The first time I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was 23 years ago. I had seen the six-part miniseries on PBS and wanted more. I usually read a book before seeing the movie, but this was a fluke; one of those 3 A.M. PBS airings when insomnia has had its way with you so you watch TV hoping late night TV will work as anesthesia. Instead, I became infatuated with the characters. I hit up the bookstore the next day and bought Tales of the City, a book I’ve read 9 times now.
Picture it: San Francisco in the 70s. The hippies are still around but the up and coming disco era is in ascent. The city is a haven for gay bars, discos, and bathhouses. All places to have intimate, no-strings-attached sex.
24-year-old Midwesterner on vacation, Mary Ann Singleton has been in San Francisco for five days. She’s made a decision that will drastically change her life: she calls her mother at home in Cleveland and tells her mother to tell her boss she’s not coming home. Her mother cajoles her and says she’s had her fun but enough is enough: time to come home and never look back at that modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.
But Mary Ann’s made up her mind. She needs to make a life of her own and she’ll do it in San Francisco. She crashes at an old high school friend’s place, a woman she considers a typical California airhead who, my God, not only has a pet rock but the Joy of Sex and dirty magazines right out on the coffee table for anyone to see. Mary Ann’s trying to shed some of her Midwestern naïveté, but when her friend talks her into cruising at a Safeway, Mary Ann decides she’s done living with her high school friend.
She answers an ad for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill. The landlady, Mrs. Anna Madrigal, is somewhere in her 50s and a mix between a screen siren of the 30s and a mystical gypsy. She welcomes Mary Ann to her new home and later on tapes a joint to her door as a welcome to the family gesture. Anna Madrigal has a few shadowy secrets of her own, as all eccentric landladies should.
What follows is the story of the tenants of 28 Barbary Lane; their lives intertwining with their neighbors, their eccentric landlady and the lives of others outside the apartment. These tenants include Mona Ramsey, at the tail end of her own hippie years, who is close with Mrs. Madrigal, a sometime lesbian who works for an advertising firm.
Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is Mona’s best friend. She calls herself his ‘hag,’ a woman who constantly spends time with gay men. He says if things were different, he’d be in love with her. But Michael is looking for real love, the kind where you buy a puppy together and still go on picnics after being together for decades.
Brian Hawkins, a former lawyer turned waiter, is chasing women while saddled with a romantic heart. He thinks the best thing about San Francisco is that all the men are looking for each other and leaving him with plenty of women to choose from.
Each character is trying to find their lives in the city while they get into and out of relationships, life and death, the 70s, and what the 80s will bring. I honestly have not stopped thinking about these characters for the last 23 years. They’ll randomly pop into my head while I’m driving somewhere, in the middle of watching TV, and during my own writing. I’ve reread all 9 books in the Tales of the City series in the last two weeks and, though this will sound cheesy, I turn to them when I’m not feeling so hot or need a story I know is going to take me out of my own head. I all but stroke the cover of Tales of the City while hissing “My preciousss.”
So get in the Way Back When machine and immerse yourself in 28 Barbary Lane, where people find family even when their biological family is scattered in all directions. There also might be a murder somewhere in there, and one hell of a huge secret about Mrs. Madrigal.
And don’t forget the Welcome to Your New Home joint taped to your front door. You’re going to need it.