Life Begins @ 40: PJ Johnston




For PJ Johnston, 40 ain’t the new anything.

Because prior to reaching this recent natal milestone, the newly-minted 40-year-old has, actually, already lived a rather full, exciting, eventful and (sometimes) memorable life.

A thumbnail sketch of PJ might well read: SF Native. Press Secretary to Mayor Willie Brown. SF Giants Fan. Crisis Manager. SF Arts Commission President. Reggae-on-the-River aficionado. Passionate Politico. Former Tracy Press Features Editor. Francophile. PR Poobah. Newshound. Proud Father. Film Fanatic. Master Griller. And Second Best (after, that is, Mayor Brown) Quote in Town.

But as a longtime fan of summer birthday celebrations, PJ and his wife, Karin Carlson Johnston, hosted a joyous celebration on July 11 at the Purple Onion nightclub in North Beach.

The (only slightly embarrassing) photo montage invite was titled, The Curious Case of PJ Johnston: 1969-2009, Growing Less Mature Each Year. And from across this vast nation friends came to celebrate -- from New York, DC, Los Angeles, Oregon, Humboldt. And yes, all the way from the wilds of the Sunset District.

Downstairs in the old-school nightclub the joint was rocking as DJ John Dunbar spun classic San Francisco Sound songs (culled by PJ) prior to the King of New Orleans Funk,Zigaboo Modeliste, and his band commandeering center-stage.

Zigaboo Modeliste (on drums) and his band

But first, for this well-schooled politico, there were talking points.

Leading the charge? Mayor Brown, who jokingly asked the crowd to be nice to him as retired politicians rarely get their chance at holding a mic anymore. Then he proceeded to roast PJ to a brighter shade of red.

“If you know PJ like I know PJ, then you’d agree that we are all amazed he arrived at this moment tonight,” teased Mayor Brown, referring to PJ’s active lifestyle. “We’ve actually long been celebrating his eventual demise because of all the secrets he has on us!”

Longtime family friend Amy Smith paid tribute to PJ with a poem that included a shout-out to her friend’s well-honed journalistic chops:

Without more pain in your life/ You will never be the next Bukowski/ But the next Herb Caen? You’re still in the running!

Mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Kawa (who worked with PJ in City Hall when he served as Deputy Chief of Staff during Brown’s administration), noted his pal’s deep, artistic sensibilities.

“PJ cares about the classics. He talks to me about Citizen Cane. He just talked to my partner, Dan Henkle, last week about the best movie in the last decade: There Will Be Blood. Never saw it, never will. But there you go.

“And we have to thank PJ because when he served in city government what did he do?,” asked Kawa, laughing. “He gave us Bicentennial Man. He gave us The Incredible Hulk. He gave us George of the Jungle!”

Turning serious and sentimental, Kawa thanked PJ for his years of public service and his friendship. “PJ is not only my colleague; he’s my neighbor, my friend -- my best, straight friend. But he’s also my family. And I love him so much.”

Finally, it was PJ’s turn at the mic. And he gave back as good as he got.

“As Willie Brown mentioned, the way we roll is we only allow over-the-hill politicians to speak from the stage. We do have elected officials here tonight -- Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Bevan Dufty -- and whoever else we can pull in off the street,” said the man-of-the-hour.  “But where not going to let them speak.”

PJ then raised a glass to Karin, his best friend and soul-mate, and recalled when their friendship turned to something more. It happened one night (appropriately enough) on St. Patrick’s Day and involved a dram (or two) of Jameson Irish Whiskey.

“That night, I made a really good decision to share a cab with Karin Carlson,” said PJ, as his voice started to catch in his throat. “And that, as Robert Frost would say, that has made all the difference.”

Check out more photos below

PJ's parents, Marggie Johnston and her husband, former CA State Senator Patrick Johnston

Former Mayor Willie Brown, Jeannette Etheredge, PJ, Richard Johns and his wife, Eleanor Johns

PJ's brother, Chris Johnston and his fiance, Sienna Cheek


Ron Vinson, Mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Kawa, Eve Maldonado and Supervisor Bevan Dufty


Richard Rubin and his wife, Marcia Smolens

Erin Bauer, Karin Johnston and Mary Glenn

Doug Clare and Michael Harrison roast the Bday Boy

Mike Hunter LaSalle, Angelina Harrison and her parents, Seth and Betty Harrison

PJ and Chinatown powerhouse Rose Pak

Seamus Cudden, Jennifer Elsbernd, Olivia Scanlon and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd

SFPD Captain Greg Suhr and Alex Tourk


Blair Thomson-Levin, Anne Taupier, Paige and Tony Arata

Mayoral Protocol Director Matthew Goudeau and PJ


Kelly Castagnaro and her husband, Nicholas Peters

Newlyweds Sophie Middlebrook and Boe Hayward


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