news of record pet adoptions during the pandemic is the story of the medical providers who care for them. Just as doctors across the country were forced to change protocols for routine checkups, so were veterinarians, who also were encouraged by the CDC to postpone nonurgent office visits. And in the city of St. Francis, which may be home to more pets than children, the need for veterinary care became greater than ever.

For SFSPCA’s director of community medicine, Dr. Jena Valdez, the pandemic intensified the challenges that existed pre-COVID. As the vet in charge of the organization’s low-cost clinics, she spent the first few months of the pandemic working seven-day weeks to keep up with the demand — and logistical puzzle pieces. But, looking back, she acknowledges that it forced her to problem-solve — and come up with better ways to serve people and their pets. SFSPCA’s Walk-In Wellness Clinic became the Call Ahead Clinic and doubled its hours, while providing actual time slots to prevent pet owners from congregating while waiting. The Spay/Neuter Clinic can accommodate more pets than ever, and the mobile vaccine clinic that was formerly located beside a senior center now offers drive-through services at the Cow Palace, serving a part of the City traditionally lacking in veterinary services. For Valdez, pet needs go hand in hand with the needs of owners, and she stresses that circumstances have changed for many in the past year — from losing a job to requiring something as basic as flea medication to prevent a housing eviction.

And yet, she concedes, “People need animals more than ever right now. I think that goes without saying.” For SFSPCA, it’s shaping up to be a banner year for shelter adoptions, with nearly 4,500 animals finding new homes. Unsurprisingly, it’s also meant escalating requests for routine vet visits and vaccinations. And at SFSPCA’s Pacific Heights campus, there’s been a growing demand for emergency services for pets referred by smaller veterinary practices that can’t keep up.

“It’s been a challenging time, but it’s also a really hopeful time,” Valdez says. “I feel like people have really stepped up and really embraced, and understand, the power of the human-animal bond more than ever. And that has brought some great clients to us. That’s the work that sustains us.” — Jennifer Blot

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

She saw the storm coming and took the helm

Serving as both health officer and public health director for Santa Clara County, Sara Cody, M.D., issued shelter-in-place orders on March 16, 2020, making Santa Clara County the first to do so in the entire country. By March 19, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the rest of the state to stay home, the first of 30 statewide orders issued by the end of the month. According to a May article in The Mercury News, Cody’s swift action contributed to measures that helped prevent some 188,000 hospitalizations and 19,000 deaths in California counties, including Santa Clara, which also happens to be the county where Cody was born and raised.

In a pandemic, that is leadership.

Having worked through SARS and H1N1, Cody has been far in front of what most of us never saw coming, even as reports from a locked-down Wuhan, China, circulated on National Public Radio airwaves last January, when Cody established an incident command center to set Santa Clara County up for its early success. But any county or country’s ability to reach and sustain containment depends on a developed and consistent public health infrastructure, as Cody pointed out to her alma mater’s publication, Stanford Medicine, for a piece published last October. “This has been an extraordinarily humbling and challenging event,” she said. “We have this system that sometimes feels like it’s made of matchsticks sand Scotch tape.”

Indeed, by the much-anticipated dawn of 2021, California’s overall ability to keep the virus at bay feels like the breaking of a dam — and the resulting flood — with more than 3 million cases, nearly 35,000 Californians who have lost their lives, and Santa Clara Country reporting its highest numbers yet.

As Cody said last summer, “I hope that we look back and say, ‘Let’s learn and let’s invest so that we do better next time.’”

Because if there is anything a health officer like Cody knows, it’s this: There will be a next time. But as the forefront of the fight continues to come into focus, so, too, do opportunities for innovation. And Silicon Valley, with all its forethought, should be the ultimate command center to meet it. — Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Art, with a dash of drama, in the time of COVID

When the City issued its March 17, 2020, shelter-in-place health order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, most San Francitizens assumed the inconvenience would be brief.

Yet our everyday life — office, shopping, dining with friends — ground to a screeching halt. And a sobering reality set in: We had become CV-19 shut-ins, tethered to our computer screens while attempting to mute our Zoom mics.

As streets emptied and nonessential retail shuttered, our neighborhoods transformed into ghost towns populated by plywood-protected shop windows.

In early April, I made a brief, slightly fearful foray along an empty Fillmore Street. And that’s when I noticed them: random Honey Bear silhouettes, wheat-pasted to apocalyptic wood palettes in this formerly vibrant district.

We’ve all seen them: the cheerful bear-shaped bottle that fnnch, an elusive techentrepreneur turned street artist, imbues with EssEff-centric flavor: the Pride Bear, the SFFD Bear, the Giants Bear. But his COVID bears, sheathed in face masks, were a different breed — depicted with a glass of wine, red hearts or pizza slices. One bear’s spout transformed into a pump, primed to dispense a belly of bright blue liquid — our now-sacred hand sanitizer.

Focusing in on their accoutrements, my eyes filled with tears: fnnch reimagined his bears as talismans of hope, a communal wink of care during those dark, early days.

Yet SF being SF, many things public (bike lanes, navigation centers, civic art, the best burrito joint) become political. As did fnnch — when another street artist, EssEff native cartoonist Ricky Rat “assaulted” fnnch’s bears with his rodent graffiti, accusing the jolly Ursidae as tone-deaf to the City’s grim social realities of homelessness and economic inequity.

At first I was annoyed. Most especially at folks who deprived their neighbors of the simple joy of spotting a random fnnch bear — which they’d scrape off buildings as their personal, and free, art souvenir. But with many former pleasures, like museums, still off limits, that two street artists silently engaged in a spray-painted conversation about the state of our City — and what joy means — tells me that San Francisco, like its symbolic Phoenix flag, will rise again. — Catherine Bigelow

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

In a class of their own

With the majority of California kids out of in-person school for the better part of the last year, “pandemic pods,” in places where they’ve been able to safely spring up, have mitigated the effects of prolonged social isolation.

For a Santa Cruz Mountains community like my own — lined with redwoods and not wanting for outdoor space — podding up has been a portal to normalcy. Parents bond over Zoom snafus during distanced drive-way hangs, and a grand total of six kids under the age of 10 get muddy and merry during outdoor parallel play. We’ve also called in masked reinforcements for Friday afternoon enrichment: art and music teachers whose regular classes were canceled.

A crowning glory has been provided by engineer Jay Hamlin, a neighbor who retired shortly before the pandemic hit (his career included time at Apple, where he worked in the iPod division going back to 2002). With his engineering passion still strong and time abundant, he put together a six-week STEAM syllabus that had the kids assembling their own flashlights, figuring out the workings of an electric motor, and creating printable 3D cookie cutters. “Mostly, I want them to go away with the notion that making is fun,” Hamlin says.

In early December — after our first real rains, COVID-19 cases again rising and a collective sense that even our pod would have to disband once a new stay-at-home order reached our county — Hamlin helped the kids launch their very own rockets, constructed of 2-liter soda bottles, cone-shaped party hats and cardboard fins. Fueled with water and pressurized — until POP! — the rockets blasted out of sight for several seconds, the kids having cracked a new code of their physical world. A world now with adults at a distance, but trusted, and kids hollering in the woods as they might in any other year. And for those moments, their parents don’t worry about all they are missing.

Challenging as much of it has been, communities like mine have cobbled together a time their children might remember for what they enjoyed as much as what they survived. Because in a pandemic it still takes a village — or a pod. —Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

GPS gives way to an internal compass 

The legendary poet T.S. Eliot was wrong; April is not the cruelest month. That distinction goes to March, whose “in like a lion, out like a lamb” tagline belies the depth of its malice.

It was the second week of the month when the walls began closing in. We left our offices. On the way out, we grabbed items we would need for the next two weeks — tangled charging cables and file folders, scrawled-upon notepads and laptops. We cast a fleeting glance at the plants that would soon be dead from unanticipated neglect.

Together, we went home alone. For months, we stayed there.

Haphazardly, we emerged in unfamiliar places. A windswept trail atop Mount Tam. Mile 77 of a 100-mile bike ride. An online language program. Phone calls with estranged friends. Over and over again, decisions to try something new unveiled hidden passions.

Freed from the tyranny of our well-worn routines, we learned to embrace uncertainty in new and creative ways. Many professionals with newfound job mobility took the opportunity to leave their homes in major U.S. metros entirely.

“All of the things that we loved most about Chicago are gone, so what’s left?” says Bobak Farzin, who had called the Windy City home for 15 years. In June, the former hedge fund programmer decamped with his wife and their four young children for bucolic Fraser, Colorado, where they spent much of the summer — working remotely, enjoying the outdoors and the slower pace of life. “It’s just a different environment. There’s so much less anxiety in the atmosphere.”

Farzin’s geographic dislocation led to a career pivot as well. Disillusioned with his career in high finance, he tendered his resignation in August. “I just … let go of the rope,” he says. “It felt amazing.” After coordinating a permanent move west following the family’s summer sojourn, Farzin — a UC Berkeley–educated engineer and machine learning expert — joined a buzzy Mountain View company developing self-driving-car technology. “I can’t describe it,” Farzin says. “In some ways, the tumult was exactly what I needed to shake free.” — Frank Holland

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Sparking the conversations that matter 

Last summer, as we experienced one of the most intense racial reckonings of our time, people at home were searching for guidance. They looked to Black scholars, writers and activists — many of whom had been addressing systemic racism and prejudice in their work for years — along with ordering many, many copies of White Fragility on Amazon.

One of the people leading these conversations is Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford whose long-term research on race and bias in the criminal justice system, schools and neighborhoods recently received the nationwide attention it deserves.

She has worked with police departments to better their relationship with people of color, including the Oakland Police Department, and is the author of the acclaimed 2019 book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.

Six months ago, Eberhardt did a now widely circulated TED Talk where she broke down what racial bias looks like in action. She told a profound story about the time she was with her young son on an airplane. Eberhardt’s son noticed the only other Black passenger and said: “Hey! That guy looks like Daddy!”The man did not look anything like Daddy, Eberhardt insists, but even more troubling, her son followed up with: “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.” Eberhardt paused. Why would he say such a thing? Eberhardt’s son didn’t know why he said it — or even thought it — but his mom knew. It’s her job to know.

“This association between Blackness and crime made its way into the mind of my 5-year-old. It makes its way into all of our children. Into all of us,” she says in the TED Talk, her large brown eyes piercing through the screen. “Our minds are shaped by the racial disparities we see out in the world and the narratives that help us to make sense of the disparities we see.”

Last year alone, Eberhardt’s ground-breaking work was featured in The NewYork Times and on CNN, PBS, the BBC and more. She’s also the co-director of Stanford’s “do-tank,” SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions).

Reflecting on police reform last June, Eberhardt said to Time: “Well, it’s a moment in time where everyone’s focused on this, and I think really want to see these issues addressed, and I just hope that the actions that follow are actions that produce that change. And that there would be a role for evidence-based practices.” — Julissa James

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Keeping the boats afloat and customers full

Since the 1890s, amid two ownership incarnations — both immigrant fishing families who also provided succor to 1906 earthquake survivors sheltering in Golden Gate Park — Swan Oyster Depot has supplied San Francisco with fresh, succulent seafood.

Unlike many of its restaurant brethren — some crushed by our COVID-19 crisis — this Polk Gulch institution has not lost a single day of business since the pandemic. Swan’s model is built on to-go or large delivery orders. And its marble counter only counts 18 coveted stools. Yet, Swan reigns as one of San Francisco’s few remaining centenarian dining establishments — a narrow building, always flanked by a (pre-COVID) line of patient devotees.

When the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed our burgeoning city, Swan’s founders — the Danish Lausten brothers — lost their Fisherman’s Wharf seafood shed. So they supplied wheat for bread making to refugee tent-dwellers. Though the men’s paths had not yet crossed, Sicilian immigrant and Bay fisherman Vincent Sancimino was also landing back on his feet after the earthquake and had met his wife in Golden Gate Park, where she was serving soup to survivors.

Their son, Salvatore Sancimino, purchased Swan Oyster Depot at its Polk Street locale in 1946 from Lausten descendants. And for the last 74 years, it has remained a Sancimino family enterprise.

Now run by his sons, Steve, Tom, Jim and Vince Sancimino, everyone’s worked a range of positions — from dishwasher and deliveryman to countertop oyster shucker.

Despite the family’s steady stream of business, Steve Sancimino is concerned for others, and frustrated with California’s COVID leadership: “When our governor and mayor think it’s cool to eat at French Laundry, that’s a slap in the face to everyone trying to survive their lockdowns.” The sole city official Sancimino sympathizes with is his health inspector, who makes weekly visits regarding anonymous complaints about three Swan employees, all medically exempt from wearing masks.

Sancimino feels blessed that Swan remains busy. But it’s lonely at the counter.“Now we have more work space. But we miss our regulars, many generational customers,” explains Steve Sancimino. “Everyone loved the counter interaction: We’re not waiters, we’re the entertainment.” — Catherine Bigelow

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Conveying what mere words cannot

In any crisis, we rely on those on the front lines as well as on those who relay accurate, up-to-date information. Last April, as the COVID crisis crested and daily press briefings became standard, Certified Deaf Interpreter Michael McMahon saw the increasing need for ASL interpretation and trained to become a credentialed disaster response interpreter.

By mid-August, as the CZU Lightning Complex fires were raging from coastal Pescadero through the ancient redwoods of Big Basin State Park to surrounding mountain communities, McMahon accepted what would become an 11-day assignment and include more than 20 press briefings at CalFire’s Incident Base Camp in Scotts Valley. McMahon, who is Deaf, worked alongside hearing sign-language interpreter Pam Cavazos, who stood behind the camera and signed to McMahon — in what’s known as a “Z formation.”

“On events and assignments that threaten people’s lives and/or liberty, it is critical that I work with someone I’m familiar with and trust implicitly,” says McMahon, who has a standout partnership with Cavazos in a field where interpreters, while close-knit, often work alone.“

It was absolutely vital that I got the correct information out to Deaf people who were watching, while making sure to convey the officials’ confident and calm demeanor,” McMahon continues. “That meant I couldn’t appear to be panicking or unsure of what was being interpreted to me while interpreting what was being said by the officials, which would have appeared as if they were panicking to Deaf viewers.”

Off camera, the two spent hours preparing for the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. press briefings, which were also posted to Cal Fire CZU’s social media for the 77,000 evacuated residents of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. On camera, as Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox regularly announced the daily numbers: acres burned, percent containment, structures lost (ultimately 1,500, largely single-family homes), McMahon’s consistent presence was like a salve.

“I heard from a number of residents how comforting it was for them to watch me work in tandem with such a talented and experienced group of fire men and sheriffs, and that we had become a bookend to their days,” says McMahon. “While the purpose of my work is to provide language access to the Deaf community, an unintended product of my being there was that I also brought some solace to the general population.” — Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Bringing brushstrokes of magic when reality bites

Dragons, mermaids, wizards … a dose of mythological magic during an all-too-real pandemic. It started during the first shelter-in-place, when Mary Kay Mitchell grabbed some chalk and left a rainbow heart on the sidewalk in front of her Redwood City home, along with the words: “When this is all over, what will YOU remember…?”

Mitchell had no idea that it was only the beginning — of the spiraling health crisis, and her own 2020 story. Inspired by the reactions of neighbors and passersby, she did more. Then came the buzz on Nextdoor, followed by anonymous gifts of chalk, potato chips and wine left on her doorstep. People went out of their way to walk by Mitchell’s house, including a 3-year-old devotee, Veronica, who christened her “Chalk Granny.” Mitchell’s own young grandson was unfazed, but he’s accustomed to his wildly creative grandma, who worked 30 years as a graphic designer and has long made fanciful creations.

Armed with a wicked sense of humor and a tote bag full of chalk, Mitchell fields requests from Atherton to Oakland for bespoke driveway murals — sunflowers, sports themes, unicorns galore — to cheer up depressed adolescents, kids who can’t have birthday parties, and homebound nonagenarians. The rotation on her own sidewalk includes a 30-foot-long salute to first responders, a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, hopscotch and holiday motifs. Politics are avoided most of the time, though Mitchell breezed through three sticks of blue, two sticks of white, and one red for a massive Biden-Harris banner for a neighbor whose lawn signs were repeatedly stolen.

Ellen Jacobson, a fan who commissioned artworks for family members, notes: “Mary Kay has a unique gift: Creating visual joy and bringing love to every driveway/sidewalk that she has transformed by her talent, her artwork and her desire to put smiles on our faces during this difficult time.” In the past year, Mitchell says she’s met more people in her town than in the 14 years she’s lived there. She still has her day job at a law firm, but weekends are for making magic. With the modest fees she charges, she supports her fancy chalk habit (handmade by a supplier in Michigan) and sends donations to Second Harvest Food Bank.

For some, there’s a sense of loss when Chalk Granny’s art succumbs to weather and time. For Mitchell, it’s symbolic: “Chalk is like COVID — it’s temporary.” — Jennifer Blot

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

The lighthouse at the end of the tunnel 

Just steps from Ocean Beach, a tiny stretch of Taraval Street is the City’s shortest “slow street,” part of an SFMTA shared-space program that limits cars on Sundays, encouraging pedestrians and cyclists to take over — and celebrate.

Until our latest lockdown, the weekly closure of this single Parkside block (between 46th and 47th avenues) provided a multitude of emotional and economic sustenance to a block buoyed by celebrated small businesses, including Tunnel Records + Beach Goods, White Cap, Andytown Coffee — and — most especially, The Riptide.

Since 1941, this funky juke joint, kitted out with knotty pine and a working fireplace, has served as a down-home hub of camaraderie and cocktails. Purchased in 2004 by musicians Les James and David Quinby, the former dive was transformed into a hot spot of live music (bluegrass, punk and DJ sessions) — and even romance. Surfer and Lo-Tide Press graphic artist Eddie Clark, creator of The Riptide’s signature wave logo, met his wife, Lindsay, at the bar. In 2015, James and Quinby also nimbly arose from the ashes of a devastating fire.

“The COVID shutdown is more complicated than our fire rebuild,” says James. “But when the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) allowed bars to sell off-sale cocktails, which is unprecedented, we thought it was some sort of trick.”

By April 2020, The Riptide was one of the first bars to expertly organize safe, socially distanced outdoor service. Nearby Brothers Pizza partnered with the bar to sell slices. Fleet Wood SF designed Riptide merchandise, with sales supporting staff. A Sunday afternoon sound permit allowed masked musicians to jam from a truck flatbed. James and Quinby pivoted online with Facebook updates and QuaranSING, a virtual open mic for artists and fans, led by musician Charlie Kaupp. Riptide manager Jean Fontana hosts virtual bingo.

“In three days, the system was up and running, and our staff was working again,” explains James. “Riptide regulars tearfully reunited. Even musicians like Suzanne Ramsey (aka Kitten on the Keys) got weepy. Bar patrons helped us build a saloon-style parklet. Now we’re only allowed ‘walk-tail’ to-go sales. But with Sunday Streets, before outdoor service was banned, it felt like a real neighborhood again.” — Catherine Bigelow

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Armed with ideas, teens triumph

Actually, there are four: Shrey Varma, Matthew Gin, Michael McKane and Ryan Tabibian — University High School seniors and musicians, who, in response to our COVID lockdown — developed a live music platform: Virtual Music Performances. Varma’s LinkedIn profile identifies him as a UHS student who also studies precollege guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, while serving as VMP’s CEO.

Their school’s music program is renowned:UHS boasts a jazz ensemble, recording studio, classical chamber groups, the Camerata Choir and educators such as Terrence Brewer, an award-winning jazz guitarist who also teaches at Stanford Jazz Workshop, where McKane and Tabibian have further honed their licks under Brewer’s tutelage. Oh, and in Tabibian’s spare time? He’s an intern to District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani.

Since May 17, the VMP co-founders have hosted monthly Zoom concerts featuring other talented high school musicians, all of whom are currently unable to perform before a live audience or resume their conservatory studies. But the real kicker? While the concerts are free, viewers are asked to consider donations. But not to support the platform — instead, VMP identifies local charities and arts organizations. The current tally isn’t record-breaking, but so far, VMP has sent checks to Feeding America ($319.51), Black Lives Matter ($240) and SF Jazz ($425).

Viewers and artists sign up via VMP’s website. A VMP founder spotlights each musician, who plays a solo piece from their home. “Ryan and Michael played one live duet in a garage,” says Varma. “We hope to do more in our final semester of school, depending on everyone’s comfort level.”

And thanks to the technical wizardry of Gin, this quartet learned to expertly lay down complex tracks.

“We opened the November concert, our largest-ever audience of 150 viewers, with Van Morrison’s Moondance, shares Varma. “We prerecorded our individual parts and sent them to Matthew, who mix-mastered them into a seamless video. That song requires 15 different instruments, so it was pretty cool.”

During the summer, VMP produced twice-monthly concerts. But in December, these student musicians pressed pause to complete their college applications. Stay tuned: On a computer screen near you, VMP’s next concert is scheduled for February 21. (For details, go to virtualmusicperformances.com.) — Catherine Bigelow

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

Capturing 2020’s chaos and conflict

Ubiquitous masks. Uncontrolled wildfires. Angry protesters. Election chaos. The images of 2020 are indelible even in the minds of those who sheltered in place for months, thanks to the photojournalists tasked with documenting — and helping make sense of — it all. For Getty Images news photographer Justin Sullivan, it was business as usual this time last year — plane rides and rental cars — covering the presidential primaries. But, by March, a puzzling story was brewing closer to home aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship, circling off the San Francisco Bay. From utilizing drone technology to hover over the ship to, later, capturing bird’s-eye views of San Francisco’s eerily vacant school campuses and the chalky-white social-distancing circles at Dolores Park, Sullivan told the story of an unfolding pandemic.

“Having lived here for more than 25years, to see Geary Street completely empty — not a single car, not a single person — was completely mind-blowing,” he recalls. He routinely showed up at COVID testing centers and hospitals but was forced to get creative, balancing on stacked boxes to shoot over fences. Despite a fierce tenacity honed in his 25 years in the business, only one hospital granted access.

Sullivan ended up taking eight COVID tests of his own in 2020 for clearance to cover political events, though access during the pandemic paled to past years on the campaign trail alongside John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Looking back at his calendar— a surreal timeline of presidential politics, the Pelosi “hairgate” and wildfire after wildfire — Sullivan lingers on the entry for a Black Lives Matter protest in late spring, noting, “That’s when things got weird for me.” He was robbed of his gear at gunpoint — two Canons, a laptop and his passport — after covering a nighttime protest in Oakland, and the rampant looting and burning buildings that followed. A few months later, after a Trump rally in Georgia, Sullivan experienced his first on-the-job injury as he zipped back to his rental car, parked a mile away, and took a tumble on the uneven ground in the dark.

For Sullivan, who is back on his feet and whose images from 2020 were memorialized in a slideshow in The Atlantic in December, the work is worth the rough patches. He feels strongly that it’s his duty as a journalist to inform the public. What’s more, he says: “It’s my happy place.” — Jennifer Blot

Illustrated by Jon Adams.

A hub for locals and those who need essentials

We don’t call them bodegas here. Ever. In San Francisco, they’re colloquially called “the corner store.” And for generations of apartment dwellers, they represent a daily beacon of sustenance (even in those late hours) and friendly faces. The corner store is also a haven for the solo shopper who lives nearby in a studio, runs out of dish soap and requires only a small bottle — not a gallon jug.

Mayflower Market, in existence since the 1920s at the corner of Jackson and Fillmore streets, is a shining light in Pacific Heights. In 1996, it was purchased by the Prongos brothers: Peter, Angelo and Lefty Prongos, Greek immigrants who formerly ran a produce market on Clement Street. They kept the name and distinctive royal blue awning — along with a classic deli counter where devoted customers patiently line up for freshly made world-class sandwiches that cost less than 10 bucks. Even Rep. Nancy Pelosi, when the speaker of the House happens to be home, has been spotted in line, placing her order for turkey on a Dutch Crunch roll.

After the pandemic shutdown was lifted, the Prongos brothers and some of their children, all of whom work regular shifts, remained open daily as an essential business. And for months, Mayflower Market was one of the only businesses open in this ’hood once jam-packed with foot traffic. Even as the shelves at Target were stripped bare of basics, Mayflower managed to source coveted packs of medical-grade face masks and rubbing alcohol — and didn’t gouge their customers for that privilege. Neighbors were thrilled to find Mayflower stocked with fresh produce and “white gold,” even if the toilet paper was an unrecognized brand. Not only did the Prongoses manage to keep all their longtime staffers employed, the store grew so busy with a slew of new shoppers that other family members were drafted to assist.

“At the beginning, it was a little frightening, that fear of the unknown,” admits Sam Prongos, Peter’s son, who’s worked 10 years at Mayflower. “We implemented safety precautions, and ‘going to the office’ felt more routine — especially knowing we were supporting our community.” — Catherine Bigelow

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