Heart of the City Archives



Hats off to fresh starts, familiar faces
by Hank Donat

With everyone immersed in shopping, holiday parties, and year-end goals, I'm reminded of the dot com heyday, when the city was steeped in the Cult of Busy, aka employed. For the most part, manic Mondays through Fridays have gone the way of 23 year-old CEOs, but now the holiday buzz has quickened the pulse from hilltop to hilltop. 

From the Greenwich Steps comes a scoop to delight people all over the world who have come to admire the 100 or more cherry-headed conures known as The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Mark Bittner - who feeds the parrots and cares for the ailing ones - and girlfriend Judy Irving, have formed a tenancy-in-common (TIC) on a complex of cottages known as the Greenwich Steps Compound. They passed escrow the day before Thanksgiving. 

"Now I'll get to spend the rest of my life observing and protecting the flock," says an ebullient Bittner. 

During the dot com daze in 1999, Bittner was forced from his perch along the steps when the cottage he was living in started to collapse and had to renovated by its owner. Bittner garnered worldwide attention when he assured a worried city that the parrots he had fed and documented for six years would survive without him.

The TIC, says Irving, a documentary filmmaker, took "15 months, two dozen partners, one eviction, and one defection." Irving and a handful of others purchased the small property that includes 235 Greenwich Street, where Bittner has lived since his return to Telegraph Hill in 2001.

The compound is among the last vestiges of Bohemian Telegraph Hill. It includes trees and gardens planted by dancer Valetta Heslet, the daughter of Grace Merchant. Beginning in the late 1940s, Merchant planted the famed gardens of the Filbert Steps.

Bittner and Irving fell in love when Irving made a film about Bittner and the parrots. Her film and his book, both titled "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," are set for release next fall.

Bittner may have persuaded San Franciscans that the colorful birds would do just fine without him, but we're more than glad that they won't have to...

What a thrill it was to join Assemblyman Mark Leno on his very first visit to his new district office in the state building overlooking Civic Center Plaza. Leno had to learn which elevator to take and how to find his parking space. 

Leno explains that he inherited Carol Migden's Assembly seat, and also her physical office, but not her phone number. "Everyone wants numbers that end in zeroes," says Leno. 

The office was filled with emptiness, a lot of barren desks against blank walls. A dust bin, fittingly dusty, sort of sadly cradled a proclamation honoring an organization that never picked up its framed and gilded Whereas-es, signed by Migden under the Therefore. 

But what Leno saw was a room overflowing with possibilities and the high hopes of an entire city for him, the first openly gay man elected to the state assembly... 

I simply didn't want to leave the book party for "Hats for Every Head" by Ruth Dewson, the milliner Mayor of Fillmore Street. For one thing, who would ever want to leave the Crown Room of the Fairmont Hotel? 

Because it was attended by some of the author's celebrity friends, you may have seen reports of Dewson's Crown affair, a benefit for the Western Addition Foundation for Girls. What the dailies didn't tell you, however, is what makes Dewson, whose hat shop is tiny and unassuming, one of San Francisco's largest and most assuming personalities.

Is it the guts Dewson showed when she handily tossed out a paparazzo on the hunt for 49er Jeff Garcia? Is it the strength and friendship she displayed when she took Assistant Police Chief Alex Fagan, whose police officer son is at the center of allegations of brutality, aside for a pep talk? Yes, yes, and more.

When Dewson said in welcoming remarks that on the this day she was a star who had gone from Paris, Texas, to Paris, France to 24 stories atop the most beautiful city in America, the message was not a self congratulatory one. It was intended for those Western Addition kids, "my girls" Dewson calls them, who hung on every word. Dewson's girls will know that it doesn't matter who you are, but where you're going.

And since it doesn't matter who you are at a Ruth Dewson party, some of the guests' names are familiar, some are not. Comedian Paul Mooney was the emcee. Mooney kept his opening set short, "Like sex." Sorry to hear that, Paul. Dewson's nephew Glenn Mitchell introduced the woman of the hour to an intimate crowd that included Jan Jemison, Donna Casey, Pam Moore, Tom Vacar, Marva Brooks, Susan Brown, and Fil Lorenz.

Jemison, of U.C. Hastings, said it best when the afternoon inevitably wound down. "Hopefully," said Jan, "We'll keep meeting in places where the people are real, the view is spectacular, and the experience everlasting." 

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Copyright 2002 Hank Donat
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