Leave Like a Lady

ae litArmistead Maupin delivers his final book in the beloved ‘Tales of the City’ series.

Before there was Sex and the City, there was Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s raucous celebration of life in San Francisco, where everything is worth a try, and Carrie Bradshaw’s addiction to five-inch heels translates best among drag queens. For almost 40 years, this groundbreaking, exuberant series of novels has shepherded us through changing notions of gender, class, race, sexuality, and freedom. It’s among the first book to deal with the rising AIDS epidemic.  

More than that, it has allowed us to spend time with the charmingly complicated and often wildly inappropriate denizens of 28 Barbary Lane, that glorious, infamous apartment complex where Mary Ann Singleton, newly arrived from Cleveland, Ohio, first sets down her bags and decides to stay. How could she not? Her eccentric landlady, Anna Madrigal, as well as her fellow tenants, all promise the unfolding of life in every direction, and they’ve delivered ever since.

Tales began as a newspaper serial that appeared in regular installments in the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-’70s. In that format, it drew upon current events as well as reader feedback to create a fluid sense of life in the city. Maupin carried this realism to the resulting novels and combined it with a keen wit, crackling dialogue, and innate sense of character to explore the outskirts of the human condition. What emerged over the course of nine books (and an acclaimed television mini-series, musical, and radio show) was a glittering patchwork quilt of sex, drugs, friendship, family, love and loss. 

Can camp and gravitas co-exist in the same body of work? Hand in hand, it turns out. Maupin has written a feminist, humanist, ongoing soap opera for the masses, and this is perhaps his greatest gift to his readers: to make the unusual usual, or better still, essential, over time. “One of the things that I saw different about what I was doing was that I was allowing a little air into the situation by actually placing gay people in the context of the world at large. It felt revolutionary,” Maupin says.

He is appearing at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Thursday, Jan. 29 for the final book in the series: “The Days of Anna Madrigal.” Fittingly, we spend it with the woman who started it all. Time marches on, even in fiction, and Anna Madrigal—pot-dealing, transgendered grande dame, and one-time landlady of 28 Barbary Lane—is 92. Spirited but fragile, and ready to “leave like a lady,” she’s still living in San Francisco, where real estate is now sky high, hipsters haunt the coffee shops, and Google buses troll the Embarcadero. As we join this chapter of her story, most of her “logical family,” is headed for Burning Man in the Nevada desert, but one RV will take her to a different Nevada location: Winnemucca, or more specifically, the lonely road just outside of town, where Anna spent her depression-era boyhood, and ran away at the age of 16 from the whorehouse he called home. It’s there, in the dusty quiet of her past, where a lifetime of secrets and unfinished business still waits for her, even now, to set things right.

Countless fans have walked the streets of San Francisco, seeking out the footsteps of Mary Ann, Mona, Michael, Anna, and other beloved characters from Tales of the City. You can even ‘tour the tales’ by downloading a map from People show up at Maupin’s readings all the time, and tell him how they came out because of Michael, took a risk because of Mary Ann, or honored a loved one’s wish to be buried with his books.

“It’s extremely gratifying and humbling,” he says. “There’s nothing one can say about it that doesn’t sound pompous.” His most substantive character may be San Francisco itself—flawed, celebrated, ever-changing—but perhaps it’s less the place on a map than a state of mind: somewhere to pause while we can, express who we are, and share common ground. “The great thing about 28 Barbary Lane,” says Maupin, “is that it gives the illusion there is a permanence somewhere. But, you see, our job is to embrace the impermanence.”

PHOTO: Armistead Maupin, author of the ‘Tales of the City’ series will speak at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Thursday, Jan. 29.


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