Tales of the City
May 4, 2008 1:20 AM   Subscribe

In 1974 - or 1976, depending who you ask - Armistead Maupin began writing "an extended love letter to a magical San Francisco” in the form of a serialized, fictional drama published originally in the Pacific Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, originally called "The Serial" which then became collectively known as Tales of The City. It is a suprisingly beautiful, deep, emotional, cosmopolitan and lasting tale about life in San Francisco in the turbulent, heady days of the 1970s and 1980s. Widely credited with and cherished for helping spread a little of the openess, tolerance and acceptance that San Francisco is now famous for. It then became a series of books - Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others, Sure of You - and lastly, the spin-off tale of Michael Tolliver Lives. Almost exactly twenty years after first publishing, it then became an excellent miniseries from the United Kingdom's Channel 4, which aired in the United States on PBS, but not without protest or limitations.

San Francisco... this post is for you. All of you. More than the Mission burritos, more than the diverse weather, more than the beautiful, breathtaking views and the odd experience of falling deeply in love with a place - and only slightly less than the many real people I've met - this has touched me the most. Thank you.

(Get your YouTube samples here.)
posted by loquacious (39 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't begun to dip into the links, but thanks, loquacious. I've read up to "Babycakes" and these books have been significant to me in very many ways - not the least of which was the wonderful friend who introduced me to them so many years ago... who later died of AIDS. Feeling kind of emotional here... I need to get the last three, and reread the series (yet again) beginning at the beginning. It's been a few years now.

Everyone needs a Mrs. Madrigal in their lives; she makes the world a better place.
posted by taz at 1:48 AM on May 4, 2008

Feeling kind of emotional here.

Here is a fine place for it. I was getting pretty emotional as I was composing the post and selecting links, and it's an unusual sort of emotion, too. Not like I simply wanted to cry, really, but this sort of overwhelming awe and marvel and some kind of tidal wave of beauty and raw love like... Oh, that's it. So impossibly human and frail and strong all at once... How? Why? Unbearable lightness... Oh, my God... just from knowing that the stories even exist. There's a simple truth and power to these tales that I've rarely encountered elsewhere. The writing might not be the best in the literary world, but I've never been touched so easily and profoundly, while staying so comfortable and human at the same time.

On one hand, I'm almost thankful that I first discovered the stories here, in the company of a new friend that I met in this city, a life-long native - herself a character that wouldn't be out of place in these stories. The framing of The City was important for me, and it turned the story into something living and breathing for me, and in turn, made this city even more alive for me than I ever thought it could be. On the other hand, I could have used these stories a long time ago.

The stories don't cajole, or harangue, or admonish. They somehow simply just tell the tale and accept it as it is, as we all are, and it is all somehow unbearably comforting. Somewhere, someone needs this as much as I did.

*drinks one in honor of Mrs. Madrigals everywhere*
posted by loquacious at 2:05 AM on May 4, 2008

I have a friend who works for a local sexual health/drugs advice project named in honour of Armistead Maupin. Every couple of years, whenever he's in the country, he pops over to see how it's getting along. In fact, he was just here last July.

Unfortunately, it looks like they've somehow forgotten to renew their domain name and their site has fallen prey to hi-jackers.

I've read them all except Michael Tolliver Lives, and I enjoyed them all too -- but I prefer Larry Kramer. I like my gay novelists to harangue me as I read.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:19 AM on May 4, 2008

Yes, I do love this series. Beautiful.
posted by Stewriffic at 3:39 AM on May 4, 2008

Lovely, lovely post, Loquacious.
I haven't revisited Maupin's work in 20 years, and now I will.
posted by Dizzy at 4:09 AM on May 4, 2008

One of my favorite book series.
posted by k8t at 4:42 AM on May 4, 2008

An interview with Armistead Maupin about Tales of the City on BBC World Service's World Book Club.
posted by Kattullus at 6:07 AM on May 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nice post.

I haven't read the books in years and years but recently I read something else, a biography or something, where it was sort of just mentioned that the person was used as the basis for a character in the series and how it had a devastating effect on their life. For the life of me I can't recall what it was. Weird. I was very shocked discovering this, however. The claim jarred 180 with my interpretation of the books.
posted by dobbs at 6:13 AM on May 4, 2008

And ... announced this past March: "Tales of the City" heads to the stage
"Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City' is slated to head to the Great White Way, Variety reported Friday.

Avenue Q' book writer Jeff Whitty, along with Scissor Sisters band members Jason Sellards and John Garden, is penning the musical, due to hit the stage during the 2009-2010 season."
posted by ericb at 6:41 AM on May 4, 2008

LOGO's The Complete Tales of the City.
posted by ericb at 6:52 AM on May 4, 2008

I almost hate to write this - but I've been struck how many people here are recalling Maupin from their long ago impressions of reading the series?

I adored the Tales - and took them with me a couple of years ago to San Francisco - as a first time visitor to the city. Couldn't think of anything more lovely than to reacquaint myself with the stories in situ.

I was really bitterly disappointed. I was prepared, I think, to find them a little more sentimental than I remembered, or simply - obviously - more innocent. But they just seemed empty. Even oddly bereft? (It wasn't a reaction to SF - loved the place). I felt they had dated very poorly - which was, personally, a terrible shock. It was like finding the magic gone from Zuleika Dobson.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:14 AM on May 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I loved the books, but the miniseries really grabbed me back in the day. I've been a fan of Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, and Donald Moffatt ever since.
posted by WolfDaddy at 8:01 AM on May 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I loved the books, but the miniseries really grabbed me back in the day. I've been a fan of Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, and Donald Moffatt ever since.

Same here. I might never have picked up the books if I hadn't seen the miniseries. When I first went to buy the book (at age 14), I didn't understand why it was tucked away in the gay and lesbian section of my bookstore. So many people who would enjoy the books are not likely to look there. By the time I was in college, I'd bought the first book for all my friends.
posted by Locative at 8:31 AM on May 4, 2008

Ummm, are you sure about the title "The Serial"? Because that's the title of a book written by Cyra McFadden, first published in 1977 that satirized Marin County culture. It was also first published in serial form in a newspaper, the Pacific Sun. It was kinda the Marin Co. version of Tales of the City, but they aren't the same thing. The Serial made famous the the Marin Co. stereotype of white wine sipping hot tubs dipping divorced ex-hippies.

I'm so old.
posted by tula at 9:17 AM on May 4, 2008

Duh, just read the wikipedia article. I guess they are twins sons of different mothers. Carry on.
posted by tula at 9:19 AM on May 4, 2008

It's a fun series to read, and definitely an iconic work for San Franciso. The 2nd and 3rd books dip into ridiculousness but if you can make it through them, the 4th-6th books are really powerful reading. Michael Tolliver Lives may not be a great book on it's own but it is a gift to anyone who loves Tales of the City

I heard Armistead Maupin speak at the ALA conference last year and he is a great storyteller whether on the page or at the podium.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 9:47 AM on May 4, 2008

Aww, sweet post. Tales of the City was my introduction to San Francisco when I moved here in 1988. A fellow postdoc loaned me the first book on my first day in the lab, with stern instructions to read it ASAP. Neither of us are gay, but he said it was essential reading for anyone who wanted to understand SF and I was instantly hooked. It captured the engaging open-mindedness and tolerance I noticed (having just moved here from Baltimore, which had a strong redneck streak) as well as the magical beauty of the hills and bay. In fact, it was also my tourist guidebook during the first few months, prompting me to explore the neighborhoods that Maupin wrote so lovingly about. I'm forever grateful to him for pointing me toward the Filbert Steps, still one of my favorite San Francisco "secrets". Hey, howzabout a meetup?

It was also bittersweet reading at that time; the book had been written before the AIDS epidemic, which was in full flood when I read it, and the characters' carefree romps were definitely from a closed chapter of history. I think I read the series at the exact right time in history and my own life, and I'm not sure the books would have the same magic if I were to re-read them now. I've read up through Babycakes but for some reason never finished the series. So thank you, Mr Maupin, for the delightful welcome to my beloved new home, and maybe I'll see you again in Significant Others, but I prefer to keep the memories of the early books as I found them 20 years ago.

Loquacious, I'm in love with San Francisco too, partly thanks to Maupin's introduction, and feel immensely lucky to have lived here for the last 20 years. There's still magic here for me, so I know how you feel!
posted by Quietgal at 9:55 AM on May 4, 2008

Tales of the City was a big consciousness raiser for me. I'd moved to California from very white, very straight Montana and was not at all comfortable with even the concept of homosexuality. Reading TotC in the Chronicle every morning was an introduction to people who were basically just like every one else. Once I'd gotten over how obvious that should be I was open to making friends with people who would have otherwise frightened me, because of my stereotypes (and a certain amount of since discarded religious indoctrination.) I got to meet Maupin at a book reading recently, and he seems like a really nice guy.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:06 AM on May 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

In late January he appeared on CBS Sunday Morning: Maupin Returns To "Tales Of The City".
posted by ericb at 10:24 AM on May 4, 2008

God, I remember feeling so very transgressive when I first read these books. It must have been the mini-series that prompted me to get them out the library, so I would have been 13 or 14. And they were not the kind of book that was commonly read in my very middle class, middle England, middlebrow town. They are probably to blame for the last 15 years of "me and my liberal ways" discussions with my parents.
posted by cluck at 10:27 AM on May 4, 2008

Oh, what a great post, loquacious! Thank you!

Despite working in gay bookstores and gay publishing during the 90s, I never read Tales of the City. I've read some of Maupin's other work, but not, for some reason, Tales. I don't know why.

I moved to San Francisco seven years ago, having fallen in love with a girl, and when I got here, I fell in love all over again, with the city. I began reading Tales of the City last summer - I've read the first two now (I'm trying to space them out, because I could easily gulp the whole series down in a long weekend), and while they're historical, they don't feel dated to me. And they make me fall in love with San Francisco even more.
posted by rtha at 10:30 AM on May 4, 2008

Stairways of San Francisco

It doesn't have my "favorite" stairway, though, which is over on Elizabeth between Castro and Market, near the base of the Market Street pedestrian bridge.

It's not the prettiest, or the longest. And maybe not the steepest.

But it's freaking terrifying. Something like a block and a half of extremely steep and irregular stairs without a handrail. The first time I saw it I was walking back from a tech support house call from a client's place up on Twin Peaks, and I was just wandering down to the buslines in Castro Valley. Some of the stairs are lifted and broken by tree roots, some are cast in irregular sizes, the pitch of the stairs themselves change in several different segments and almost all of them are somehow irregular or nonstandard. The only "landings" are driveways that cut through the stairs.

Did I mention the "no handrail" bit?

I'm pretty nimble and sure-footed, and I found myself having to watch my feet on the stairs the whole way down. Just guessing, but I'm pretty sure at least one person has died on those stairs. A trip and fall from somewhere near the top would be a whole bunch of suck.

Well, that, and I saw a few mummified corpses of previous explorers embedded in the glacier.

Ah, this looks like a pic from about halfway down. Except it looks like the photographer flipped the picture, left-to-right? The stairs are normally on the right, looking to the west up the hill. And the picture makes it look too flat. That's about a 25 degree pitch right there.

psst, ericb: that CBS link is the third one in my post. ;)
posted by loquacious at 10:56 AM on May 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

psst, ericb: that CBS link is the third one in my post. ;)


BTW -- the book and documentary "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" also portrays the unique nature of living perched on a hillside connected to neighobors by one of San Francisco's stairways (like 'Barbary Lane') -- something I came to appreciate when visiting friends who lived in such neighborhoods so different from mine in Pacific Heights.
posted by ericb at 11:25 AM on May 4, 2008

In my suburban hometown, most people hardly knew of AIDS, except as a punchline or a threat, even in 1991 when I graduated from high school. I did theater tech as a teenager, and thus was friends with more gay men than my classmates knew existed.

We gathered in my friend's dorm room to watch the miniseries on PBS -- I remember distinctly that it was second semester sophomore year. Meanwhile, I devoured the books. The books and series were hugely influential.

In 2000, I finally visited San Francisco. After my business meeting, I stayed at a small, charming guesthouse in the Castro for a few days. Coincidentally, the manager of the guesthouse was from my hometown and best friends with my neighbor. We laughed about what Maupin would've done with such a coincidence.
posted by desuetude at 11:43 AM on May 4, 2008

Great post. As a jockish high-schooler these books were my first real exposure to gay people as human beings, and not as objects of ridicule. As I was reading the series, it was as though a veil had been lifted from my eyes, and I suddenly realized that my effeminate friend didn't actually have anything wrong with him; that the defect was entirely my own.

And there lies the power of really great writing, to alter forever the perceptions of a reader in a positive way. I cringe now to think of how my life would have been less enriched, and the amazing friendships I might have missed , had I not been exposed to those books by my best friend Teddy; who it turned out had been terrified to reveal his secret to me.

So, thanks so much Armistad. There must be thousands, if not millions, of straights like myself who owe you a considerable debt. That Maupin had to come to this city to be married is truly bittersweet ...

Last year he got married to Christopher Turner, 28 years younger. They went to Vancouver, Canada, where gay marriage is legal.Maupin describes old ladies coming up to them at English Bay saying "Congratulations, gentlemen," when they saw the pair in their groom-and-groom outfits.

... but it does make me proud to live in, and be a part of, a city that has seen reason.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 1:20 PM on May 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Armistead Maupin is the person who first introduced me to Metafilter. No kidding. I don't know if he he has an account, though.
posted by amro at 1:48 PM on May 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wuh?... this needs elaboration amro.
posted by Kattullus at 2:41 PM on May 4, 2008

I've mentioned it before, so I'll just link to that comment.
posted by amro at 4:16 PM on May 4, 2008

Herb. Caen.
Loved. That Man.
posted by Dizzy at 4:53 PM on May 4, 2008

Huh... interesting. Thanks for that, amro. Of course, now I'm curious to find out why you were interviewed by The New Yorker about Anthony Godby-Johnson. The article is unfortunately behind a paywall, and I'm in Iceland for the next week, so far away from libraries who have the entire run of The New Yorker. How did you get sucked into the Godby-Johnson saga?
posted by Kattullus at 4:55 PM on May 4, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, if I may direct your attention to the "favorited by" list on this post, I would like to point out the first real, live "eponysterical" favorite, well, possibly ever. It's certainly the first one I've ever seen.

Thanks, notquitemaryann. That made my day.
posted by loquacious at 5:37 PM on May 4, 2008

I've re-read the series too many times to count since 1986, and having recently read (and re-read) Michael Tolliver Lives, I have to a couple of serious questions:

1. Why have all of Michael's boyfriends been so Richie Cunningham BORING? A clean-shaven preppy blond followed by two clean-shaven preppy redheads (and grating characters too). All "regular guys" from nice WASP families and all just so 1970s "look at how normal we are" boooooo-ring. I never got that, and it's just an insistent feature of this last novel.

2. Why do none of Michael's boring boyfriends give a rat's ass about his being HIV positive? It's an issue. It's an issue in the small town America he derides and though Maupin strains so to deny it, it's an issue in SF. When a poz guy tells his prospective he's poz, the reaction is this sitcom-lite brush off. I do not get this at all- people in San Francisco are just as flawed as the rest of us, but here's another example (and I guess this is why this whole non-eventing of AIDS irks me so much) of Maupin canonizing them.

On that note I guess 22 years after my first vicarious taste of SF in this series I just cannot accept the self-idolatry of it anymore. Emigrating to Canada and seeing an entire country, including its allegedly most conservative parts, actually puts its proverbial money where its mouth is liberal-policy-wise makes me think of this whole SF thing as quaint and maybe a little pathetic.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:16 PM on May 4, 2008

Avenue Q' book writer Jeff Whitty, along with Scissor Sisters band members Jason Sellards and John Garden, is penning the musical, due to hit the stage during the 2009-2010 season."

As if Tales wasn't gay enough already! I can't wait.
posted by crossoverman at 9:38 PM on May 4, 2008

On that note I guess 22 years after my first vicarious taste of SF in this series I just cannot accept the self-idolatry of it anymore. Emigrating to Canada and seeing an entire country, including its allegedly most conservative parts, actually puts its proverbial money where its mouth is liberal-policy-wise makes me think of this whole SF thing as quaint and maybe a little pathetic.

As a 28-year resident of the Haight-Ashbury -- with many trips abroad and extended stays in NYC -- I couldn't disagree more. In fact, I think one of SF's persistent problems in this era is the city's lack of intelligent self-regard. Oh sure, all the standard tourist jive is still in effect, and North Beach is still "North Beach" to the thousands of latter-day beatnik kids who make the pilgrimage to City Lights, even though North Beach hasn't really been North Beach for 30 years. To say nothing of the scruffy Deadheads who show up daily in the Haight looking for 710 Ashbury.

But as someone who has a serious case of bicoastal disorder, I often reflect upon how one thing that makes New York City seem like Heaven rather than Hell is the lapidary layers of self-celebration by artists, writers, and musicians that have been overlaid on every intersection in Manhattan, and more recently, Brooklyn. Sure, NYC is gorgeous, terrifying, diverse, apocalyptic, intense, unique, famously intolerable, famously irreplaceable. NYC is the drug you can't quit, the abusive lover you can't leave because the sex is so good. And why? In part, because a vast five-borough conspiracy of artists from E.B. White to Walt Whitman to the Beastie Boys to Madonna to Jonathan Lethem to Allen Ginsberg to Berenice Abbott to Andre Kertesz to Lou Reed to Garcia Lorca have all shown the love for the city over the decades. You see the city through their eyes, and love it all the more.

Armistead Maupin did that for SF, as did Herb Caen, Dashiell Hammett, Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo is still the echt SF flick), the Jefferson Airplane, Philip Whalen, Ginsberg in the "Sunflower Sutra" era, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, and... I'm already groping for names, and you haven't even heard of two of the people I mentioned. Mark Kozelek, the founder of the Red House Painters, has been doing it for years, weaving references to SF's haunted landscapes into his songs, and the other night when I saw him play here, he said, "Why is it so hard to keep friends in this city? Everyone moves to Brooklyn or Portland. People say to me, 'Mark, you gotta move to Portland -- you can have a garage here!' If I wanted to live in a city because I could have a garage, I would have stayed in Ohio."

Yes: the rents, the vampiric property prices, the awful yuppies, the disgusting homeless, the nauseating self-regard by idiots for a city that long ago traded its "liberal" reputation for a breed of Midwesterners who move here to launch Blivitz.com and try to get rich and then leave, leaving a trail of microbrewed vomit. The pathetic beatnik hype, the pathetic hippie hype. AIDS AIDS AIDS. The earthquake that will take this city out one day.

And then the scribes at the New Yorker will suddenly discover that they had a warm spot in their hearts for the city they made fun of at every opportunity, and like New Orleans, San Francisco will be "cool" again for a month while they bury the bodies.

And yet, it's still one of the most beautiful and subtle and magical places I've ever been, even after living here for 28 years.

We need more non-nudnik artists and writers and painters and poets and website builders and filmmakers and musicians and dancers who are proud to live here and say so in their work. Too bad none of us can afford to live here anymore.
posted by digaman at 7:58 AM on May 5, 2008 [5 favorites]

Great. Just freaking great.

Many years ago, I was sent to Sausalito for a few days by the company I worked for. The client took pity on a poor lonely consultant and took me out to Tommy's for dinner, and my love of good tequila was born. When I left, I drove through the city to get back to the airport, and managed to make my way to the top of Telegraph Hill. I've got photos someplace.

Now I want to go back, and don't know when I'll be able to.

posted by djfiander at 9:35 AM on May 5, 2008

My partner and I were living in Georgia when 'Tales of the City' first hit PBS back in 94, with all the controversy. A couple months later we moved to San Francisco with everything we couldn't sell in a Ryder truck, with no place to live and no jobs (if we knew then...). It's turned out brilliantly, and I'm not even a yuppie or a microbrew/coffee drinker.
posted by troybob at 10:00 PM on May 5, 2008

I think the stories “date poorly” because Maupin, almost as a matter of policy, name-drops products and issues of the era in which each story is set – from Viyella shirts to Prii and FTMs, if you follow the whole series.
posted by joeclark at 10:32 AM on May 6, 2008

joeclark, more in the latter-half of the series than the early books, though. By which time I already could scan over the names in order to concentrate on the characters.
posted by desuetude at 10:34 AM on May 6, 2008

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