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

Gluten-free bakery Sweet Diplomacy brings a community of food lovers often left out, together

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

When Melody Hu happened to run out of regular flour while baking muffins at home one afternoon five years ago, she discovered gluten-free, mochiko rice flour to be a perfectly delicious substitute. The result of this accidental discovery is Sweet Diplomacy, a 100% gluten-free bakery nestled in downtown Los Altos. 

Sweet Diplomacy, which has always been a to-go operation, began with an uncertain start, opening its storefront in December 2019 mere months before the pandemic began, but Hu said community support has been essential to helping the fledgling bakery thrive.

Hu said Sweet Diplomacy’s mission is to “bring people together to celebrate world flavors and inclusive tastes.” In addition to being entirely gluten-free, the bakery accommodates a range of other dietary restrictions, serving dairy-free, vegan and paleo desserts.

As for those “world flavors,” many of Sweet Diplomacy’s desserts draw influence from European, Asian and American cuisines. Hu, a native of Taiwan who grew up eating mochiko rice-based desserts, said she wants to capture the Bay Area’s unique mixing and matching of cultures in her baking. 

“When you come to Sweet Diplomacy, not only are you getting special diet-friendly treats, but we’re also bringing you on a kind of culinary magic carpet [ride] with us to try different flavors,” Hu said, referring to the shop’s Flavor of the Week cupcakes, which can range from Japanese flavors to Mexican hot chocolate. 

Sweet Diplomacy’s signature gluten-free cupcakes topped with Italian meringue buttercream. (Emily McNally)

As for the special diet-friendly element of the bakery, surprisingly neither Hu nor the rest of the staff have dietary restrictions. But Hu said that she was inspired by the community of people she encountered in the bakery’s early days selling gluten-free mochiko muffins at farmers’ markets and pop-ups. 

“These are people who enjoy good food — handmade, flavorful food — but who also have dietary restrictions,” Hu said, and serving that community “became a passion and a calling that [she] fell into.”

As one can imagine, adapting recipes for desserts that are traditionally chock-full of sugar, butter and wheat flour to be gluten-free and special diet–friendly comes with many challenges. 

Hu said the hardest part is using limited ingredients to create the right textures and flavors that make a dessert recognizable. In the earlier days of her operation, she would list every ingredient on Excel spreadsheets and tweak recipes by the gram, conducting countless trials to get each one perfect. 

“Gluten-free and vegan baking is about as hard as it gets,” Hu said. “It really took a lot of time and a lot of tears and scraping of bottoms of pans.”

Now, with a few years of experience under her belt and the help of team members, she’s simplified her process for creating recipes. 

But more than its carefully crafted treats, manager AnaLisse Johansson says Sweet Diplomacy is built on a strong relationship between the team and the community members they serve. Many of their customers trust the bakery to provide for their dietary needs, which in some cases can be life-threatening. For full transparency, ingredients of each product are listed on the bakery’s website so customers know exactly what they’re eating. 

As for those without special dietary restrictions, Hu is fully aware of the negative perceptions surrounding gluten-free foods that can put off customers.

“You know, we’ve had remarks like ‘What, this is gluten-free? Okay, no thanks.’ And they just run away — like literally they will dash out the store because they associate gluten-free with ‘disgusting,’” said Hu.

Hu attributes that stigma to people being accustomed to the taste of wheat as well as many gluten-free recipes being created out of medical necessity. However, she hopes customers can look past that and be open-minded about giving her desserts a try.

After all, that willingness to try new things is central to Sweet Diplomacy’s mission.

“We bring people together; even if you have all these different dietary restrictions, even if you come from different cultures, you can still come to the table and eat with us,” Johansson said. 

Sweet Diplomacy is open in downtown Los Altos Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

State guidance permits all outdoor sports competition starting next Friday, but Santa Clara County could hold off

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

The California Department of Public Health today loosened its youth sports restrictions, permitting all outdoor sports — including football, water polo, field hockey and soccer, among others — to resume inter-team competitions on Feb. 26 in counties with fewer than 14 cases per 100,000 in the population.

Santa Clara County currently reports 10.9 cases per 100,000 in the population, qualifying the region for the loosened restrictions which apply irrespective of coronavirus transmission tier, a departure from a previous system where youth sports competition was contingent upon the county’s placement on the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”

In a statement to the Post, however, Santa Clara County said that it is “currently reviewing” the state’s guidance, and will provide additional information “as soon as possible.”

“The County will carefully review the newly released State guidance [and] existing local directives that apply to all youth programs and athletic activities, and consider the comprehensive benefits and risks,” the county wrote. “While the County remains very concerned about protecting the community from the spread of COVID-19, we also recognize the value of exploring ways to expand allowable sports activities as safely as possible.”

The statement noted the need to “holistically” protect the community’s physical and mental health. 

State guidance allows local health officers to implement more stringent rules “tailored to local conditions,” setting up another possible chapter in a months-long saga of shifting COVID-19 restrictions at both the state and county level.

Among a host of now-standard social distancing and masking requirements, the state mandates that all athletes and coaches participating in high-contact sports in counties with a case rate between seven and 14 per 100,000 be subject to weekly COVID-19 tests.

High-contact sports include football, soccer, water polo, lacrosse and outdoor basketball.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Governor Gavin Newsom said the state will pay for the tests.

Additionally, state guidance “strongly encourages” face coverings and 6-foot social distancing during play, but falls short of a strict mandate. Santa Clara County guidance does, however, require both 6-foot social distancing and face coverings during play, with the only exception being aquatic athletes when actively in the water.

“We are concerned with the overall physical and mental health of all of our residents and recognize the critical importance of sports and other activities for children and youth,” the county wrote. “The County will continue to take a comprehensive approach to all of our directives and will provide additional information as soon as possible before the State’s updated guidance takes effect.”

Riley Carolan, loaf novice, starts popular Castilleja bread baking club

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Where’d all the bread flour go? Since the beginning of quarantine, a surge in at-home bread baking has taken place, causing an unprecedented demand for bread flour.

Castilleja junior Riley Carolan has been a zealous participant in what she dubbed “the quarantine activity.”

“I’ve always admired people who can just make a loaf of sourdough … so magical,” Carolan said. “I felt like it would be a very useful skill.”

Carolan and her friend Hadley Nunn wanted to learn, so they started a bread baking interest club at their high school despite having no bread baking experience. 

The Castilleja juniors were inspired to start a club which took advantage of the “new avenues” distance learning opened up such as access to a kitchen. This sparked the idea for a social club centered around baking.

“I think when you’re just going from class to class on Zoom in your bedroom it can be isolating,” Carolan said. “I, for one, felt a little bit disconnected.”

To Carolan and Nunn, bread baking expertise did not seem like a prerequisite to leading the club because they expected to only see four sign-ups — those Carolan had “coerced into joining,” she said — but when the sign-ups started rolling in, the pair realized that they would need a more solid plan for orchestrating the club.

“We had a roster of 40 people who joined the club and we were both so surprised,” Carolan said. “We were like, ‘Now we actually have to lead this well.’”

Carolan found a club mentor in her math teacher from sophomore year, Dr. Emily Landes, who happened to be an experienced at-home bread baker. Through making loads of loaves with her husband, Landes has been able to equip the beginners with “those tips you can’t necessarily find in a recipe but that a person who bakes bread a lot will know,” Carolan said. 

Landes also shares her own baking failures, which Carolan said helps with staying positive through the inevitable struggles.

The club took on banana bread as its debut bake to embolden its members. This first meeting’s turnout was more diverse in skill and grade than Carolan expected.

“We had a range of grades and a lot of these people I hadn’t even talked to,” Carolan said. “Some of them are completely new to the school.”

The club has fostered opportunities for “inter-grade bonding” and more casual interactions, Carolan said, which are missing from the school experience off-campus. She and other upperclassmen in the club have been able to give advice to freshman and sophomores going through the same classes and projects they once did.

Chemistry is often a topic of conversation in the club, as many sophomore members are taking the subject. Heated discussions about yeast and thermodynamics are spurred on by the club’s collective chemistry knowledge. Carolan said that the group jokes about bread baking being “food chemistry.” 

“The elements are your ingredients,” Carolan said.

Because of the complicated science at work, Carolan has learned that it can take a long time to get a loaf right. Looking at a photo of the Challah bread she has now mastered, it’s hard to believe that Carolan described her final product the first time she attempted this recipe as “dry chunks, with an oily exterior.”

“I forgot to add the oil and so as I was mixing the dough, it was super chunky and dry,” she said. “I was showing everyone on the Zoom meeting my dough and I was like, ‘Is this how it’s supposed to look?’ and they were like, ‘Um, yeah, it’s not really supposed to look like that.’ … It was at the point where it was beyond saving.”

To improve as an at-home baker, Carolan advised trying out different breads, asserting that even if the breads are different, over time, a baker gets a feel for the qualities of a good bread dough. Asking more experienced bakers for help has also allowed Carolan to build her skills.

She shared this simple revelation: “Baking bread is hard, but if you keep at it, you will succeed.”

With patience, Carolan has been able to achieve some impressive bakes. She spoke fondly of her first time baking focaccia; the smell of the dough, watching it rise, the herb and spice mix seasoning the top of the soft golden loaf that came out of the oven were all sensual delights of the process.

Carolan said she savors these many delightful steps of bread making, but her favorite part is the moment she gets to share the fresh loaf with her family and brothers after the hard work. Club members who couldn’t make it to the meeting or whose bread did not turn out sometimes also get a successful loaf Carolan delivers so that they are able to experience the final product. Carolan loves to see others enjoy her bread.

In addition to bonding with other students, the bread club has allowed Carolan to interact with new adults in her school community such as a librarian who joined in for pita day.

“I never got the opportunity to talk in depth with the people who work in the kitchen at our school, and so [I appreciate] having that opportunity to talk with them on a more personal level while they’re in our club and instructing us,” she said. “I’m really grateful that they wanted to take time out of their day to teach us.”

Carolan said she hopes the bread baking interest club and the unexpected connections it encourages will continue even after school returns in person, now that Zoom is an established tool. A sophomore who frequents the club has already offered to “continue the tradition” once Carolan and Nunn graduate, she said.

“My favorite part about the club, even though bread baking is great, is just seeing the people and interacting with them and joking around,” Carolan said. “It’s a place where I feel really comfortable and I hope that the members of our bread club can feel comfortable. … Destress from our days and bake bread together.”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop serves up nostalgia by the dozen

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND ARI STROBER, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

In Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” a single bite of the eponymous dish transports the sour-faced food critic, Anton Ego, to a memory of himself as a child, enjoying his mother’s cooking. Seeing a customer experience that involuntary sense of nostalgia is Antoine Tang’s favorite part of his job as owner of Antoine’s Cookie Shop.

“When I hear a customer have that kind of response to the cookies, I’m extremely proud,” Tang said. “Especially when I get an older person — I’m talking about someone in their 80s — that comes into my shop and buys the cookies, and they tell me, ‘These cookies are like what I had when I was a kid.’”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop, which just opened a second location at Palo Alto’s Town and Country Village, is a cozy nook with a 10-cookie menu of classic flavors (although, the crowd favorite is hands down the unique Cookies N’ Cream).

Thanks to community support, business hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic at the shop’s original San Mateo location, and the store’s January Palo Alto opening was met with a warm welcome from customers, selling two thousand cookies on opening day. Tang credits his success to the quality of his ingredients, consistency, and excellent employees.

“The first weekend in Palo Alto was extremely busy for us,” Tang said. “I think a lot of people came from different nearby towns. Our job right now is to win over the local community, and to let them know that we’re here.”

But Antoine’s wasn’t always this big — it began as a solo operation out of Tang’s house eight years ago. Tang started baking cookies “just for fun,” setting out to find the perfect chocolate chip cookies to satisfy his sweet tooth. But the 30-cookie batches were too much for him to eat alone, so he began sharing his cookies with his friends, who pushed him to take the next step to make his hobby into a full-fledged business.

“They told me, ‘Hey, you should sell these,’ and I said, ‘Eh, who’s gonna buy them?’” Tang said. “Then one of them said, ‘I’ll buy them.’ And then she bought some.”

That initial support from his friends pushed Tang to launch an online business delivering cookies all around the Bay Area. Over the next three years, Tang grew the business gradually, building a website and streamlining his ordering process. Demand started picking up, and Tang, who had never imagined starting a shop, began to sell up to 300 cookies a day.

“There was one Christmas where we got in so many orders that I knew I couldn’t keep up,” Tang said. “So I shut down the ordering page on the website around the 12th of December in 2015. And then I was like, ‘Okay, we really got to find a store.’”

Tang opened his first brick and mortar location in downtown San Mateo in 2016, where he could interact with customers face to face for the first time and began to build a staff.

“One of the things that really surprised me about opening the shop was how fulfilling it is to provide dignified employment to folks, especially young people,” Tang said, “A big part of the business is offering a safe place for young people to come work. And that’s something that I’m very proud of.” 

What began with Tang Googling “world’s best chocolate chip recipe” has now grown into a full-fledged business with his own recipes that brings freshly baked cookies and joy to customers around the Bay Area.

“I want people to eat the cookies and be very happy,” Tang said. “I want them to share with a friend. It’s a very shareable dessert. I love when people bring it to parties and they look like the hero.”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop is open in Town and Country Shopping Center Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

PAUSD to make optional in-person return in red tier

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MELODY XU, PHOTO BY GIL RUBINSTEIN

Grades 7–12 in the Palo Alto Unified School District will enter an optional in-person return once Santa Clara County falls to the red tier of coronavirus restrictions.

As a continuation of the school board’s Nov. 10 vote to return to school in the spring semester, this latest set of plans created by district staff do not require additional board approval and could go into effect as soon as the first week of March, if the county sits in the red tier — but not earlier.

Superintendent Don Austin said that the district will need until then to further flesh out the plans and work out logistical kinks.

Currently, Santa Clara County sits in the purple tier of coronavirus restrictions, needing to fall substantially in the number of new cases per 100,000 residents metric to fall to the red tier. Schools are allowed to reopen after sitting in the red tier for five consecutive days.

The district’s plans mandate that all teachers return to campus, but give students ability to opt in or out. Students will be split into two alphabetical groups and attend a full schedule of classes two days a week, with Mondays remaining remote for secondary schools across the district. 

While the exact setup is not immediately clear, the plans call for both students on campus and at home to attend the same Zoom class, the only difference being that students in the classroom are physically present with the teacher leading the class, and would presumably benefit from the increased social interaction of interacting with peers during breaks. 

The maximum number of students in one classroom will be as many as can fit while maintaining the required 6-foot distance. 

Austin emphasized that, in contrast to the reopening plan passed in November, student schedules will not be affected, nor will families be forced to commit to in-person attendance, and students who opt in to the return will still have the choice to attend classes remotely day by day.

Many details remain unclear, including how students would rotate through different classes, as the plan will not use strict cohorts. Further plans, including COVID testing for students, will be discussed at the board’s next meeting on Feb. 23.

The district’s elementary schoolers are currently engaged in a hybrid return, even set to begin a full-return pilot with 15 cohorts in February, and an optional hybrid return for sixth graders on March 1. 

Several teachers, however, expressed concerns about the safety of possibly returning next month during public comment. 

“To put anyone into a crowded, enclosed environment for six to eight hours per day at this point in time would be the height of irresponsibility,” said Paul Gralen, an art teacher at Greene Middle School.

Parents, however — many of whom attended a protest calling for an in-person return yesterday — expressed strong support for the plan, citing student mental health as a priority. Many parents stressed that other districts have already reopened and fully vaccinating teachers should not be a prerequisite to an in-person return.  

Meanwhile, student board representatives Gunn senior Thomas Li and Paly senior Medha Atla, expressed dismay at the plan going into effect with little input from students, reporting that they were only informed of the plan hours prior to the meeting. 

“My hope is that there will be a vote,” Li said. “[The current plan] seems drastically different from the plan that was presented in November, and if we voted to reopen schools in November based off of that iteration of the plan, then that decision was based in part on the details of that plan.” 

Austin emphasized that the new plan is simply a reworking of the board’s November decision to reopen and that requiring a further vote would only delay planning and reopening.

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.”

DeMartini Orchard: Oldest business in Los Altos sticks to its roots

STORY BY DANA HUCH AND GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH AND EMILY MCNALLY

June 26 might just seem like a regular summer Sunday, but here in Los Altos, it’s officially known as DeMartini Day, commemorating the oldest business that still operates in the town today: DeMartini Orchard, a farmstand on the side of San Antonio, founded in 1932.

Over the almost nine decades that the store has operated, it’s passed through three families; first the DeMartinis, then the Zeitmanns before the current owners, the Kozys. Its deep roots have made DeMartini a pillar of Los Altos’ history and community.

The Kozy brothers — Craig and Tony — gained ownership of the stand in 1985 and have kept the family-run tradition alive. Craig’s son, James, began working the stand at 12 years old, and he’s grown up witnessing the complications of running a family business. 


Aerial photos of Demartini Orchard, 1930’s and 2021 (courtesy Kobi Myszne and Los Altos History Museum, respectively)

“Community is a big part of our store,” James said. “A lot of our customers come here not with a dinner plan, but wanting to see what looks good that day. We’ve been here for so long that we are entrenched in the community.”

The stand has stood the test of time partially due to the DeMartini family’s continued ownership of the land on which the store sits, relieving a significant amount of financial pressure from the business. 

Because of this support, the stand has been able to stick to its charming, anachronistic purpose of serving fresh produce to the community, despite time’s changes. Heritage and attention to detail makes DeMartini Orchard stand out among the grocery delivery services of the tech age.


Photos of Demartini Orchard from across San Antonio, 1930’s and 2021 (courtesy Los Altos History Museum)

But given that same tech age, the stand has needed to branch out in the types of produce it sources to accommodate for a wider demographic. Since the tech industry has boomed, DeMartini’s has seen its patronage diversify and has tried to reflect this change in their inventory.

“Historically the demographics of Los Altos were a little bit older and white; in the past decade or so, there’s been a shift to a younger demographic,” James said. “There has been an explosion in diversity, so I’ve focused a little bit more on getting more ethnic foods and different vegetables.”

Every day, DeMartini receives a new shipment of produce from farms as far as Watsonville and Calistoga, as well as other farms along the coast and in the valley.

“If they’re willing to drive the product to me, I’ll take it,” James said. “If it’s in season and if it’s local, it’ll always taste better than if it has to sit in a warehouse or truck. It’s also great to keep money in local communities.”

But DeMartini, like many small businesses, still has not been immune to the effects of COVID-19. While it does now offer curbside pickup, extra costs and manpower associated with selecting items have added to employees’ workloads, making it a less than ideal system.

And the pandemic has also brought in a new crowd of shoppers — tech workers.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of these tech workers would get fed all their meals at the campus,” James said. “Now, since they closed the campuses, a lot of tech workers are coming out and looking at produce for the first time. I’ve had a lot of people ask, ‘What is this vegetable? How do I cook it?’ I’ve had people come in who didn’t know that there were more than 10 varieties of apples. It’s really cool to see someone who tries something for the first time; it’s really fun.”

But going to the locally sourced produce stand is often not the most convenient or cheapest option, especially in comparison to supermarkets and grocery delivery services. Even before the pandemic, DeMartini found itself being forced to fight the larger companies for customers, but has prided itself on having fresher produce than the big box chains.

“Your Safeways, your Walmarts, your Costcos, they take everything that the farm produces regardless of quality,” James said. “I have people that go to the markets every day and they pick out the best looking boxes off the pallets. It’s not the easy way to do it, but it is the best way to do it.”

MVLA preparing for optional in-person return in red tier

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

The Mountain View–Los Altos School District is preparing to bring more students on campus once in the red tier of coronavirus transmission, subject to approval from the school board as well as the state and county.

This latest development follows the board’s previous approval of a plan that would’ve seen the district take its first steps to a hybrid return in the orange tier rather than red. 

Shifting state guidelines have made an earlier return more feasible, according to Associate Superintendent of Personnel Services Leyla Benson.

Benson declined to provide the number of students that the district anticipates will return once allowed, instead referring the Post to the Feb. 8 board study session where district staff will lay out the specifics of the plan.

At the moment, Santa Clara County sits in the purple tier of coronavirus transmission with a 4.9% test positivity rate, 32.3 new daily cases per 100,000 in the population and a 9.4% health equity quartile; in order to qualify for the red tier, daily new cases would need to fall to 7 per 100,000 in the population, and the health equity quartile to 8%.

THE PLANS

If the board and various organizations at the state and county level approve the plans — and once the county sits in the red tier for five days — students across the district will have the option to return to campus. 

Still, students for the most part won’t receive any in-person instruction, instead attending online classes from a classroom surrounded by other students attending other remote classes.

A handful of the presumed benefits of that would be social interaction, a more comfortable work environment or even stronger internet access.

Currently, both Los Altos and Mountain View high schools have around seven cohorts of students on campus, including cohorts for critical learners, English learners, students with individualized education programs, supervised study, academic support, AVID and the Advanced Scientific Investigations course.

The district is seeking substitute employees to “work in a supervisory capacity” monitoring the groups of up to 14 students to “ensure they are safe and engaged in online classes.” Benson noted that these substitutes are needed, seeing as teachers would still be leading remote classes.

Previously, the board approved a plan on Dec. 15 to begin testing the waters of an optional return in the orange tier, progressively bringing back more students and activities as the county worked its way down the state’s tier system. In fact, a relatively large-scale hybrid return would have begun in the yellow tier, which would have seen students that opted in receive in-person instruction for a majority of their classes.

But even that old plan wasn’t fully fleshed out, leaving specifics such as the hybrid schedule undetermined — those potential schedules included “rotation,” “AM/PM” and “week-on/week-off” models.

Earlier this month, Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer told the Post that in the spring of last year, the district had prepared a draft of the “rotation” model, but at this point any schedule would be subject to further discussion.

Another concern from community members at the Dec. 15 board meeting was that students who opted into the hybrid return would have had their schedules and classes shifted, much like the Palo Alto Unified School District’s now-scrapped plans for a hybrid return; in reaction, the board added an amendment stipulating that students’ classes must remain the same.

It is not immediately clear what items from the district’s December plan will remain in place in light of the earlier reopening  — specifically, when a broader hybrid return would occur as opposed to the limited cohort return — nor what specific change in state guidance precipitated these latest yet-to-be-approved plans. 

The specifics, however, should be laid out at the Feb. 8 study session.

Sunday, Feb. 7: A previous version of this story indicated that the MVLA board will amend and approve the district’s return plans at the Feb. 8 board meeting. The board, however, has scheduled a study session prior to the regular board meeting to discuss the plans with district staff.

Artist of the Month: Dasha Korepanova delights with her whimsical creatures

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND DANA HUCH, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Dasha Korepanova used to sell her character designs in exchange for virtual currency in a video game. Now, the Los Altos junior is inundated with so many requests for commissions — paid in real money, not in-game “spuds” — that it’s become difficult for her to manage during school. 

“I would sell my stuff for 10 cents and hope and pray that it sold,” Korepanova said. “Now, it’s surprising to me how many people want to support my stuff.” 

Korepanova primarily uses Instagram to share her work, posting what she described as a mix of animal character design and fan art. Recently, her following on Instagram has grown, rising from 300 followers to 400 in just one month.

But she said numbers have never been her focus — it’s interacting with her fellow artists and followers that brings her the most joy.

“It’s really nice seeing how the same people come back to your posts,” Korepanova said. “The same people say, ‘Wow, I love this,’ ‘This made my day,’ and I think just building that tiny community of people who really like my art is what means a lot to me.”

Korepanova’s favorite artwork is fan art of a character from the video game “Hades.” (courtesy Dasha Korepanova)

Community has always been an essential part of Korepanova’s art. Before middle school, Korepanova said that her perception and involvement in the art scene was limited to doodling for fun and copying images off the Internet, but her friends changed that completely. She credits these friends for giving her the initial push that helped her get where she is now. 

“When I met my friends, they showed me a different side to this whole art culture and how you can push yourself to make your own characters and your own designs,” Korepanova said.

The originality and quality of Korepanova’s art has mushroomed since those formative middle school years. Since then, her signature style has emerged; if you scroll down Korepanova’s Instagram page, you’ll see a variety of whimsical creatures done in a style that she describes as “muted and painterly.”

But sticking to a consistent style has always been less important than evolution to Korepanova, who said she’s constantly tinkering with her visual approach and embracing experimentation.

“I feel like [art style] always evolves no matter how good your art gets, because you always are influenced by the things around you,” Korepanova said.

Korepanova mostly posts colorful and fantastical creatures like this one on her Instagram. (courtesy Dasha Korepanova)

When Korepanova invents a mythical creature, she considers human qualities as well, incorporating distinct personalities that influence the creature’s pose, coloring and visual quirks.

For commissions, clients often give Korepanova a personality profile to work with, but she said she also likes to add her own touch of “snarkiness” and mischief to her creatures.

“It’s a selling factor because people really like to connect with them on an emotional level,” she said. “That’s usually what gets someone to buy it.”

Fan art of another character from “Hades,” Charon, eating a burrito. (courtesy Dasha Korepanova)

Despite her early success, Korepanova’s parents have reservations about her desire to pursue art as a career, but Korepanova attributes that uncertainty to misconceptions about the scope of artists’ work.

“A lot of people think art as a job can only be where you sell your paintings to an art exhibit … but that’s not what modern artists do,” Korepanova said. “I don’t think [they] understand that art and design can be found pretty much anywhere.”

Korepanova said her dream career is creating concept art for video games, movies and television shows. She isn’t under any illusions about the less-glamorous side of the job — expecting she’d be assigned to “draw 40 different rocks” — but she’s fascinated by the possibility of showing her character designs to a broader audience through the mainstream entertainment industry.

“Having the freedom to draw a bunch of different characters and concepts and trying to represent a certain idea would be the closest to what I do now,” Korepanova said.

But until then, Korepanova is focused on experimenting with new techniques and improving as an artist.

“My goal right now is just to find [a style] that I’m happy with and to grow and explore more and just get better,” Korepanova said.