I Left My Pod For This: Your Stories of Re-Entering the World in 2021

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Jacob Mohundro competes in the "Set it off" OTA Performance contest at Back with a Vengeance Ball at Lake Merritt Amphitheater on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.  (Estefany Gonzalez )

Looking back over the last 12 months, it's hard to find many discernible features of 2021 that extend beyond the ongoing fight against COVID-19. The fear and unknowns of 2020 subsided with the release of vaccines—but relief was short-lived because of the emergence of the delta, and more recently, the omicron variant.

Still, 2021 was undoubtedly the year that people began to emerge from their pods again, as bars, theaters and restaurants reopened (albeit with vaccine mandates and mask rules). It was the year that we cautiously found our way back to one another, tip-toeing into each other's dining rooms, buying our first concert tickets in well over a year, and reacquainting ourselves with our beloved, long-lost bartenders.

For me, the greatest thrill came in October: seeing Idles at the Warfield. The seething and primal sounds of their albums Brutalism and Joy as an Act of Resistance had almost single-handedly kept me sane during the long months of shelter in place. In the pandemic, Idles became my therapy and my meditation. So being in the same room as the band; hearing these songs live for the very first time; surrendering in a sea of raging bodies, was a surreal and supremely emotional experience. I didn't know whether to stomp or cry—so I did both.

It was that experience that inspired us at KQED Arts & Culture to ask you, the readers, what it was that finally pried you out of your COVID pods and back into the world in 2021. Your responses reflected both the joys of reconnecting with people, and the trepidation of doing so mid-pandemic. Here's what you told us.

Live Music

Josef Alfonso, singer of Sunami, at the Real Bay Shit show in San Jose on June 19, 2021.
Josef Alfonso, singer of Sunami, at the Real Bay Shit show in San Jose on June 19, 2021. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

“The announcement that some local music venues would require proof of vaccination is what finally pushed me and my wife out of the house. We bought tickets to see Andrew St. James, Zelma Stone and French Cassette at The Chapel. We told ourselves if we were just the least bit uncomfortable, we'd walk out. But any anxiety quickly faded once inside, and we felt reassured by Chapel staff's gracious yet diligent enforcement of COVID-related protocols. For the most part, the audience seemed to share this sense of responsibility and there wasn't any behavior to give us pause. We had such an incredible time, we went out to see another show at Makeout Room a week later. We're still being uber-cautious, but have gradually expanded our activities. We've been inside at restaurants and bars a few times, and have more live music shows ahead of us.” — Mark Barbeau, San Francisco


“My partner and I attended a California Symphony performance, Smuin's Christmas Ballet, and a performance of Wintertime at the Berkeley Rep. Finally! It was all terrific. It was wonderful seeing and being with folks we hadn't seen in a while.” — Mark J. Powers, San Ramon


The crowd at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

“After 30+ years of marching in the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day parade personally, and with four generations of my family before me having marched, there was definitely a void in 2020 when the SF parade was canceled. One year later, we knew we had to do something to share our Irish spirit and pride with the community! Wearing our green, the Healy School of Irish Dance set out to march down Magnolia in Larkspur to lift the spirits of whomever was lucky enough to be out and Irish that day! It was truly a breath of fresh air to be in person and performing with our dancers. It was rejuvenating and uplifting to bring cheer to so many bystanders who enjoyed our spontaneous performances throughout our mini route.” — Alisa Belew, Larkspur

“During Pride weekend, I danced at some Castro nightclub surrounded by perspiring men who stripped their masks and shirts off with the same abandon. Despite my vaccination there were simply too many people in close proximity. I quickly masked up and continued wiggling on the dance floor, careful to distance myself from the laboriously breathing mouths. Since that night, I've avoided crowded events—save for a couple of outdoor protests. My pod fluctuates among the vaccinated who enjoy outdoor activities and quiet dinners. But the silent alarm of omicron is steadily creeping upon my senses—I'll keep my mask on.” — Justin Ebrahemi, San Francisco

Going Back to Work

A bartender wearing black sleeveless denim jacket pours out a cocktail.

“I was forced to go back to work because we need money to survive.” — Julia Brooks, Brisbane

“I'm a bartender at Zeitgeist and in the 'before times,' I do recall having to shut people down when they were sitting at the bar Facetiming hella loud. But after 2020, people seemed to be even less aware of their general surroundings. Reopening definitely had people on their phones more. I remember a few weeks [into reopening], this lady and her baby in a stroller just wandered into the beer garden. She walked right past the sign that said 'Please wait to be seated.' After she'd done one lap of the yard, I said 'Excuse me! Can I help you?' Because I thought maybe she was just looking to join someone she knew already there. She holds up her phone like, 'Oh it’s OK, I’m just showing my followers.' I had to step in front of her and say 'You either have to stay as a customer and let me check you in like everyone else, or please leave and stop live streaming.' She laughed and pointed the phone at me as she walked out.  Working at a bar mid-pandemic, my zen game had to get pretty tight.” — Nathan McDaniel, San Francisco


Lisa Ramirez stars in Oakland Theater Project's The Waste Land. (Carson French)

“Getting back to performing at Bazaar Cafe's open mic once that started up again. Performing over a Zoom call is just not the same as actually being able to make eye contact with a real audience so you can gage their reaction to what you're doing. Actual applause is also nice.” — E.G. Phillips, San Francisco

“It was a collage of experiences with deejaying in public again. I remember playing at the Academy of Sciences and getting a round of applause at the end of my set. And also being compelled to say a few words before another night of DJing, thanking everyone there. Also, there was that one weekend where people felt free—July 4th. I was in L.A. and just remember not feeling sure on what to play but getting the biggest reactions from songs I wouldn't think would work.” — King Most, San Francisco

“Performing at Stern Grove [with The Seshen] def felt like a re-emergence. That was the first time the band was back on stage in front of an audience since we played our album release party, February 2020. I remember the first time hearing the crowd cheer after the end of a song that day. Chills, and it almost brought me to tears.” — Kumar Butler, Oakland

“Performing live in front of an audience at [Woodside cultural center] Filoli a few weeks back. Suddenly, it felt like things were opening up again and that we're getting back on track!” — James Lanman, San Francisco

“My full-time job is singing and playing guitar in a cover band called The Roxy Gunn Project. Our very first gig back was super weird. We’d been streaming for over a year and just playing in my living room in front of a camera. All of sudden we were in front of nearly one hundred people who weren’t allowed, at that time, to dance, cheer, or sing along. They could clap if they wanted but that was it. It was quite a sight! Not to mention we had to essentially relearn how to perform for an audience again. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t winded after the first two songs.” — Roxy Gunn, Las Vegas

Still Waiting...

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down's new video was shot entirely on Zoom.
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down's music video for "Phenom" was shot entirely on Zoom. (YouTube)

“Transplant recipients like me are still in our pods. I'm 53 and I had a kidney transplant 14 years ago. Transplant drugs increase the risk for contracting illnesses—it's possible to be hospitalized for something like food poisoning. I've had three full doses of the vaccine, which they hope will bring up my immune response closer to the average person's response with two doses. Since the start of the pandemic we've had everything delivered. We stopped eating out completely, including no take out. We only do outdoor activities, even with vaccinated family and friends. I miss simple things like hanging out with my kid without anyone taking a C19 test, museums, open studio events, concerts, wandering the aisles of Trader Joe's for snacks, and having coffee indoors with friends. I've adjusted to outdoor art events, attending online art lectures and workshops, coffee in the park, and watching live streams of our son's performances—but I don't know when life will shift for my little family. I've been doing risk assessment for 14 years since my transplant, wearing masks when needed, washing my hands all the time. But now feeling isolated and left behind by the world—feeling the threat of other people's ignorance—is taking its toll. 'Return to the world' is a long ways away.” — Sarah Logan, East Bay

“What are we acting like the pandemic is over?! It's still in full swing last time I checked...” — @melancholera, Instagram

Personal Commitments

A woman wearing a cap and gown, viewed from behind, looking onwards to her graduating classmates.

“The first time I was in a large crowd of people was in June of 2021 at my college graduation at the University of Oregon. Things had to be changed such as the ceremony was moved outdoors instead of inside our basketball arena like it always is. There was a mask requirement and, being college students, not a lot of people followed it. But it was still super nice to have an in-person ceremony of some sort.” — Ashley Ng, Danville

“I joined a fitness center that held its classes outdoors. When we were finally able to workout indoors, it was like 'Wow! We can be inside together!' It felt hopeful, like things were getting better. I recently let down my guard (i.e. my mask) to eat inside my home with a good friend. Now with the new virus, I will not do that again.” — Julie Twichell, Berkeley

“When I flew home to NYC to visit my family at the end of July, I was cautiously excited. Ironically, I am more nervous about my visit at end of the year, despite being boostered.” — Vicki Shu, Oakland

Getting Creative

Lauren D'Amato and Isaac Vazquez Avila of Avila Rose Signs add gilding to Incline Gallery's window in preparation for the reopening. (Graham Holoch)

“Being an artist, seeing exhibits was the best way for me to come back into the world. After my second shot, being a senior and getting vaccinated earlier, in April I went to the Immersive van Gogh experience. Surrounded in beauty inspired two solid weeks of studio work.” — Denys Adida, Oakland

“Gallery openings and artist talks!” — Max Blue, San Francisco

“I wrote a book entitled, Travels With An Artist. It is the story of my pioneer Alaskan family as well as incidents of my very exciting life as an artist, anecdotes from experiences and ending with my the way I managed COVID. The last year was hard but I hope for a better year ahead.” — Helen Ann Licht, Berkeley

Hitting the Movies

Oakland's Grand Lake Theater as captured in "Sights of Northern California."
Oakland's Grand Lake Theater as captured in "Sights of Northern California." (Fred Dunn / CC BY-NC 2.0)

“I got to see Rocky Horror for the first time in the theater this year! For Pride! In costume! With everything these past two years it was such a pleasure. And now a tradition—I've started going to the Balboa Theatre the last Saturday of each month to watch the Bawdy Caste.” — Shaylyn Martos, Oakland

“The first time I felt some normalcy returning to the world was when I went to the movies in person to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The last time that I saw a film in person was in March 2020 at the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival in Eugene, OR. I thought it was very important to support Asian representation on the big screen, since there were very few role models that looked like me on the big screen or TV when I was growing up here in the Bay Area. It was wonderful to do something together as a family outside the house.” — Susie Willemsz-Geeroms, San Francisco


“I'm a big fan of seeing movies in the theater. It can make a mediocre movie into a memorable night, and it was the biggest social casualty for me during the pandemic. It was a year and six months, almost to the day, between my last pre-pandemic movie and the one that got me back in theaters. A lovely friend surprised me with a movie ticket and refreshments for my birthday this summer, and even though I was hesitant, I dove back in. It was like pulling your favorite blanket out of the closet in the fall; like melting into your favorite chair; like putting on your favorite album. Those two hours made me remember what life was like pre-pandemic. And it made me hopeful that someday we can return to normalcy.” — Joe Dissolvo, Baltimore