The man I went to see read live at the Book Passage in the Embarcadero Ferry Building truly changed my life. Before my eyes, I was finally seeing Armistead Maupin, one of San Francisco’s most revered literary figures, for his decades-long series of San Francisco residents within Tales of the City. As this series of comedic and intertwining misadventures now comes to an end with its final book, The Days of Anna Madrigal, Maupin leaves his characters on a satisfying note with this beloved city that, even as their tales end, continues on shining.
Originally a witty string of serials first appearing in The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, Florida native Maupin captures San Francisco through a range of events and monuments. Triggered by the arrival of innocent Midwesterner Mary Ann Singleton, the city unravels into nods to The Buena Vista, Telegraph Hill parrots, Baker Beach nudes, and the Legion of Honor Museum. These iconic treasures expand on the beauty and wit characters bring to it; the city becomes a soft spot for loves, heartbreaks, celebrities, espionage and obscure religious cults. Not only has Tales provided readers fresh adventures surrounding the wonder of San Francisco’s little things, but the series was also one of the first to address big issues emerging in the ’70s and ’80s: the gay rights movement in San Francisco and the AIDS epidemic. Thanks to its whimsical characters and bold subject matter, the books became so popular that it spawned three PBS mini-series in the ’90s and went on to become a Broadway musical. The characters also made small guest appearances in Maupin’s other books, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener.
There was so much to learn about San Francisco before starting college here. And having read his stories, I felt truly armed for those next four years, trying the Swiss Orange Chip ice cream at Swensen’s on Hyde and walking down the Telegraph Hill stairs when I suffered from a writers’ block. One Saturday night, friends and I got lost and we ended up…at The End Up. And as beautiful as Grace Cathedral is, I still can’t help but wince a little thinking back to the discovery Mary Ann uncovered there in the second book. Those years are now over, and with anything I’ve written now there isn’t a thought given to what Armistead Maupin already proved: that real places, real experiences and real people are all you really need to make San Francisco work for you. It makes sense to capture your time and place in the writing; that’s what renders it significant to readers.
Upon meeting Armistead Maupin himself, he agreed with me on something. San Francisco is always changing, and there will always be something new to talk about; sometimes it will take nine books to cover it all. In this case, I’ll do what I can here, and in the meantime, I encourage any of you to see this place for yourself andexperience some tales of your own to pass on.
PHOTO CREDS: Tales of the City cover: sfuncovered.com; book signing photo with Armistead Maupin: Paris Kim; Still from the Tales of the City miniseries, Armistead Maupin at Macondray Lane: blogs.sfweekly.com (Juan De Anda); Swensen’s Ice Cream: Paris Kim.