Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time.That's the opening of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a collection of stories from the 1970s about the fictional residents of 28 Barbary Lane: Mary Ann the midwestern naïf, Mona the free spirit, Michael the romantic, and Brian the swinger, all of them looked after by the benevolent landlady Mrs. Madrigal.
A late bloomer, I was in my 29th year when I first saw San Francisco.
Well, there was that daylong stopover one family vacation. Not that there was much to remember, except the crowds at Fisherman's Wharf and when Dad, at the wheel of the rental car, terrified Mom as he tore down Lombard roaring, "It's the crookedest street in the world!"
I was a teenager and determined not to be impressed by anyone or anything, and I was too busy rolling my eyes the whole time to see much of the place.
Fifteen years later, however, I landed at San Francisco International Airport, alone this time and sick of New York, intent on seeing as much as I couldin particular, what of Maupin's San Francisco might have survived the rise and fall of roller disco.
Tales is a soap opera, but it's not merely Melrose Place in bell-bottomed pants. There's something touchingly familiar about these characters navigating contemporary urban life and the onset of adulthood. They may have rotten jobs, too little money, and too much heartbreak, but they have a family at 28 Barbary Lane. And if The Mary Tyler Moore Show (to invoke another '70sicon) taught us anything, it's that family-where-you-find-it is what keeps you going when you're going it alone.
You're gonna make it after all, Mary Ann Singleton.It was a sunny, warm August day when I arrived, though my friends in town kept insisting that the fog would roll in, any minute now, really. But I wasn't having any of it, and neither was the Bay. I had rubber-soled shoes (those hills, you know) and directions to the "real" Barbary Lane, or rather its alleged inspiration.
It was on Russian Hill. Finding the street, Macondry Lane, was a challenge for a New Yorker used to a consistent street grid and generally horizontal movement. I finally found a shady garden path lined with paving stones and branches of long green leaves, small houses on either side.
I was astounded. This was an oasis, an impossibility in the middle of the modern city. It was something out of a storybook. It was quiet and peaceful. It smelled really good.
There was no real street there, not in any sense of a street as I'd ever understood it. It was nothing like my block in Manhattan, where buses rumble by and car alarms whoop it up. You couldn't fit a Yugo onto Macondry Lane, and that seemed just perfect. This was the street where you live, not the street where you drive.
I wondered briefly how anyone could be unhappy there, even Mary Ann while she was having her disastrous affair with the heartless Beauchamp Day, Michael while he was nursing a heart decimated by a handsome gynecologist, or Mona when she was freaking out over being, well, Mona.
I knew I was being naive. San Francisco was still a city with traffic and garbage and poverty. And I knew that troubles still find their way even into the most picturesque place. I just have this habit of thinking, when I'm somewhere extraordinary, that maybe this is just what I need. Why do I subject myself to New York?
But something about Macondry Lane did make me think: Maybe I can live like this. Maybe it's not an impossibility after all.
A real-life resident wandered out of his house to water his miniature garden, and I shyly hid my camera, feeling like an intruder. I walked the length of the block and down the long wooden steps at the end, back into a more typical urban scene.
I left San Francisco determined to come back as soon as possible, maybe to stay. I returned halfheartedly to my life in New York, my job, and my noisy street.
Autumn was beautiful in New York this year, unusually warm and sunny. My friends were here, and I found myself maybe a little more relaxed after my trip than I had been before. Something from that moment on Russian Hill must have stayed with me.
As the months went by, I thought less and less about moving. It would be more hassle than I really wanted, hauling my belongings across the continent. But it also seemed to me, after a while, that Barbary Lane might be wherever you happen to build it.