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The art of neighborliness

Suzanne, wearing a hat from her collection by a local milliner, and George Burwasser.

Suzanne, wearing a hat from her collection by a local milliner, and George Burwasser.


Longtime locals Suzanne and George Burwasser practice the fine and gentle art of neighborliness.

Together for more than half a century, most of that time only a few doors from Fillmore Street, they have made it a priority to shop local and get to know the people who live and work around them.

They wander into neighborhood shops and talk with the other customers and salespeople inside. In restaurants, they strike up conversations with other diners who seem amenable. Just recently they met a local doctor and her husband who were dining beside them at Florio on Fillmore — and promptly invited them over for dinner a few weeks later.

Suzanne has a secret weapon: She’s a topnotch cook and an even better baker. “My mother was Irish and they’re not known for their fine cuisine, so it was a defense mechanism,” she says. “When we see someone new move in, I take baked goods over and say: ‘Hi. I’m your neighbor down the street. You must be frazzled from moving and need a little something to snack on,’ ” she says. “Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”

Many locals get quiet distributions of homebaked cakes on birthdays and soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day. George says Suzanne is a master at sending hand-made Valentines and keeping in touch with more farflung friends by email. “She makes sure everyone and his pet duck gets a card on their birthdays,” he says.

They met as undergrads in Ohio — he studying geology, she first biology and then history — and started out as “just buddies,” Suzanne says, “watching the flotsam and jetsam going by at the student union.”

One of their first bondings was over books. Early on, they threw down a challenge: She was to read his beloved Steinbeck; he to read her favored Dickens. Then discuss. Their literary tastes didn’t always meld, and still don’t. George proudly shows off a tome he just acquired — a gift Suzanne snagged for him at Browser Books. It’s a compilation of the three novels Melville wrote before Moby Dick, which is still one of his all-time favorites.

“Chapter 13 is hilarious,” he says.

“It’s humorous now and then,” says Suzanne. “I wouldn’t call it hilarious.”

“For Melville, it’s hilarious,” George insists.

They married right after Suzanne graduated and loaded up all their worldly goods, including a motorcycle, into the car George’s mother gave them as a wedding gift, the same gigantic model used as Checker cabs.

Over the years, their jobs and additional schooling took them to Canada, to Saskatoon and Toronto, posts they now refer to as “educational,” especially when it came to the weather. “There was a lot of winter. And some summers were as unbearably hot as the winters were unbearably cold,” Suzanne recalls. After a particularly punishing series of ice storms in 1980, they drew up a short list of places with friendlier weather patterns, and San Francisco was at the top. They claim their minds were made up to move here the minute they stepped off the plane at SFO. “We just said: ‘Wow. It’s so beautiful.’ And whatever falls from the sky here, you don’t have to shovel,” George says.

Then began the search for a home that would eventually bring them to Bush Street, looking out at St. Dominic’s. Ever the geologist, George was armed with detailed seismic and mudline maps of the entire city and refused to consider any place that lacked a solid concrete foundation he could inspect. And Suzanne, ever the organizer, maintained a clipboard with a Venn diagram of requirements for a neighborhood they could call home, with shops, services and amenities within walking distance and public transportation nearby. They found all they wanted just near Fillmore Street, delighting in discovering the interesting new local restaurants and shops beginning to sprout in the 1980s and ’90s, and meeting the people who ran them.

For years they had a rule: After spending two hours or $20 on the street, it’s time to go home. But these days, $20 doesn’t stretch very far on Fillmore. They say they miss many of the spots they used to frequent back in those early years, especially Leon’s Bar-B-Q, later Chez Nous, and now SPQR.

“We’re still mourning the passing of Fillmore Hardware,” Suzanne says. “If they didn’t have exactly what you needed, they would know where to find it. And the Brown Bag — they sold nose-shaped pencil sharpeners!” She and a relative who was a teacher would buy them by the case as study incentives for students. “And I still have the world’s last supply of carbon paper I got there,” she says. “I’m waiting to go on Antiques Roadshow with it.”

“We still give all the new stores a try, but there are fewer things of interest now,” says Suzanne. Still, they keep hope alive by stoking their grand fantasy: They’ll come into a windfall, buy up the commercial property on Fillmore Street — and reduce the rent to make it affordable for neighborhood entrepreneurs and “people who have great ideas and want to try them out.”

“We would pop the bubble and do away with the crazed commercialism going on here now,” says George.

They purchased their home, a three-flat on Bush Street facing St. Dominic’s, in 1983. They live in the top flat, and the tenants they attract tend to stay. One was Richard Hilkert, the legendary bookseller and bon vivant who lived on the second floor for 27 years until he died three years ago. “Richard is still with us,” says Suzanne, with a nod to the church outside their window, where he is interred in the columbarium. “He said he wanted to keep an eye on us.”

Though both Burwassers are now retired from “paid work,” maintaining the flat and nurturing friends and neighbors more than fills their time.

George also regularly gives blood every six weeks or so, a practice he started in high school. A couple of years ago, he gave his 600th donation at the Blood Centers of the Pacific. “It can be a little uncomfortable, but think about what you’re doing: You have exactly what another person needs to stay alive,” he says. “It’s a way of returning value to the community, and almost anyone can do it.”

The passing decades have only stoked their mutual admiration, their appreciation for bad puns and their sense of fun. “Come on, folks, it’s life; it has to be silly,” Suzanne says. “If you can’t see some of the humor and irony in life, it’s not worth living.” She attributes their longevity together partly to advice from her mother: Have a decent bottle of Champagne in the refrigerator at all times. You’ll need it for both good and bad days.

It has worked. George and Suzanne will celebrate their 50th anniversary this month. They’ve been brushing up on their dance steps and plan to celebrate with a tasteful bash in a classic San Francisco setting with friends and family from farflung countries, as well as nearby neighbors — including their mail carrier.