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‘My tree’ on California Street

The unusual tree outside the market on California Street.

FIRST PERSON | BARBARA CORFF

I don’t know exactly why the tree in front of Mollie Stone’s first caught my attention.

Perhaps it was the tiny, palmate-shaped leaves sprouting at the base of the tree that seemed unusual. Having worked with naturalists in the Presidio developing tours for the National Park Service, I want to understand the natural world.

I looked up into the canopy to try and identify the basic shape, which has been spread by years of pruning to remain below the overhead lines running down the sidewalk on California Street. I stood back to grasp the size and see if it looked like any other trees I had seen.

I was stumped. And now I was on a hunt for an answer.

This tree stood out and felt special. It seemed old. San Francisco has a fairly routine palette of trees in our neighborhood: London plane trees, whose knobby branches are clipped back every year, a few magnolia trees, Victorian Box, with their fragrant white flowers, and a few others.

I have lived in San Francisco since 1979, first visiting the Fillmore to see movies at the Clay Theatre after eating savory cordon bleu crepes next door at Millard’s. I moved to the corner of California and Fillmore Streets in 1984. My local shop was the Bi-Rite, on the southeast corner, where the poet Mark Mitchell worked before he moved up the street to D&M Liquors.

I worked at home as a graphic designer and, for social interaction, sold designer men’s clothing for my friend Jon Stevenson at The Producer, which was next door to the fun group of Iris Fuller’s employees at Fillamento. We had customers from all over San Francisco and locals who just stopped by for conversation. I helped Robin Williams, John Traina and Steve Perry there, and became friends with many fascinating Fillmore personalities. We knew all the merchants and movers, as well as local characters like Gloria, who was often near the donut shop at Fillmore and California asking for a quarter.

I shopped for flowers at Kyo’s, the lovely Japanese flower shop just north of Sacramento Street, where I could practice my few words of Japanese, and ordered take-out sushi down the street at Maruya. With charming toys and gadgets, my go-to for graphics supplies was the Brown Bag, where I would grab a quick visit with busy employee and friend Barbara Wyeth. There were still local drug stores with racks of gift cards and sundries, as well as a pharmacy. My co-worker Michael Sabino at Button Down loved eating mayo-filled egg sandwiches in the mornings in the old fashioned booths at Lee’s diner on California Street. My artist friend Will Barker and I created window displays for the Beauty Store across the street each month. We had dinners with jeweler Marc Willner, and ran into Peter Tork of the Monkees while making copies at the Copy Center. I loved the candy array at Fletcher McLean, a lively place.

It was also a time of panhandlers and the beginnings of gentrification. I finally moved to quieter Presidio Heights when I tired of standing in line for restaurants and negotiating my way, as I did my errands, through tourists shopping on Fillmore. 

I still walk to Fillmore for pastries at La Boulangerie, a coffee at Peet’s, fish for our aquarium at Aqua Forest, some finds at Goodwill and groceries at the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, where the friendliest cashiers in the universe work.

But back to “my tree” on the sidewalk outside the market. I posted photos of the tree online, but got no replies. Then a friend mentioned a book she carried along to learn about trees in the city as she was taking daily walks while sheltering in place. I sent her my photos, and she double-checked with a landscape architect friend.

Finally I discovered this may be an unusual tree some call a Field Maple or Hedge Maple. A website maintained by the Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute says there’s one in Strybing Arboretum, but I cannot find any other examples in San Francisco.

I searched to see who lived at this address before the grocery store was built, hoping to find an historic photo with my tree in front. “An elegant nine room house” was advertised at 2435 California in 1900. Names I found from this era were Cook, Colonel Sutherland, Thomas and Mary Gilbert, Butler Shaw. It seems this home rented rooms. In 1928, Senator and Mrs. Otis F. Glenn of Illinois made it their home for a short time. But the addresses may have changed.

Newspaper articles report that Grand Central Market opened at 2435 California in 1941, and there are earlier listings for a Grand Central Liquors. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was once on the block.

I’d love to know more about “my tree.”

The canopy of the tree on California Street.

It may be one of a kind

“You have a great eye!” says arborist Roy Leggitt, a longtime neighborhood resident.

“It is likely Acer platanoides, a Norway Maple. I nominated that very tree for Landmark Tree status, but the Department of Public Works didn’t want to encumber itself with street tree nominations. There used to be another one along California Street and two or three others on Dolores Street, which have since been removed. As far as I know, this is the only tree of this species left in San Francisco.”

MY FILLMORE

Like any street in any great city, Fillmore is always changing, always dying, always being awakened

Photograph of Richard Rodriguez on Fillmore Street by Frank Wing

By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

Growing old on Fillmore Street has taught me how much a city can change, how much I have changed — and how a city continues despite it all. 

Lately, if I have any sort of errand on Fillmore, I will most often take a digressive route. I leave my apartment on Clay Street, climb the Aztec steps into Alta Plaza, then circle around Pacific Heights. I climb back up the hill on Pierce. 

So much of my life has been consumed by exercise. When I could still jog, I used to run through Pacific Heights on my way to the Presidio. The great houses were blurred landmarks in those days. 

Now, exercise offers more of an opportunity to pause. I have favorite houses. Many mansions have had their facades lifted. After being swathed in netting or shrink-wrapped in white plastic for months, even years, exteriors are revealed to the street in pristine turn-of-the-century clarity. I have long admired the novels of American wealth — Wharton, James, Fitzgerald — and the interior secrets they revealed. Walking along Vallejo or up Steiner, however pleasant, is not like reading novels. There is no discernible narrative. 

I know the Getty house. I know the confectionary palace where Danielle Steel lives. I can tell when Nancy Pelosi is in town from the assembly of black security cars. I know the Whittier mansion, which was briefly the consulate of the Third Reich. I even know where a bitten Apple executive lives. I never see anyone in a window. 

I do see Mexican construction workers feverishly employed, or lounging in the manner of Manet, following their noonday meals. The sidewalks are empty except for the occasional Filipina housekeeper walking a joyless dog. 

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How I helped my dad die

Kelly Johnson and his daughter Leda Meredith as he was dying on May 7, 2018.

FIRST PERSON | LEDA MEREDITH

When I landed at SFO in mid-April of last year, the first change to hit me was that my dad, Kelly Johnson, couldn’t pick me up at the airport. He wasn’t able to drive anymore. The reason for the visit to my hometown was that he had gone into hospice care. I’d canceled everything on my schedule and come to be with him. We didn’t know how much time we would have together.

Seeing the elevator chairs that had been added to the two flights of stairs in his Victorian building was a jolt, as were the tubes in his nose; he was on full time oxygen at that point.

But every detail of the home was familiar — from the books on the shelves to the ceramic owl container that he used to hide an Easter egg in when I was a kid.

Neither of us knew then that he would choose to die in less than a month, embracing California’s End of Life Option with gratitude, courage and relief. As he sat hunched over his desk trying to summon up the appetite to finish a piece of toast, we couldn’t have imagined the next few weeks would become a nonstop musical and gustatory celebration with friends.

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Our own piazza

Photograph of The Italian Homemade, at 1919 Union, by Sheila Pierce

By SHEILA PIERCE

La piazza: It’s one of the things I miss most about Italy.

Because la piazza preserves the traditions and habits of the past, which modern life is swallowing.

Because la piazza offers a newspaper stand instead of an app, interaction with people instead of technology and an outdoor space to breathe in where the world goes by in person rather than on a screen.

Because la piazza becomes a canvas of local flora and fauna, the central hub of a neighborhood, where kids migrate in the afternoon to kick a soccer ball and grandparents perch on benches to watch the next generation whiz by — where life slows down.

In the year and half I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve watched una piazza take shape, and by no coincidence it’s thanks to a group of Italians. This piazza is not where you might think it would be: in the North Beach-Little Italy area of the city, which is an admirable community of shops, pizzerie and restaurants run by extraordinary Italian-Americans still operating their ancestors’ businesses. And it’s not oval, square or rectangular, like most piazzas.

Instead, it’s linear, and it takes up two blocks on Union Street, between Laguna and Webster Streets. Here, my kids feel at home, as if back in Italy. In these places, my kids can speak Italian, enjoy homemade Italian cooking and gelato, feel the bond of neighborhood friends, reminisce about the Italian culture they miss and see how the tradition of family-run businesses transcends from Italy to America.

Read more: “A San Francisco Piazza

Set at sea, but born on Fillmore

BOOKS | ANNE GROSS

When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a mermaid pendant on a silver chain, told me I’d always be a fish out of water, and sent me out into the world. I’d never been much of a swimmer, but somehow that made the totem even more apt.

Anne Gross

Continuing in that same stream, six years ago my husband and I decided to leave our large home in a remote Colorado mountain town and move into a miniscule apartment in a massive building in the Fillmore neighborhood. The move, although exciting for my husband, who was joining a flood of engineers entering the city, left me gasping for breath. I’d decided to leave my nursing career and start writing, but hadn’t anticipated how isolated that choice would leave me in a new city. For months, fear and insecurity circled like sharks, and were my only companions.

The new apartment quickly became oppressive as I pounded on my keyboard, so I took to pounding the sidewalk on and around Fillmore Street. I explored narrow Orben, Perine and Wilmot alleys with plot twists and quirky characters whirling in my brain. I became that annoying person in the back pew of St. Dom’s who came in from the fog just to eat candy bought at Mollie Stone’s. I watched the dogs wrestle in Alta Plaza, tongues lolling happily, while distant sailboats on the bay drifted between the mansions. My hope was to find the best library chair, the perfect cafe, the softest tuft of grass in the park where I could comfortably write. Instead I became Elkin’s flaneuse, aimlessly wandering.

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How a coffee shop saved my life

James DeKoven at Peet’s on Fillmore in 2007.

FIRST PERSON | JAMES DeKOVEN

On February 4, 2000, I arrived in the Fillmore under dire circumstances. Six months earlier, my fiancee had given the ring back — a devastating blow that occurred weeks after I gave up a well-paying job to write fulltime. Broken-hearted, half-mad and facing an uncertain financial picture, I fled from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.

At the time, it was more of an escape than any sort of plan for the future. For better or worse, I’ve never had many long-term goals. I just needed to get my head together. Once healthy, I could have clarity about the next step. But as I found out, sometimes destiny provides the relief. Who needs a personal coach, Jungian therapy, psychedelic journey, or self-help book when there’s Peet’s Coffee at Sacramento and Fillmore?

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My electric journey

By KATHY JOSEPH BALISTRERI

It all started during lunch at La Mediterranee last year. I had written the rough draft of a novel about the crazy, particular, sometimes heroic and sometimes downright despicable people who discovered electricity, but I was stumped on what to do next. Should I try to get a publisher? Start a blog? Hire an editor?

Luckily, I was having lunch with my friend Kim Nalley. Kim has been the headliner at the Fillmore Jazz Festival almost every year for the last 15 years, so she knows about entertaining. I was lucky enough to meet her through parenting. Our older kids went to the Sherith Israel’s preschool on California Street, and now our younger kids go there together.

Kim immediately knew what to do: “Kathy, you like to talk. Start a vlog, a video series.”

That started a quest to transform my ideas onto the screen, albeit a small one. Luckily, my book is composed of a series of vignettes about one remarkable person or idea, each leading to the next. So I learned how to edit video and started recording in my house on Washington Street. Kim helped me out by recording an original version of “Electricity” from a “Schoolhouse Rock” video for my theme song.

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Empowering youth to get involved

BOOKS | SABRINA MOYLE

When I was a teen I loved being creative, but I didn’t think creativity could change the world. We were told that the arts were frivolous. I didn’t think my voice mattered and, as a result, I didn’t speak up.

Fast forward to today: We’re riding a rising wave of youth activism. In Parkland, Florida, youth leadership has thrived on strong school arts programs in theater, music, journalism and debate. Like so many others, I am inspired by these youth, and now more convinced than ever that creativity can empower positive social change.

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‘I will not be seen in polka dots!’

The ever-fashionable fashion designer Mary Kuei Boyer.

By BARBARA KATE REPA

I met Mary Kuei Boyer a decade ago at an art exhibition at the Sequoias, the high-rise senior community on Geary near Gough.

“I think you would like to get to know me,” she said, and she was right. We shared many long lunches and talks. She provided the entertainment, with her fast-paced stories that sped along ever faster as she became more and more excited. I was there to receive her wisdom and marvel at her ability to clean her plate.

This wisp of a woman with an outsized appetite was an enigma in many ways. She was impish but thoughtful, modest but proud, outgoing but intensely private. She had a lot to teach about being alive.

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Bringing life into the present tense

Kelly Johnson composed and performed the music on his new CD.

FIRST PERSON | KELLY JOHNSON

In the sunset years of my life, I sometimes realize that many of my friends don’t see me as I see myself. They see just an old guy on the corner outside Peet’s. But inside my head, I know I’ve had an interesting life — even if the interesting parts all seem to be in the past.

Recently I took on a new project that involved writing original music for ballet class, publishing a CD and developing a website. It was life changing.

And it turned out to be the glue that holds together all of the disparate parts of my life: as a child performer in vaudeville, later at the S.F. Dance Theater, which started on Fillmore Street; then as executive director of the Berkeley Symphony, followed by my years as a concert pianist and now my newest work as a composer.

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