Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco

October 28, 2014 • Literary Wanderings

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To begin a series on the intricate relationship between fiction and place, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City seemed an obvious choice. After all, Maupin’s beloved first novel is a love letter of sorts to San Francisco. The exaltation is right there in the novel’s title—not Tales of a City or Tales of San Francisco, but Tales of the City, as if there’s no other. For the motley band of characters in Maupin’s series, there might as well not be: as much as Mary Ann bellyaches about moving back to Cleveland, and as intermittently exhausted as they all are by the city’s hectic dating scene, Maupin’s warm and welcoming San Francisco is truly home for the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.

As much as Tales is a portrait of a city, though, it’s also a portrait of a time. Originally published as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, Maupin’s stories responded to the ever-changing cultural and political landscape of the ’70s in real-time. In later novels, this meant chronicling the ravages of the AIDs epidemic; here, in 1976, it meant depicting the continuing escapades of the sexual revolution, as well as the seemingly ubiquitous presence of macramé and Tab.

In 2014, there’s a near-constant refrain that San Francisco has changed. And there are certainly aspects of the novel—Mary Ann finds a charming one-bedroom apartment less than a week after moving to the city, and she’s able to afford it (alone!) on a secretary’s salary—that evoke an inherited nostalgia. And, unsurprisingly, several of the bars and restaurants Maupin name-drops throughout the novel are no longer around.  But while I was prepared for this exercise in time travel to become a variation on “Nothing gold can stay,” I was pleasantly surprised. To borrow another cliché, sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Part 1: The Buena Vista Café.

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Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time.

She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her Mood Ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland.

Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for around four years, I haven’t been to Fisherman’s Wharf since family vacations of yore, when the ordeal of a six-hour trip with five people in a beat-up Volvo felt justified by a single sundae from Ghirardelli Square.

So it was with some trepidation that I made my way to this most touristy of bars in this most touristy of neighborhoods. But it was a beautiful day, and not too crowded, and with the trolleys framing the blue bay, all dotted with sailboats and traversed by the Golden Gate (looking far larger and closer and brighter than I knew it to be), I saw why a young woman from Cleveland might decide at this very spot to make San Francisco her home.

I think the Buena Vista has changed little, if at all, since Mary Ann had her three Irish coffees. After all, its charm now, as then, relies on a distinctly San Franciscan nostalgia—for the days when sailors made use of that incredible view to watch for incoming ships between drinks— and now, as then, that vision of the past is only slightly marred by a crowd of tourists cheerily sipping Irish coffees.

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Speaking of which: obviously I was obliged to prepare for the rest of my journey with the same drink Mary Ann used to steel her nerves for the call home. I have to give the Buena Vista this: they do make a damned good Irish coffee.

 

Part 2: Barbary Lane/Macondray Lane

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The house was on Barbary Lane, a narrow, wooded walkway off Leavenworth between Union and Filbert. It was a well-weathered, three-story structure made of brown shingles. It made Mary Ann think of an old bear with bits of foliage caught in its fur. She liked it instantly.

One of the only locales in the novel that isn’t an actual place in San Francisco, 28 Barbary Lane is also one of the novel’s most significant. It’s here that we meet the pseudo-family of Anna Madrigal and co., and it’s this imagined lane that at times serves as a microcosm of San Francisco: a warm and weird and welcoming place to call home, if you’re open to it.

Tales does give (somewhat misleading) clues as to the invented lane’s general whereabouts in Russian Hill, and it was almost too easy to find interviews with Maupin confirming Macondray Lane as the inspiration for Barbary. Google Maps took care of the rest, though it dropped me off another alley away—I found myself creeping along behind houses, hoping I looked more like an inept tourist than an inept burglar. But before long I stood before Macondray Lane, beautiful and wooded and peaceful, just as I’d imagined it. And, lo and behold, the first apartment building was indeed three stories high and brown, though I would call the exterior neither shingled nor weathered. It reminded me nothing of an old bear, but I too liked it instantly.

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The rest of the lane is one of the most charming and tranquil places I’ve found in San Francisco. It was here that I experienced my strongest regret for a time when the thought of a secretary, a waiter, and a copy editor being able to afford such apartments wasn’t totally ridiculous. Ironically, of course, it’s partially Tales of the City that made Macondray Lane such a desirable place to live, preventing the would-be Mrs. Madrigals of the world from owning a piece of it again. Though with a view like this, that time wouldn’t have lasted long, regardless.

Part 3: Twin Peaks

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Once again he ended up in the Castro. True, he badmouthed the gay ghetto at least twice a day, but there was a lot to be said for sheer numbers when you were looking for company.

Toad Hall and The Midnight Sun were wall-to-wall flannel, as usual. He passed them up for The Twin Peaks, where his crew-neck sweater and corduroy trousers would seem less alien to the environment.

One of Tales’ greatest legacies is its early portrayal of LGBTQ lifestyles side-by-side with straight ones, forging a space for novels that couldn’t easily be relegated to the “Gay Fiction” section of a bookstore. And while Tales of the City deals much more with the social scene than the political one, it was rewarding, for once, to reflect on the way San Francisco—and America at large—have changed since this book was published, and to smile. In this respect, change is progress.

I arrived at the Twin Peaks Tavern at around 6:30pm on a Sunday, so it wasn’t exactly hopping. The bar was all gussied up for Halloween—reminding me of when Michael’s button-upped parents come to town just in time for that most flamboyant of holidays. I saw no corduroy or crew-necks, but no flannel either, so I guess that’s a wash. It was mostly an older crowd, gathered to sip a drink and watch the Giants game. It smelled very strongly of cinnamon. So strongly, in fact, that I was inspired to buy a snickerdoodle at the cookie shop next door.

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Despite my musings on our progress as a nation and the stability of the neighborhood, and even despite my snickerdoodle, I felt vaguely unsatisfied as I paid my tab. It may have been the same Twin Peaks of Mouse cruising for guys among the corduroy and crew-necks, but in this moment it felt like any (particularly festive) sports bar. But just as I left, I saw a couple that could easily be the Michael and Jon of the new millenium, ignoring the game to look moonily into each others’ eyes. I felt instantly better. Chalk one up for love.