Life-size bears in Downtown Los Altos have residents roaring with excitement

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS BY MIA BASSETT

For an average person, seeing herds of 8-foot-tall bears stalking downtown corners might be frightening, pee-your-pants scary even, but not for the accustomed residents of Los Altos. The Los Altos Rotary Club’s most recent public art project has scattered dozens of painted fiberglass bears around the city, some life-size, and each with a theme unique to the bear. 

This project, brainchild of Los Altos Rotarian Carol Dabb, was inspired by the Chicago CowParade, a public art exhibit that displays painted cows around some of the world’s biggest cities, and was adapted to express California pride. 

Dabb said she chose bears because they are the state animal, but also because bears have “human qualities and you can give them human-like personalities.” She decided that bears are easier for people to relate to than dogs or cats, for example. 

There are currently 54 painted bears in four sizes: the towering 8-foot grizzly bear, the 5-foot black bear and the 36- and 20-inch baby bears. Each bear is painted by a local artist selected by the rotary club, in a lineup that includes high school students, hobbyists and professional artists. 

Each bear is sponsored or purchased by local rotarians, residents and businesses, and put up for auction online — they’ll be auctioned live as well during the Hibernation is Over Party in October 2021.

Proceeds from the bears go to benefit various charities supported by the rotary club. But the project is also supporting artists who have been hit hard during the pandemic, unable to sell art and in turn fund their craft. Each artist receives a 25% commission from the bids on their bears. 

According to Dabb, there were “a lot of naysayers at the beginning” — people thought the project was too big, that the bears wouldn’t be attractive and that they wouldn’t get people to sponsor or bid on the bears or make any money. A hush has fallen over the skeptics since the success of bear bidding, with every bear being bid on. 

“I just knew it would work,” Dabb said. “But people don’t understand art. They don’t understand how important art is in our lives, how much joy art brings into our lives, how much conversation with each other art brings into our lives.”

Perched on columns and benches and lurking behind buildings, the bears liven the streets of a city that’s just starting to wake up after months in the den. 

“It brings such a positive vibe for the town,” said Jane Lombard, a cardiologist and the first sponsor and artist to volunteer. “In the evenings, I see families walking around and doing bear treasure hunts with their kids.”

Families may spot a bear strumming his ukelele, or a holding a fishing line. But the meanings behind these charming bears are more than what meets the eye. 

Artists were given prompts to follow in their painting, and depending on the theme, could take creative liberties with the style of the bear. Rachel Bidinger, a Los Altos High School senior who got involved in the project after hearing about it from the National Arts Honor Society, received a private commission for her painted bear titled, “Grandpa Sam.”

The personal commission was a birthday present for a Rotarian’s husband, and Bidinger said the bear was meant to represent him. Bidigner worked closely with the buyer to design a bear with a yellow hat, his favorite shirt and a pair of Hawaiian print pants. Pawprints adorned the bear’s back to represent each of the recipient’s grandchildren. 

“I really liked working with the individual and trying to understand what vision they may have in mind for design,” Bidinger said. “Something that’s really important for artists is to be able to help someone visualize what they can replicate in the art.”

Lombard painted “Grinn N Bear It,” “Hang 10” and “Tahoe Blue.” She first heard about the project during a Rotary meeting and later approached Dabb offering to sponsor a bear. Although at first, Lombard said she was skeptical of the project because of Los Altos’s size compared to Chicago, she decided it was a great “picker-upper” during lock-downs. 

Her first bear, “Grinn N Bear It” is dedicated to first responders, splattered in symbols of the local fire departments and EMTs surrounded by poppies and quails. According to the bear’s description, it is a grinning bear to symbolize “hope and solidarity.” 

“I think art needs to evoke feelings in you, whether it’s rage or thought and I think those bears do that, because a lot of them [show] what our community is going through,” Lombard said. 

According to the Los Altos Bears map, the “Field Guide Bear” honors the Los Altos Public Library, with the background painted with local grasses and butterflies native to Santa Clara County covering the bear like a “living encyclopedia of butterflies.”

The “Historic Los Altos Bear” by Ayla Studio is covered in iconic Los Altos buildings. Featuring the Community House, Neutra House and the railroad station, the bear pays homage to the rich history of the city. 

Relaxed and tan, Lombard’s “Hang 10” bear is posing in front of a Hawaiian flower surfboard. The installation is a 5-foot-2 brown bear meant to represent the quintessential California look. 

“The bears are very local,” Lombard said. “They’ve got a lot of local lore and history.”

Although Lombard is a relatively experienced painter, she advanced her skills both technically, dipping her toe into graffiti methods, and conceptually, with what she described as a growth in her “artist’s spirit.”

“I grew in thinking of images that would evoke emotions,” Lombard said. “Of course, the bears are positive, but I had to find a [balance].”

For many bear painters, it’s their first time participating in a public project like this one. 

“It’s definitely a new experience being able to see the value that others see in my work,” said Bidinger.

“It really brings the community together: sponsors, creators and also the audience,” Lombard said. “The bears are a work of love.”

Not so terrible: Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra takes a different approach to playing ensemble music

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS COURTESY THE TERRIBLE ADULT CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Wearing casual weekend clothes with their hair down, 70 people sit in folding chairs eating snacks and chatting about their week. It’s hard to guess from their appearance, but each of these 70 people is a musician, about to play hours of classical music. 

The Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra (TACO) is not your traditional music ensemble. The musicians may play the intricate compositions of Beethoven and Bach, but TACO is a non-audition orchestra, with members ranging from first-time players to veteran musicians. 

Founded in 2011 by Cathy Humphers Smith and her husband Kent, TACO strives to create an environment in which any musician can play comfortably and without fear of failure. Humphers Smith said they chose “Terrible” to be in the group name as a “humorous way to set the expectations that it doesn’t matter [how well you play], we’re in this for fun.”

According to Humphers Smith, traditional ensembles can be intimidating for novice musicians and difficult even for experienced ones. She said that because performance orchestras are obsessed with improvement and perfection, musicians often feel discouraged from playing. 

“You’re not performing for anybody, nobody’s buying a ticket, you’re not beating things to death to make them perfect,” Humphers Smith said. “You’re just enjoying playing music for the sake of playing it.”

(courtesy TACO)

Karl Swartz, who quit playing violin after his college ensemble said he’d have to practice for hours every day to be a part of their orchestra, said that TACO is made for people who want to play music “just for the fun of it.”

Though the group began with 20 musicians playing in Humphers Smith’s living room, it has grown to over 70 people attending each meeting and over 700 sit on TACO’s mailing list. Prior to the pandemic, TACO met monthly at the Los Altos Youth Center for three hours to play together.

“Our objective is to all start the piece at the same time and end it at the same time,” said Ola Cook, a flutist who joined TACO in 2012 after dropping the flute in 1997. “Whatever happens in the middle is okay.”

This mentality welcomes musicians who would be unable to participate in most orchestras, such as those who struggle playing full pieces because of medical conditions or inexperience. 

“There are fine musicians who play with performing groups who develop Parkisnons or brain tumors, and they can continue playing with TACO because it doesn’t matter, nobody is judging them, they don’t have to sound perfect,” Humphers Smith said. 

Mark Serjeant, a clarinet player for TACO, developed a sinus condition that makes playing full pieces on the clarinet difficult. He said the relaxed venue that TACO provides means he can continue playing music without worrying about sounding perfect or even being able to play the whole song. 

“I try to play at least one note per measure to try to stay in sync and TACO is the right place for me because they don’t care,” Sergeant said. “Occasionally, we have a song and I actually can play the whole song so it’s a great venue for me.”

Serjeant, who played clarinet in his college marching band said he “put the clarinet in the closet and never took it back out” after he graduated in 1972. That was until 2012 when he joined TACO after reading an article about the group. Serjeant said his favorite part of the casual atmosphere is that he can feel relaxed playing music.

“It’s not like you’re dragging the performance down, because we don’t perform,” Serjeant said. 

Humphers Smith said her organization contributes to a recent movement to make classical music more accessible. She said that classical music is losing audiences because of the procedures that are associated with watching a performance. 

“The listener has to dress up, buy an expensive ticket … There is a protocol for taking in classical music,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s an incredible thing to see a concert live, but they are losing audiences because it’s not seen as very approachable.”

Fourth of July “jam session,” 2021. (courtesy TACO)

Swartz describes their regular gathering as “jam sessions” rather than concerts, or even practices.

These sessions occur once per month when musicians, regulars and those new to TACO, gather to play six pieces of new music for three hours. 

According to Humphers Smith, who also serves as the group’s conductor, most musicians come up to an hour early to set up their instruments and mingle. Then, someone leads everyone in tuning their instruments. 

After tuning, the orchestra plays its set pieces for the session, which come out of the 400 arrangements that Humphers Smith has purchased from school orchestras; school orchestras “take the original music, and make it suitable for certain levels of learning,” which allows various skill-levels to play the same piece. 

“I want to be playing music that is famous and that people know, but I don’t want it to be so difficult that people can’t do it and they don’t have success,” Humphers Smith said.

Humphers Smith says she tries to vary the genres and types of music the group plays each session. According to Swartz, they have played showtunes, classical and pop, among others. Swartz said that TACO is more “adventurous” than the traditional orchestras he also plays in, which he said “constrain the music.” 

“When we play show tunes like ‘Oklahoma,’ I enjoy that a lot more than playing Mozart or Beethoven or all the Russian people whose names I can’t pronounce,” Serjeant said. 

This practice follows TACO’s guiding principle of making music accessible for all. Boasting a group of diverse community members, TACO prides itself on being open to all skill levels. The group is open to all ages, but the majority of participants are adults. 

“It’s important to have a place like that, otherwise adults don’t get an opportunity to play,” Humphers Smith said.

The wide range of musicians all come together to form a tight-knit community. According to Cook, the support from this group has built her confidence and inspired her to take risks with music, such as travelling to Scotland to perform with a Scotish orchestra, which she said she wouldn’t have otherwise considered. 

“We’ll count under our breath for people who have a little trouble with staying on time,” Cook said. “TACO offers a community and an incredible opportunity for people to be able to get together with other musicians … and do something that’s uplifting.”

Many TACO musicians branch out and create chamber ensembles, coined the Taquitos, with other members who play the same instrument.

Cook said she appreciates the opportunity to connect with other musicians and have a forum to ask questions and share about music.

“Now, because I have this community of musicians around me, if I’m experiencing something odd I can ask ‘Does this sound right to you?’ or ‘Have you ever had this happen?’ and we can all help each other,” Cook said. “It’s really like an extended family.” 

This support extends to the community at large. Humphers Smith said that the holidays last year inspired her to collaborate with KMVT on their programming for seniors who had been isolated at home. Freestyle Academy student volunteers edited together individual videos from each musician and the final product, ten Christmas songs, was broadcasted on KMTV to seniors at home.

Although Humphers Smith said there was initially a huge learning curve with virtual concerts, she adapted and they played a second concert in a similar format with the TACO chapter in Los Angeles. Musicians each played a part of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”

“Musicians have suffered like nobody’s business over this pandemic, it has just been such a burden on musicians in one way, and in another way, it’s opened the doors to so many people who are willing to put in the time to do technical work,” Cook said. 

Humphers Smith said that playing music provides an escape for people from their daily lives because “you leave all your problems outside and you forget about everything that’s going on in your life.”

“Playing with other people live means hearing the other voices and getting to know how you fit in. You’re a part of a group that’s creating something,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s transcendent.”

Aurum and authenticity: Modern Indian restaurant strives to bring hidden gems of Indian cuisine to the mainstream

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

No restaurant displays what the gold standard of authenticity can be more than Aurum. With a name literally meaning gold in Latin, the modern Indian establishment in Downtown Los Altos strives to showcase Indian cuisine just as pure as its namesake.

Aurum was founded in December 2020 by owner Anupam Bhatia and chef Manish Tyagi, who, according to Tyagi, see themselves as “ambassadors to Indian cuisine.” They use modern adaptations of classic dishes to deviate from the standard, popular and sometimes “incomplete” portrayal of Indian cuisine found on most Indian menus.

“The Indian restaurant scene is pretty backward because it’s a very stereotyped menu,” Tyagi said. “That’s where Aurum pitched in and tried to break that boundary.” 

In addition to authenticity, Aurum emphasizes the importance of presenting its dishes in a visually appealing manner.

“People eat with their eyes, so the food has to look appetizing,” Bhatia said. “Presentation is such an important part of your whole dining experience.”

A popular dish of Aurum, the creatively titled Mr. Potato Chaat, exemplifies that quality of presentation in a modern twist on the popular Indian snack. Going against tradition, the potato is spiralized, but accompanied by the usual yogurts, chutneys and spices. 

Working to craft a menu with dishes like this chaat in mind, each option is crafted and heavily tested before it is permanently added to the menu. For this, Aurum trusts its customers.

“[Guest] feedback is so important, and that’s how we try to change and adapt to what the local client wants,” Bhatia said. “Positive criticism is one of the most important things you can have in your life.”

From his personal experience, Bhatia believes that adapting to your environment and understanding your clientele’s needs is an uncompromisable aspect of success. Bhatia took these needs into consideration when he was scouting a location for the new restaurant. 

“[The Bay Area] has a loyal customer base,” Bhatia said. “I looked at Los Altos and people love Indian food. There’s a lot of diversity of population we have here.”

To serve this population authentic Indian cuisine, Bhatia partnered with chef Tyagi, who’s been in the industry for 20 years, and has worked at several restaurants. He met Bhatia at the chain Amber India, where they became professional acquaintances as well as good friends.

Described by Bhatia as a “damn professional,” Tyagi said his life has been filled with cooking. From a young age, he said he helped his family in preparing food for guests.

“I belong to a very ‘foodie’ family,” Tyagi said. “My mom is an excellent cook, and my dad is a very passionate cook.”

Tyagi graduated from university with a degree in hospitality and he said his journey toward a cooking career wasn’t easy. Many times, Tyagi said the overwhelming workload and “cutthroat” nature made him want to give up.

But Tyagi’s perseverance eventually led him to compete in the cooking game show BeatBobbyFlay, where contestants compete against Master Chef Bobby Flay and a panel of renowned cooks judges their meals. He advanced to the final round, where, using the same creativity and experimentation he now applies at Aurum, he snagged the win.

“I put my own perspective on a traditional dish,” Tyagi said.“I created the Saag Paneer Lasagna there. Chef Bobby Flay was making the traditional style of an Indian dish, and I was making a non-traditional style… [but my] flavor profile was very Indian, and that’s where he was lacking.”

The success of his dishes on the show influenced the modern yet authentic flavors Aurum strives to serve.

Tyagi, who runs the kitchen and “back of the house,” works closely with Bhatia, for whom hospitality is a priority. 

Bhatia’s savvy comes from his 26 years in the restaurant industry, and although like Tyagi, he struggled with the demands of the career at first, he said that the sense of improvement was inspiring.

“Your sense of learning every day, sense of achieving something every day, your motivation towards making the business successful … and your zeal and enthusiasm just keeps you [working],” Bhatia said.

He started his first restaurant, Broadway Masala, in 2013, and one year later founded Spice Affair. Bhatia’s knowledge and experience in the industry assisted him in planning for the restaurants’ survival through the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, opening the restaurant was a huge risk, but I would say it was a calculated one,” Bhatia said. “The confidence was that the product was good, and the offerings were good.”

Bhatia carefully engineered every detail of a takeout-only menu with Tyagi, making sure the items were optimal to be enjoyed at home.

Bhatia asked Tyagi to work with him on Aurum after August 1 Five — the restaurant Tyagi was working at — closed due to the pandemic. The pair had faith in their vision and worked together to create a menu with dishes specifically created to stay fresh, reheat effectively and travel well.

Starting out with only this take-out menu, the restaurant quickly attracted customers. The positive responses in the first several months were at times overwhelming, but encouraging, Bhatia said.

When the state allowed indoor and outdoor dining, they began to expand their menu, focusing more on the presentation of the dishes. Aurum facilitates a positive customer experience through their colorful interiors and casual atmosphere.

Aurum’s colorful interior.

“While the restaurant didn’t want to get into a white-tablecloth, very fine dining restaurant, we also didn’t want to get into a run-of-the-mill restaurant,” Bhatia said. “We wanted to be upscale; we wanted it to be colorful; we wanted it to be fun.”

With humorously named dishes, mural-covered walls, and close customer relationships, the atmosphere reflects Aurum’s driving principle of bringing people joy through Indian cuisine.

“Feeding people is one of the best feelings you can get,” Bhatia said. 

Palo Alto students organize local Vote16 chapter to lower voting age

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS COURTESY VOTE16 PALO ALTO

When the school board approved a reopening plan after both of Palo Alto High School’s student representatives voted ‘nay,’ a group of Palo Alto teens realized that students don’t have a voice in local politics unless they can vote. 

“It seemed like [student] demands sort of went unheard and we wanted students to have a voting power in our local government, because that’s really what pushes these elected officials to make change,” Paly senior and Vote16 Vice President Anotnia Mou said. 

Vote16 Palo Alto, a chapter of the national Vote16 USA organization, is working to get 16-year-olds the right to vote in Palo Alto City Council elections and to encourage civic education in schools. 

WHAT THEY DO

Vote16 PA is currently focusing their efforts on granting 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in city council elections. 

“[Students] are just as affected by the decisions that city council makes on transportation, affordable housing, safety policies and climate change … than the other public,” Paly senior and Vote16 PA President Rachel Owens said. 

According to the Vote16 website, to lower the voting age, the organization can either pursue a citizen’s initiative petition, which entails getting 6% of Palo Alto voters to sign, or the city council must vote to place this initiative on the ballot.

The group is pushing for a citizen’s initiative petition for the November 2022 elections that they will release in the summer. 

Initially, Vote16 aimed to win 16-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections, but the red tape and legalities associated with the state’s jurisdiction has made it much more complicated, so the team is focusing on city council elections. 

“So, if we’re talking beyond local, [lowering school board voting age] is kind of our next thing that we are focused on,” Paly senior and Vote16 PA Secretary Jonothan Sneh said. 

WHY THEY DO IT 

Founded by several passionate Paly and Gunn students, the group recognizes that the only way for youth to have their voices heard in local politics is through enfranchisement. 

“We wanted students to have a voting power in our local government because that’s really what pushes these elected officials to make change,” Mou said. 

“There is this voice from students, but it’s just not being heard,” Sneh said. “We have different opinions, different needs, and we’re also important members of the community.”

The Vote16 website outlines three arguments for why Palo Alto ought to lower the voting age: improving democracy and voting habits, improving civic education and engagement, and representation for youth in politics. 

According to Mou, evidence shows that when students start voting younger, they are more likely to continue voting as adults. 

“If people start voting at 16, they’re able to do so in that stable environment with their parents in their community,” Mou said. “That makes it much more likely that they’ll become adjusted to voting and once they leave their home … they’ll likely continue voting.”

OTHER WORK

In addition to working to lower the voting age, the group has also held events to encourage civic engagement among students and teenagers. 

Owens, Mou and Sneh said the event they are proudest of is a city council candidate forum that they arranged with various other political student groups. The panel allowed students to ask their potential representatives questions about policies that might pertain to them. 

“I think that that was something that was sort of unprecedented for city council elections and we got the opportunity to watch city council members try and appeal to youth in the community,” Owens said. “I think that that’s an important next step toward allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.”

Vote16 also works as student liaisons for the League of Women Voters to hold informational sessions to register 18-year-olds to vote in elections and to educate them on local policies.

“These events really teach people the logistical and practical aspects of voting compared to their civics and U.S history classes which are much more conceptual,” Mou said. 

Jean Lythcott, co-director of voter services at the League of Women Voters Palo Alto spoke to members of Vote16 in 2019 as a part of the organization’s effort to increase civic engagement. (courtesy Vote16 Palo Alto)

Owens echoed this idea, saying civic education is vital to having an informed group of young voters. 

“There’s so much going on all the time and I think it’s quite easy to become desensitized to it,” Owens said. “I also think that the media tends to be pretty polarized, so sometimes it’s difficult to get an idea of what the facts are with regards to local issues.” 

The group has spoken to several history teachers in their district in hopes of implementing more education on local issues and voting into civic curriculums, according to Mou, but is postponing more official talks about their implementation plan for when teachers get settled in with distance learning or when schools go back in person. 

“What teachers bring into their classroom is pretty flexible, so it’s really up to the individual teachers,” Mou said. “We’re hoping to have that conversation with teachers this semester or next.”

Sneh said that Vote16 is dedicated to ensuring that, if the bill were to pass and 16-year-olds could vote, they are educated about what they are voting on. 

“It makes you way more engaged in civics in general and having that in the classroom as an introduction pushes people to get more involved,” Sneh said. “This is knowledge that’s easy to access.”

“Our hope is that lowering the voting age and civics education can kind of go hand in hand,” Owens said. “If during that civics education they have the opportunity to learn about local issues and local elections, then they can be more informed when they’re making those voting decisions.”

Aside from working with other Vote16 chapters in the Bay Area, the group has formed bonds with various community leaders that they call their “Community Coalition” — a group of school board members, PTSA presidents and other community members who advise the team members of Vote16. 

“We have no experience with ballots and stuff like that, so they may advise us in that capacity on how to write resolution with official language and that kind of thing,” Sneh said. 

“Talking to them about Vote16 and also about other issues has been really empowering and really inspiring,” Owens said. “I really want to extend that opportunity to any student who’s interested and give them the opportunity to talk directly to their representatives.”

In the near future, Vote16 plans to use these connections to organize a monthly Q&A with city council members and youth. 

“You may have this really intricate and seemingly amazing plan in your head about how things are going to proceed and it will never go that way,” Owens said. “But if you’re able to be flexible and to keep figuring out how to move the campaign forward, you will find success.”

Mountain View, Palo Alto police release footage of June 2020 K-9 mauling of innocent man

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Mountain View and Palo Alto police departments Tuesday released bodycam footage from an incident in June in which a Palo Alto police K-9 mistakenly attacked Mountain View resident Joel Alejo.

Alejo is suing the City of Palo Alto for $20 million in damages. 

According to a Mountain View police press release, the officers were given permission by the resident of the house to enter the backyard as they were searching for a man accused of kidnapping and domestic violence, who the police believed fled to a nearby neighborhood. 

A Palo Alto K-9 unit led the way on the Mountain View case — because no Mountain View K-9 units were available at the time — as a group of officers entered the backyard to find Alejo sleeping in the shed, mistaking him for the felony suspect.

Bodycam footage shows the dog promptly attacking, biting and leaping on Alejo.

Officers can be heard yelling commands at the dog to stop on bodycam footage from Mountain View officers Ian Johnson and Nick Enberg, over Alejo’s cries and the K-9’s howls.

“Give up, give up, give up!” the officers command the dog while simultaneously commanding Alejo to “Stop resisting.”

Officers determined Alejo was not the suspect after having instructed the dog to attack. After about a minute of yelling commands and pulling at the dog’s collar, Alejo was freed from the dog only to be rolled on his back and put into handcuffs in the shed. 

“Believing the person to be the hiding felony suspect, officers used the police canine to assist in detaining the person,” Palo Alto police said in its press release. “Further investigation revealed the person was not the suspect and in fact was not connected to the criminal incident that prompted the search.”

Officers put Alejo in their police car as they waited for an ambulance to arrive and treat his wounds. 

“You’re not in trouble. We just want to make sure that your leg is going to be OK,” an officer said in the footage. 

Alejo was taken to the hospital and treated for bite wounds. 

Alejo is now suing the city for $500,000 for medical damages, $500,000 for loss of earnings, $4 million for future general damages and $15 million in “exemplary damages.”

An independent police auditor will conduct its investigation and release a report, according to the Palo Alto announcement.  

The alleged kidnapper, who police mistook Alejo for, was arrested on July 17 for robbery, suspicion of kidnapping, knowing possession of stolen property and possession of a stolen vehicle, as reported by Palo Alto Weekly.

Friday, March 19: A previous version of this story misspelled Joel Alejo’s name, which has since been corrected.

Artist of the month: From almonds to album: Palo Alto band connects through music

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND AGNES MAR, PHOTOS COURTESY METRO

The stereotypical high school garage band features so-so music and overly baggy cargo shorts, but Metro is no typical high school band.

Metro, a self-described “dream pop” band, consisting of four members from the Palo Alto area, said that its practices feel like “hangouts” because the group is so tight-knit. 

“One of the first practices we spent 30 minutes like putting almonds on speakers and having Joseph play the bass and watching almonds fly around,” singer and guitarist Marina Buendia said. “I feel like we just do a lot of random stuff in practice and it’s definitely made us closer.”

Buendia sings alongside Toni Loew, who plays the keyboard and writes music, Joseph Cudahy, who plays bass and co-produces, and Rein Vaska, the drummer and producer. 

Vaska and Buendia are seniors at Palo Alto High School, while Loew and Cudahy are college freshmen.

The band first formed in 2018 when Loew’s old band broke up, and a music-hungry Loew reached out to various musicians in hopes of finding new band mates. According to Loew, the four of them “instantly clicked.”

Inspired by a variety of artists, they collaborate to write and produce music, including their recent single “Letters.” The group covers hard rock, psychedelic pop and general pop music, but their original music is “dream pop with alternative, indie and rock influences,” according to Vaska. 

“One thing that’s kind of special about us is that we listen to a lot of different types of music as individuals, and I think it does add a lot to the type of sound we have because we all have different inspirations and things that we bring to the table,” Buendia said. 

Loew said they usually each bring individual ideas to the group, then work together to make it a complete song.

“Someone brings something and then we all build it up,” Cudahy said. 

Buendia, who usually writes the lyrics, said she gets her inspiration from the music the other members write. 

“I interpret the music and I apply my personal experiences and then I try to write lyrics that match that interpretation,” Buendia said.

Cudahy, who writes music and produces for the song after receiving lyrics from Loew and Buendia, echoed this idea.

“I feel like for me, when I’m writing my parts … I’m almost getting into character with the vibe of the song and connecting to that experience that Marina has written about or Toni has written,” Cudahy said. “I can find a way to connect that to myself and that’s what I try to reign to the song with my parts.”

“I feel like we each kind of contribute and then as a whole that really comes across for sure,” Loew said. 

Prior to quarantine, the group would write music together in a band member’s garage. According to Vaska, that environment resulted in a “snowballing of ideas.”

“You end up building off the energy surrounding you and it’s a really special experience; you’re really inspired by your bandmates,” Buendia said. “You bring an idea that’s morphed into something and then someone else morphs that idea and you end up getting this hodgepodge of all of your ideas mashed together and it ends up being this really special creation that everyone’s really proud of.”

After the team writes the music and lyrics, Cudahy and Vaska use production tools to record and finalize the song. 

“The main thing is trying to bring the songs to life,” Vaska said. “In production we have the opportunity to bring up the story and the emotions in the song … [and] there’s little moments where you can do things to compliment the story. It’s very subtle but a lot of those little elements that you work on … grab your attention.”

This collaborative environment is made possible by the fact that the band are all close friends. 

“I feel very close to [the band] because writing music is a very vulnerable thing to do,” Buendia said. “Especially when you’re practicing, it’s not fully perfect and you’re gonna make mistakes, and I feel comfortable doing that with [the band].”

Cudahy said practices like the one involving almonds contributed to the bands’ connection. 

“By the time we were doing these six to seven hours of writing music together, the only reason we’re able to do that is because we’ve spent so much time hanging out and we’re so open with each other so it’s not weird at all,” Cudahy said. “It’s just like friends hanging out and we have something to do, which is making music.”

Buendia said to be a successful band, “you have to agree on the goals you have as musicians and as a band and then also you have to get along.”

“There’s a very specific set of qualities you guys need as a band, and I feel like we’ve been very lucky to have all of them,” Buendia said. 

According to Vaska, their close relationship translates when they perform live. 

“Sometimes we’re so locked in and I’ve never felt that with any other group,” Vaska said. “Knowing these people so well, as people but also how they play, is really cool.”

When the group did live performances, one of their favorite shows was in San Francisco in 2019 at the Battle of the Bands, a 10 band elimination competition. After the first round, they said they were sure they were eliminated. To their surprise, they advanced to the second round with four other bands. They made it to the final round with two other bands and ended up placing first. 

“We went off stage being like, ‘that’s the most energy we’ve ever had on stage,’” Buendia said. “Every single time I perform I critique myself after … [but] that was the only time we’ve ever performed and I haven’t immediately critiqued myself.” 

Metro’s audience is mostly their friends, family, and other people they know, so during performances they are able to connect with the audience on a personal level.

“Since we’re not that big of a band and we’re a local band, we interact with [our audience] like they’re our family and friends” Buendia said. 

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Metro has still been able to perform — socially distant, outside and masked. Since their gigs are now outside, such as on the sidewalk of Palo Alto’s California Avenue, they’ve been able to reach a different crowd of people than their usual audience composed of family and friends. 

“People walking by will just stop or they’re at a restaurant or walking their dog … and they get to hear some music. … It’s nice to reach people who wouldn’t have specifically come to one of our shows,” Vaska said. 

Their music has been able to bring people together during a global pandemic, and one time even turned their practice into an impromptu performance. 

During their first practice together in quarantine they gathered in Vaska’s backyard, playing paint buckets and singing. 

“Then this lady, a random stranger, just walked off from the side of the street, and walked into our backyard, and she was dancing, singing and getting so into it,” Vaska recalled. 

When the song finished, the new fan walked away still singing acapella. 

“I think we could consider that a gig, ’cause she had enough energy for a whole audience,” Loew said. 

Having creative control is part of the reason why the group wanted to form an independent band. Some members have participated in their school’s band, orchestra, and choir programs which taught them the fundamentals of music. However, they said it wasn’t creatively fulfilling and didn’t feel like they weren’t contributing to the sound as individuals. According to Vaska, working together as Metro is a lot more “collaborative, creative, and expressive.”

“We all make our own decisions; we produce our own music, we manage our own band, it’s a very entrepreneurial approach,” Loew said. 

Metro is working hard at producing their first album, which they hope to release later this year. 

“We love sharing our music and we love performing and the closest thing we can get right now to performing is releasing it,” Buendia said.

For now, with Loew and Cudahy at college and them scattered across different time zones, it’s been a lot of sending recordings back and forth via text message. 

In the future, they also hope to expand their audience by playing more shows and opening for bigger bands. 

“I feel like music is a language that everyone can speak and everyone can relate to,” Loew said.

Apple Music users can listen to Metro’s music here, and Spotify users can listen here. You can visit Metro’s website here

The missing perspective: Mountain View’s RV residents shed light on their daily struggles, the real impact of Measure C and empathy

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTOS BY CARLY HELTZEL

When Janet Stevens goes for a walk down her street, just like anyone else, she’ll strike up a conversation and smile warmly, talking to her equally friendly neighbors. 

But after they watch her cross the road and enter her home, something changes: People avoid making eye contact with her, uneasily cross to the other sidewalk to avoid her, throw trash at her home and harass her.

That’s just a fraction of what Stevens faces as a resident living in one of Mountain View’s around 280 recreational vehicles — more widely known as RVs.

“At first it startled me because I thought that [my neighbors and I] kind of had a rapport of at least saying ‘Hi,’ but now I understand that you can’t even acknowledge that I’m there,” Stevens said. “They wouldn’t look at me at all. I mean, they literally wouldn’t acknowledge my existence.” 

Stevens first moved into an RV when she lost her job due to extenuating medical circumstances. It took a thick skin to prevent her feelings from being hurt by the “degrading” and “shaming” look in her neighbors’ eyes, Stevens said. But after she got over the initial shock, she started trying to chat with people on the street in an attempt to humanize her and her neighbors. 

“I think the perception of who we are is the biggest problem because I think they believe we’re a group of people that we don’t represent,” Stevens said.

If you walked down the line of RVs, knocking on each door and talking to each person, she said, it would be just the same as any apartment building; they’re occupied by people ranging from those who have lost their partners and were forced to live off of one income, nurses, teachers, ex-firefighter and police officers who can’t afford the expensive rates of the Bay Area. 

And, according to Charles Wilkins — Stevens’ neighbor and fellow RV resident — other “good, law abiding citizens and productive members of the community.” 

“All we’re trying to do is survive,” Wilkins said. “They’re not crooks, they’re not bad people; they’re people who’ve worked hard all their lives but for one reason or another had to move out of their home.”

“The idea that we are a lesser group than the rest of the community is absolutely not true,” Stevens said. 

The misconceptions about Mountain View’s vehicularly housed residents are now posing a potentially life-threatening danger, they said, as the city implements Measure C to restrict oversized vehicles from parking on the majority of city streets.

THE IMPACT OF MEASURE C

Measure C — a recently instituted law that prohibits parking oversized vehicles on streets 40 feet wide or less — was passed by Mountain View voters on the November ballot, making the already precarious situation of both Stevens and Wilkins more unstable.

After the measure passed, the Mountain View City Council voted in December to reinstate its parking ban on 75% of city streets, displacing many of the area’s vehicularly housed residents.

“It’s heartbreaking when you see people not only forced to live in their car, but they’re trying to be happy about it,” Wilkins said. “And they’re being pushed away, because people think it looks bad. They don’t take into consideration who the person is, or the fact that they’re a person at all.”

Several city council members have said that their reasoning behind Measure C was to incentivize those living in RVs to pursue more permanent housing solutions and to promote affordable housing. But Stevens and Wilkins said that this simply does not work in the ways the council thinks it will.

“[Living here] is not a choice anyone makes willingly. … They are forced to do it,” Stevens said. “So the idea that [the city is] enabling us by allowing us to park on the streets is not realistic.”

Echoing this sentiment, Wilkins said that “affordable housing” is a relative term, especially in the COVID-19 economy.

“Affordable for me is not what they think it is,” he said. “[Moving] into an apartment that would be under ‘affordable housing,’ … it’s unattainable for a lot of people, myself included.”

Stevens said that much of the RV community resents the lawmakers for lumping their homes into the same category as all oversized vehicles, including moving trucks and 18-wheelers — she said she doesn’t believe the city council is working in their best interests.

Stevens is pictured before her RV. The newly instituted Measure C puts mobile home residents like Stevens and Wilkins in even more precarious a situation than before. (Carly Heltzel)

Stevens also said the measure is a result of the city council approaching the issue with a “not in my backyard” mentality, in which residents designate local issues, such as homelessness, as unwanted and attempt to push them out of their communities.

Stevens said the residents of the apartments they live near “don’t have a problem with us.” Instead, she said they’re worried about the safety hazards posed by other oversized vehicles such as 18-wheelers being parked on corners or in bike lanes.

 “If they could have voted with us, they would; they just had to vote against the other oversized vehicles,” Stevens said.

“We’re being thrown together in a group that should contain nothing more than moving trucks and tow trucks and things like that, but they’re throwing us RVers in there and all we’re trying to do is survive,” Wilkins added.

The council’s other solutions, such as Safe Parking lots — privately owned parking lots where oversized vehicles are allowed to park — present their own problems, according to Stevens.

Because of a medical condition that prevents her from regulating her core body temperature, Stevens needs to have her generator on to keep her heater running almost all the time, especially when it’s cold out in the winter. 

“[Safe Lots] sound really good if you don’t know anything about RVs,” Stevens said. “You need to run a generator to have any power, … and when you’re in a Safe Parking Lot, you’re not allowed to run your generator from [5 p.m. to 9 a.m.]. I couldn’t live in a Safe Lot.”

Prior to COVID-19, residents could only park in the Safe Lots at night, Wilkins added, causing them to waste gas moving to and from the lots and forcing their lives to be dictated entirely by that schedule.

But the root of the issue goes beyond the ineffective solutions, stemming from a lack of consideration and communication with people who are supposed to benefit from these resources — the RV residents.

“They say they’re trying to come up with a good solution and to help people out in a dignified way, but I’d like to point out that the people who are saying this are not proactive in any way with talking to people,” Wilkins said. “The people that are living out here have no say. If they truly wanted to help or make a difference, they would get some of us involved.”

He added that the lack of empathy from city council is “tearing [the city] down.”

“I don’t know when we quit caring about each other,” Wilkins said. “Now it’s just, ‘You’re in my way, you need to go.’”

And although many have told them to do just that, these residents said they can’t leave; they can only survive here. 

“JUST MOVE SOMEWHERE CHEAPER”

As a result of the expensive housing rates in California, many people are being forced out of their homes and onto the streets or into vehicles. But finding a permanent place to live is not as easy as simply moving out of the state, according to Stevens and Wilkins. 

For Stevens — who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, is a breast cancer survivor, must get an epidural shot every three months and has heart issues, among other medical conditions — moving out of the Bay area is virtually impossible. 

One of Stevens’s medical issues, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is so rare that she said there are only two places in the country where she can get the medication necessary to survive, and one of them is Stanford hospital. If she moved anywhere else, she couldn’t be treated, which could be life-threatening.

As a former worker for the state, her health insurance comes from the government’s Medicare system, while Wilkins, who has diabetes, is covered by Medi-Cal, another government insurance plan.

Because Wilkins receives health care from Santa Clara County, if he were to move out of the area, there is no certainty that his insurance would be approved or that he could receive the necessary medications in a different county. 

Not only is this where Stevens and Wilkins have trusted doctors and medical facilities, but Stevens said that she wouldn’t survive without her community here.

Stevens said she often calls her friends and acquaintances to drive her to the hospital, or bring her medicine or food when her medical conditions prevent her from leaving her RV. 

“If I was to get up and leave, my inability to have people support me and get my resources, for friends to bring me food and drive me to the doctor and things like that would be completely removed from my life,” Stevens said. “That would be life-threatening.”

Wilkins echoed this idea, citing the loss of a support system as his concern with relocating to a cheaper area. 

“I mean, everybody I know who can support me — not just supporting money-wise, but just raising moral support — is here,” Wilkins said. “When you’re my age, 50 years old or even older, and you move out of an area and you don’t know anybody, it’s really scary. It’s a scary world out there and you can’t be guaranteed anything when you’re moving to a new area.”

THEIR SITUATIONS

Wilkins is a professional musician, who, prior to COVID-19, played gigs at local cafes and restaurants with his band. 

“When you’re on tour, you have a lot of money in your pocket, but we don’t have a retirement plan, we don’t have medical insurance, we don’t have benefits; everything comes out of our pocket,” Wilkins said. “So I [would have to] stop doing what I love and do something that I absolutely hate.”

Wilks strumming a guitar in front of his RV. He was a professional musician before he had to move out onto the streets into an RV. (Carly Heltzel)

He has held jobs ranging from owning his own construction company to being a bouncer and a bounty hunter. But Wilkins, despite having an impressive work record under his belt, said it would be difficult for either of them to find jobs now.

“I’m in an age range where they don’t want to hire me even though I have the experience that they want,” Wilkins said. 

Wilkins’ lack of income coupled with the death of his mother forced him into an RV — he had previously lived with his mother in a mobile home until she passed away three years ago.

“I had nowhere to go — no house, no money,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to stay in the mobile home, so I was basically on the street for a while, couch surfing, and then I finally got my hands on an RV, and moved into that.” 

Stevens used to be a government employee for the state of California, until she lost the ability to use her legs for two years, after which she retired disabled. She said she lived in a house in Mountain View, then in a duplex in Cupertino, and moved into an RV when she couldn’t afford to live in a house anymore. 

“I had planned to get an RV because I knew I could not afford to live here, so I bought the RV with plans to travel a little bit and then find someplace else to live,” Stevens said. 

But her medical situation kept her tied to Stanford and the Bay Area. 

Stevens has lived in an RV for two years and three months, while Wilkins moved into one after the pandemic hit last March.

DIFFICULTIES

Living in an RV presents a wide array of hardships that neither Stevens nor Wilkins knew about before being forced to deal with them on a daily basis. 

“Nothing is easy,” Stevens said.

Just doing the basics, like making tea or breakfast, is challenging, if not impossible to do, according to Wilkins.

“Things you’ve been doing all your life like washing your hands and taking a shower, you have to plan all of this stuff out,” Wilkins said.

Stevens said “your whole life revolves around” water usage — even something that many take for granted like doing the dishes is a “big deal” because an RV can only store 50 gallons of dirty water before having to be emptied in a sewage facility in Redwood city. 

Driving to this facility, and anywhere else, is more complex than it seems. 

“If I don’t have gas, I have to go get it which is not cheap, and the idea of losing my spot is always a concern,” Stevens said. “To go get the gas is a big, big deal. You have to take everything down. My RV is locked for safety and on a level [to prevent it from rolling], so you’ve got to take that out, go get gas and come back.”

Similarly, for fear of losing his parking spot, Wilkins walks a mile to the nearest grocery store two to three times a week, since he said his refrigerator is essentially an ice box. And, he said, it simply costs too much to start the RV in the first place.

Wilkins and Stevens estimated that the gas mileage on an RV is about nine miles per gallon and, living on food stamps with no current income, a drive that is not essential to their survival is virtually impossible.

“I haven’t seen my daughter in about seven months because I can’t drive down [to L.A.] because I can’t afford the gas to get there and back,” Wilkins said.

Stevens said that gas is also vital to keep utilities in the RV running such as lighting, heating, air conditioning and refrigeration.

“I really can’t afford to run my generator, and when you don’t run your generator, you can’t run your heater,” Wilkins said. “When you’re sitting inside your RV and you can see your breath, you know it’s cold but really can’t afford to waste gas.”

The crucial role gas plays in providing adequate shelter from the elements makes it hard for Stevens to think about anything else. 

“When I wake up, I constantly think ‘Do I have enough gas? Do I have enough gas for my generator? Is everything working right?’ and God knows everything doesn’t work,” Stevens said. “There’s constantly something breaking.”

On top of these all-consuming day-to-day considerations, non-RV residents’ lack of understanding leads to concerns about sanitation. But contrary to what many believe, the RV residents are not “litterbugs” or “slobs,” Wilkins said.

“It’s as clean as it can be,” Stevens said. “If [the mess] were a problem, [city council] could have addressed that instead of just kicking us out. If it’s not sanitary, somebody should address it, but they have never done that.”

Throwing away their trash isn’t easy, but everyone on his street finds a way to keep their area clean, Wilkins added. In fact, almost all of the litter around the RVs got there by people driving by and throwing their trash at their homes: a dehumanizing experience, Stevens said.

For a period of time, at least once a day — sometimes up to three times a day — the same man would drive by the line of RVs where Stevens and Wilkins are parked and throw plastic wine bottles at the RVs.

“It was in this position where not only did he throw his garbage at us, at the RVs, but it gives the impression that that’s who you are and that’s what you deserve,” Stevens said.

Once she realized the man’s pattern of throwing the bottles, Stevens began calling the police every time he came by and following him to tell them where he was.

“I was never gonna let him keep driving past and throwing the bottles like that,” Stevens said.

But every time he crossed a city border, Stevens was transferred to a new police department or highway patrol and it proved difficult to pursue him for enough time.

He eventually stopped throwing bottles — Stevens assumes it’s because the police finally caught up to him through her tracking efforts — but she said that he still drives by every day.

“It’s really scary to me because … he’s got nothing better to do with his time, which is shocking, and also why are you driving by when you aren’t throwing the bottles any more?” Stevens said. “So I’m a little fearful that he may have some more ideas to do something to harass us, but I don’t scare easily either.”

But this small victory made little more than a dent in the “constant stream” of trash being thrown at the RVs including condoms and other “dirty things like that,” according to Stevens.

Another individual would honk all the way down the line of RVs, often at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m., when many of the residents are sleeping. 

“I think the impression is ‘We’re gonna wake you and harass you,’” Stevens said. “Or whatever his intentions are, he honks all the way through.”

FOCUSING ON THE POSITIVE

Despite their tumultuous lives and unstable housing situations, both Wilkins and Stevens have found ways to stay positive. 

Stevens helps relocate abandoned dogs and has one of her own, Sally, with whom she plays hide and seek; Sally even knows the commands for “warmer” and “colder” to help her find toys that Stevens hides in her RV. 

When she lived in a house, Stevens took it upon herself to call dog owners who would abandon their pets at parks and asked them to bring their dogs to shelters, or if that wasn’t possible, she would drive over to the owner and pick up the dogs herself to ensure they were not used for bait or other cruel practices.

In fact, one of the dogs she picked up and rescued from abandonment was Sally. 

Sally had breast cancer, a hernia, and a host of other medical issues, as many abandoned dogs do but Stevens stuck with her through her recovery.

“She is now my love and my everything,” Stevens said.

According to Stevens, Sally goes crazy around Wilkins because she loves seeing him so much, and Sally keeps them all smiling.

Another bright spot in their lives is Wilkins’ love of music. Stevens said that he was simply “born to play” music and has a raw talent with his guitar and vocals. Wilkins strums original songs on his guitar to take him away from the grim realities of a strenuous life in an RV. 

His music connects him to the world around, but he said he wishes more people would listen to not just his music, but what RV residents have to say.

“There’s no difference between the people that are down here living in RVs and on your streets,” Wilkins said. “It’s just our homes are on wheels.”