They say you should never meet your heroes.
Well, I don’t know who “they” are, or who they choose as their heroes… but I can tell you that they are wrong. I met one of mine tonight, and he did not disappoint.
I wonder how many people who will see this even recognize the name: Armistead Maupin. In 1976, The San Francisco Chronicle started running a daily serial by Maupin – and so began an extraordinary adventure called Tales of the City.
The City is San Francisco, and the Tales center on three main characters: Mary Ann Singleton is a naive young woman from Ohio who takes a vacation in San Francisco and decides to stay. She finds a room in a boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane (Macondray Lane steps, in our world) on Russian Hill, presided over by a mysterious woman called Mrs Madrigal. Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is the gay neighbor who becomes Mary Ann’s first – and best – friend there. Tales is a love letter to San Francisco – which is the fourth main character. And along the way, we are introduced to a close-knit extended family and dozens of other characters. Friends are the family we choose; Anna Madrigal calls this her “logical” (not biological) family.
In 1993, the first of three miniseries (covering the first three books) was produced in the UK and shown in the US on PBS; the next two installments were shown here on cable on Showtime. These films were extremely satisfying to fans of the books, as they were faithful to the letter and the spirit of Maupin’s text. Laura Linney played Mary Ann Singleton, and Olympia Dukakis inhabited the role of Anna Madrigal. (We’re all hoping for the remainder of the Tales books to be filmed. Pleeeeeeeeeeeease!)
Armistead Maupin started spinning his Tales nearly 40 years ago, culminating in the new (ninth and he says final) novel in the series: The Days of Anna Madrigal. The stories and the characters ring true as they are based on the real people and situations – the Zeitgeist – of Armistead’s world, every step along the timeline. In fact, he is likely the first writer of fiction to incorporate the story of AIDS, as that disaster unfolded – from the beginning.
So, what started out as a bit of a lark in a SF newspaper column became a hugely entertaining and poignant series of novels – plus the films and even a theatrical musical production. But Tales of the City also functions as an important historical document covering the trajectory of AIDS, of the gay civil rights movement, and how life in the City by the Bay has changed over four decades. Armistead Maupin’s characters live in the same world we do, and his novelist’s voice is pitch perfect.
My friend Jenn and I discovered Tales of the City one summer in the early 80s in Connecticut. Little did I know then that just a few years hence I’d be moving to San Francisco for my own grand adventure. Having read the first few books, SF felt like home to me before I even got there. Armistead Maupin is a great tour guide, having introduced me to new places in the world, and in the heart. I sent Armistead a note on Facebook a few years ago, just to say thank you for Tales, what a touchstone his work was for me as a gay man without too many role models. He rewarded me by ‘friending’ me on FB, which was wonderful. Now that I’ve pulled the plug on FB, that lovely connection has been cut. I shall have to find a new way to
stalk him keep in touch.
I don’t know if tonight counted as “meeting” my hero; this is as close as I got in the cozy Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library in downtown LA. When they opened it up to questions from the audience, there weren’t many takers, so I raised my hand, grabbled the mic, and asked him if he was aware of anyone writing a 21st century version of Tales. He started talking about a woman married to a vicar in Lynchsomethingorothershire in England… But I wasn’t really following. I was a little lost in the moment of having this brief chitchat with Armistead bloody Maupin!
I had purchased the book in advance, and planned to have him inscribe it… but by the time I got out to the lobby, the book-signing line looked like a literary Black Friday. I decided to give it a miss. So I walked out into the cool, drizzly night (yes, it almost rained in LA today) and snapped some downtowny pics for a future post.
Now comes the bittersweet choice that faces every fan of Armistead Maupin every time he publishes a new Tales book: Do I devour it in one sitting? or savor each chapter like a course in a 3-Michelin-starred meal? or do I put it away to draw out the anticipation… just a little… while… longer? Ugh. (I’m pretty sure this dilemma won’t persist beyond this weekend.)
And then, it may be time to revisit the series from book the first. My favorite stretch of Memory Lane is where it intersects with Barbary Lane in Maupin’s Tales of the City.
Armistead Maupin and his Tales of the City make me happy.
Day 024 #100happydays