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When Gorbachev stopped by Dino’s

Photograph of Fillmore & California by Daniel Bahmani

FLASHBACK | RICHARD SPRITZER

IT WAS ONLY a few months after the 1989 earthquake when Mikhail Gorbachev, still president of the still superpowerful Soviet Union, made a swing through San Francisco in early June of 1990.

It was a brief 22-hour stay, which included sleeping late on Monday morning, June 4. Gorbachev and his wife Raisa had flown in late the night before, after stops in Washington and Minneapolis, and stayed in the neighborhood at the Soviet consul general’s residence at 2820 Broadway. Gorbachev was behind schedule all day, but still feted like a visiting rock star in appearances at Stanford University and with the local business elite. The Gorbachevs even worked in a reunion with old friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

“The Bay Area basked in the afterglow of a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “happy to show the world it has rebounded from last fall’s earthquake.”

Late in the afternoon, Gorbachev and his retinue headed back to the consul general’s mansion on Outer Broadway. Their motorcade of fierce-looking Zil limousines came barreling down the hill headed west on California Street toward Fillmore.

When he spotted a group of two dozen people waving on the corner, the procession came to a halt. Gorbachev bounded out of the big boxy Zil and started shaking hands like a veteran American pol. 

The Chronicle reported the next day: 

Gorbachev stopped only once to mingle with a crowd of ordinary people — at about 6:15 p.m. at California and Fillmore streets. He walked toward the people on the street, and they surged toward him. Others ran out of Dino’s pizza parlor, the corner liquor store and the neighborhood copy center.

“Usually you don’t have occasion to see somebody so important so close,” said Felix Nager, who works at the copy center. “He’s like a normal man.”

Norm Newman, a 30-year-old ex-U.S. Marine, was so overcome he screamed, “I love you, Gorby!” Later, after he had shaken Gorbachev’s hand, he said, “What I did for 10 years in the Marines was completely opposite to what that man stands for. But he’s opening the doors. He’s a very likeable guy.”

Dino Stavrikikis, who owns the pizza shop, said Gorbachev was the most famous man he had ever met — and he’s met Ronnie Lott, the famous 49er, Sleepy Floyd, the basketball player, and Jerry Brown, the politician. 
“I would have liked it if he would have come in for a piece of pizza,” Dino said.

Inevitably, there were T-shirts for sale all over the city. At Broadway and Divisadero, two blocks from the Soviet consular residence, shirts portrayed Gorbachev as Bart Simpson, with the words “Radical Dude” underneath.

Not far from the Soviet consular residence where the Gorbachevs made their headquarters, a large house displayed a pre-revolutionary Russian flag and a picture of the last czar.

Although Gorbachev and his wife went separate ways for most of the day, they met again at 6:33 p.m. at the consular residence on Broadway.

The stop at Dino’s had lasted only a few minutes. The return to 2820 Broadway didn’t last much longer. A visit to the Golden Gate Bridge was called off because of the tight schedule.

“I always wanted to come here,” Gorbachev told reporters as his motorcade started to leave for the airport. “You’re very fortunate to live here. President Bush should tax the people for living in such a beautiful place.”

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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Fillmore’s own Sonny Lewis

NEW RELEASE | SCOTT YANOW

Sonny Lewis is a jazz legend who almost slipped away into history. A superior tenor-saxophonist and flutist based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1960s, Lewis made relatively few jazz recordings during his career.

He can be heard with Smiley Winters (playing next to altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald) and on two records with trumpeter Dr. David Hardiman — but until now, no albums have been released under his own name. The previously unknown music on Fillmore Street Live is a major find that gives us the chance to appreciate his inventive style and artistry.

Pianist Rob Catterton, who produced the release for Sonoma Coast Records, met Sonny Lewis at a session in 1987. Catterton says:

“I was young and green but Sonny was gracious and very kind. After those sessions ended, I eventually summoned up the courage to call him, and we would rehearse on piano and tenor or flute, just the two of us. Sonny lost the ability to play in the late 1990s due to something called focal dystonia. Despite going to a hand specialist, he had to retire from playing. We’ve remained friends all these years, and recently he brought me 25 or 30 cassettes in a paper bag. They were mostly audience tapes, but two tapes stood out. They were recorded directly from the soundboard at an outdoor fair on Fillmore Street on July 2 and 3, 1988, and they really show what a great player Sonny Lewis was. As soon as I heard them, I knew this material had to be released.”

At that point, Sonny Lewis had already had a productive career. A professional since he was a teenager in Boston, he gained early experience playing with R&B and rock-and-roll bands. Always a versatile player, Lewis could fit comfortably into almost any setting. After studying at the Berklee School of Music, he spent time in the early 1960s working in Europe, performing with Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, poet William S. Burroughs and classical composer Terry Riley, and appearing on the original recording of Riley’s In C.

After moving to San Francisco in the early ’60s, Lewis created his own combos featuring several young musicians who would go on to fame, including Eddie Henderson and Tom Harrell. During the ’70s he went on the road, touring with Barry White for a year, gigging with Merle Saunders and Art Blakey, and touring and recording with R&B group the Whispers for over a decade. Lewis played on many of the Whispers’ hit recordings, including three gold albums.

Returning to San Francisco in the 1980s, Lewis led a series of quintets featuring vocalists, including recording artist Micki Lynn, who was also featured on these dates. The Fillmore Street sessions have already provided enough material to release a full album of incredibly well-played instrumental jazz, and Sonoma Coast Records may be able to obtain the rights to release Micki Lynn’s set in the future.

Saxman Sonny Lewis performing at the Fillmore street fair in 1992.

Sonny Lewis’s quartet includes Percy Scott, a well-known Bay Area keyboardist for more than 30 years. Percy toured extensively with the Whispers, and appears playing next to Lewis on one of David Hardiman’s albums. Bassist Harley White Sr., an influential educator, has been prominent in Northern California for some time, recording with pianists Earl Hines, Ed Kelly and Jessica Williams, singer Margie Baker and many others. In addition, Harley worked with all-stars Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt. Drummer Paul Smith recorded with Sonny Simmons (Manhattan Egos, 1969), violinist Michael White, bassist Paul Brown and organist Gerry Richardson. 

All three of these fine musicians give Sonny Lewis strong support, with each of them taking concise and consistently worthy solos.

Jazz journalist and historian Scott Yanow is the author of 11 books, including Jazz on Record 1917-76. This article is adapted from his liner notes for Fillmore Street Live, which is available on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and other major music outlets.

A Fillmore pioneer

M.J.Staymates (right) with fellow WANA leaders Sharon Bretz and Brett Gladstone in 1989.

LOCALS | CALVIN LAU

She was the quintessential little old lady in white tennis shoes — at least that’s how relentless neighborhood activist Mary Jane Staymates, known to all as M.J., liked to fashion herself.

My first encounter with M.J., who died a few months ago, was at a Western Addition Neighborhood Association (WANA) meeting held in the basement of St. Dominic’s Church. M.J. was presiding, and I was immediately struck by her love of the neighborhood and her mission to improve it.

M.J. stood ready to confront the real estate developers who were already circling the area like hawks. That was in 1979, the year my partner and I moved into an 1877 Victorian fixer-upper on Pine Street. In those days no one would ever have thought of calling our neighborhood by the oxymoron Lower Pacific Heights. It was plainly and simply the Western Addition, with all of its good and bad connotations.

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Modern designs for foggy dogs

A new firm based in the neighborhood manufactures premium dog beds and accessories.

PEOPLE OFTEN JOKE that there are more dogs than children in San Francisco. Statistics show it’s true: There were about 115,000 children under age 18 living in the city in 2016, according to the American Community Survey. San Francisco Animal Care and Control estimated that at the same time, there were about 120,000 to 150,000 dogs.

One local, Rose Shattuck, has launched a new business she hopes will make good on that reality.

Shattuck is the founder of The Foggy Dog, a two-year-old brand of premium goods for dogs headquartered in the neighborhood. She got the idea for the company when she couldn’t find a dog bed for her goldendoodle, Utah. “I couldn’t understand why every dog bed had paw prints or was khaki colored,” she says. “So I found some upholstery fabric that I loved and hired a seamstress from Craigslist to make my dream dog bed.”

Then she realized she was on to something. So Shattuck left her role as vice president for merchandising at Minted — an online design marketplace for stationery and art with a shop at 1919 Fillmore — to focus full time on The Foggy Dog. The product line now includes dog beds, collars, leashes, toys and accessories. Her passion is to make pet products that are not only functional, but also beautiful. “At Minted, I was surrounded by amazing design every day,” she says. “I wanted to bring that same level of fresh, modern aesthetic to the pet industry.”

Living in the neighborhood, Shattuck was surrounded by other “dog moms” in their 20s and 30s who were dissatisfied with the choices they had when it came to their pets. She realized there was a market for attractive, made-in-the-U.S. pet products that appeal to a more modern customer. “People are having children later in life, and their dogs are their babies. Pet parents want the best for their fur kids,” she says. “And there isn’t another brand right now that seems to serve their needs.”

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No more Mr. Hands

Photograph of Zema Daniels on Fillmore Street by Kathryn Amnott

A FAMILIAR FACE on Fillmore Street is missing. Zema Daniels has retired.

For most of his 90 years, he was part of the Fillmore scene. In recent decades, Fillmore merchants hired him to help battle litter on the street. With his bucket and brooms, he was a familiar sight up and down Fillmore. He was also the caretaker of the parking lot behind the Victorians relocated during redevelopment to the block of Fillmore between Sutter and Post, and lived nearby.

He got his nicknames — One Hand to his friends, or Mr. Hands to others — because of his phenomenal ability to shoot pool with only one hand. It was a talent he began developing as a young boy with a chopped-off cue at his father’s pool hall in Florida. He was also said to be an excellent poker player.

After an illness that kept him in the veteran’s hospital for two months, he has now settled into a nearby retirement home. During his long life, he has made a visible difference in this neighborhood.

24 years on retreat

“What I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship,” says Judith Skinner.

FILM | JESSICA BERNSTEIN-WAX

My mother’s friend Judith Skinner started a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in her Pacific Heights apartment in 1995. At the time, she thought it would last the traditional three years, three months and three days.

Almost 24 years later, she remains on retreat, a Buddhist practice that involves solitude, meditation and introspection — and can take place anywhere from a remote cave to a rent-controlled studio apartment in San Francisco.

I have known Judith almost all of my life. As a child, I visited her at the Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center near Berkeley, where she lived for many years. When Judith started her retreat, I thought three years sounded like a long time to lead a mostly solitary existence.

As her retreat extended for more and more years, I started to get curious. What did she do all day? And why had she dropped out of “normal life”?

To find out, I spent about a year and a half filming her on my days off and weekends. The resulting short documentary, On Retreat, will screen at this year’s SF DocFest, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. It screens on June 8 at 12:15 p.m. and on June 11 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theater.

You might think documentary footage of someone on a meditation retreat would be about as visually exciting as watching paint dry. But Judith is an engaging San Francisco character.

To help finance her retreat, she worked as a gardener for many years. Now in her 70s, she follows a simple daily routine involving Buddhist practice, writing and trips to Cal-Mart in Laurel Village.

She has almost no belongings and owns just one fork, but still manages to look sharp every day. She goes for regular haircuts at Patrick Richards Salon on Sacramento Street, where she tended the flower boxes for years.

Rather than focus primarily on the logistics of Judith’s retreat, my film explores her reasons for going on retreat in the first place and why she’s continued for so long.

“My friends tease me that retreat is the all-purpose excuse: I get out of everything,” Judith told me laughingly during one of our interviews. “On a deep level, what I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship.”

Judith truly does seems to be content with her quiet, somewhat isolated life. She credits Buddhist practice and her retreat with making her a calmer, less reactive person.

Despite her solitary lifestyle, Judith says she hasn’t felt lonely these last 24 years. The retreat and the city of San Francisco have been her constant and familiar companions.

La Med turns 40

Photograph of La Mediterranee founder Levon Der Bedrossian by Daniel Bahmani

WHEN LA MEDITERRANEE founder Levon Der Bedrossian moved from Lebanon to California in 1967 to attend Chico State University, he lived in the neighboring town of Paradise, which was devastated by the recent Camp Fire.

Then he moved to San Francisco and opened La Mediterranee on Fillmore Street on May 11, 1979, serving the Middle Eastern meza dishes from Lebanon and the Armenian family recipes he had begun experimenting with for his fellow students in Chico. They were unique on the culinary scene in San Francisco at the time.

So it should come as no surprise to those who know Der Bedrossian and his special restaurant — which has consistently been voted the best Mediterranean restaurant in the Bay Area — that he would celebrate its 40th anniversary by donating all of the proceeds to support survivors of the Camp Fire in Paradise.

The 40th anniversary party will be held on Saturday, May 11 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the restaurant at 2210 Fillmore.

Der Bedrossian is still involved with the business, but his son Vanick and longtime managing partners Alicia Vanden Huevel and Trevor Lederberger have taken the helm. In addition to the flagship on Fillmore, La Mediterranee also has locations in the Castro and in Berkeley, plus a catering kitchen in North Beach.

EARLIER: “Still cozy after all these years

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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A rabbi and a priest walk into a neighborhood

Rabbi Lawrence “Larry” Raphael at Congregation Sherith Israel.

A memorial service for Rabbi Lawrence Raphael will be held on May 4 at 6 p.m. at Congregation Sherith Israel, located at 2266 California Street. His friend Father Xavier Lavagetto recalls their time in the neighborhood.

I WELL REMEMBER when Rabbi Larry Raphael came to Sherith Israel. I was pastor at St. Dominic’s Church, and we had an immediate connection: We both faced the challenge of repairing buildings, while what we wanted most was to build up our people.

I admired greatly his courage; he stepped out of academia into the fray of leading a congregation that faced a daunting challenge. But it would never be enough to retrofit the synagogue; he wanted to strengthen his people.

From our first meeting, it was apparent that he had a passion for learning that shined, invited and blessed. Learning is not something static; Judaism is a living dynamic, a conversation ultimately with the God who always walks with his people. He shared his passion and set his people’s hearts and minds ablaze. He made Sherith Israel a light on the hill, and it shed light on this priest from St. Dominic’s in the valley below.

To be on a panel with him was an adventure. It was the insights that he brought that made every conversation a light in the darkness. His was a passion for people that welcomed even those on the margins. In a world that is too eager to build walls, he built bridges.

His care for the larger community was real. I pray he saw it in us, too. The rule at St. Dominic’s was simple: If Rabbi Raphael asks, the answer is yes!

— Fr. Xavier Lavagetto OP