The Barnes & Noble Review
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 of the City 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 TheMary Tyler Moore Show (to invoke another '70s icon) taught us anything, it's that family-where-you-find-it is what keeps you going when you're going it alone.
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.
You're gonna make it after all, Mary Ann Singleton.
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.Kristen Mirenda
A quietly understated small masterpiece.
The Times (London)
An unprecedented portrait of the agonies and absurdities of modern urban life. The funniest series of novels currently in progress.
New York Times Book Review
An extended love letter to a magical San Francisco...I know I'm not the only one who was up until 2 in the morning with Sure of You, promising myself to stop after just one more chapter.
Village Voice Literary Supplement
An old-fashioned pleasure...there's been nothing like it since the heyday of the serial novel 100 years ago...No matter what Maupin writes next, he can look back on the rare achievement of having built a little world and made it run.
Read an Excerpt
Taking the Plunge
Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time.
She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her Mood Ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland.
"Hi, Mom. It's me."
"Oh, darling. Your daddy and I were just talking about you. There was this crazy man on McMillan and Wife who was strangling all these secretaries, and I just couldn't help thinking . . ."
"I know. just crazy ol' Mom, worrying herself sick over nothing. But you never can tell about those things. Look at that poor Patty Hearst, locked up in that closet with all those awful
"Mom ... long distance."
"Oh ... yes. You must be having a grand time."
"God ... you wouldn't believe it! The people here are so friendly I feel like I've ...
"Have you been to the Top of the Mark like I told you?" "Not yet."
"Well, don't you dare miss that! You know, your daddy took me there when he got back from the South Pacific. I remember he slipped the bandleader five dollars, so we could dance to 'Moonlight Serenade,' and I spilled Tom Collins all over his beautiful white Navy . . ."
"Mom, I want you to do me a favor."
"Of course, darling. Just listen to me. Oh ... before I forget it, I ran into Mr. Lassiter yesterday at the Ridgemont Mail, and he said the office isjust falling apart with you gone. They don't get many good secretaries at Lassiter Fertilizers."
"Mom, that's sort of why I called."
"I want you to call Mr. Lassiter and tell him I won't be in on Monday morning."
"Oh ... Mary Ann, I'm not sure you should ask for an extension on your vacation."
"It's not an extension, Mom."
"Well, then why ...
"I'm not coming home, Mom."
Silence. Then, dimly in the distance, a television voice began to tell Mary Ann's father about the temporary relief of hemorrhoids. Finally, her mother spoke: "Don't be silly, darling."
"Mom ... I'm not being silly. I like it here. It feels like home already."
"Mary Ann, if there's a boy
"There's no boy.... I've thought about this for a long time."
"Don't be ridiculous! You've been there five days!"
"Mom, I know how you feel, but . . . well, it's got nothing to do with you and Daddy. I just want to start making my own life ... have my own apartment and all."
"Oh, that. Well, darling ... of course you can. As a matter of fact, your daddy and I thought those new apartments out at Ridgemont might be just perfect for you. They take lots of young people, and they've got a swimming pool and a sauna, and I could make some of those darling curtains like I made for Sonny and Vicki when they got married. You could have all the privacy you . . ."
"You aren't listening, Mom. I'm trying to tell you I'm a grown woman."
"Well, act like it, then! You can't just ... run away from your family and friends to go live with a bunch of hippies and mass murderers!"
"You've been watching too much TV."
"O.K. ... then what about The Horoscope?"
"The Horoscope. That crazy man. The killer."
"Mom ... The Zodiac."
"Same difference. And what about . . . earthquakes? I saw that movie, Mary Ann, and I nearly died when Ava Gardner . . ."
"Will you just call Mr. Lassiter for me?"
Her mother began to cry. "You won't come back. I just know it."
"Mom ... please . I will. I promise."
"But you won't be ... the same!"
"No. I hope not."
When it was over, Mary Ann left the bar and walked through Aquatic Park to the bay. She stood there for several minutes in a chill wind, staring at the beacon on Alcatraz. She made a vow not to think about her mother for a while.
Back at the Fisherman's Wharf Holiday Inn, she looked up Connie Bradshaw's phone number.
Connie was a stewardess for United. Mary Ann hadn't seen her since high school: 1968.
"Fantabulous!" squealed Connie. "How long you here for?"
"Super! Found an apartment yet?"
"No ... I ... well, I was wondering if I might be able to crash at your place, until I can
"Sure. No sweat."
"Connie ... you're single?"
The stewardess laughed. "A bear shit in the woods?"