I first read "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin when I was living in Birmingham (UK, not Alabama). The series of novels was avidly passed around our group of graduate students, initiated by the one gay man amongst us, a man who just happened to be called Michael, like Michael Tolliver, a hero of the novels, who remarks in one of them that half of the gay men in the world seem to be named Michael. The stories, with their mixture of madcap adventure, bizarre coincidences, and poignant dialogue all set against a San Francisco that fairly glittered out of the pages, were a breath of fresh air to us, slaving over our lab benches in the dreary Midlands winter.
Three years later, when I was myself boarding a plane to San Francisco with my worldly possessions packed into two suitcases I had those books etched into my mind. I had them in my suitcase too, come to think of it. It hadn't escaped my literary imagination that I was twenty five years old, the same age as Mary Ann Singleton, one of the stories central characters was when she took a two week vacation to the city and decided, on a whim to stay. As it turned out I went to San Francisco on a two year visiting academic visa and fifteen years later I am still here. I lasted longer than Mary Ann, come to think of it.
People tell me I was brave for taking a job in a city, indeed a country where I didn't know a single soul, setting out there alone to embrace whatever befell me. I brush it off, remarking that there are five flights back to London every day, I wasn't exactly on a one way ticket to nowhere. There was more to my confidence though. I knew, somehow, that San Francisco would suit me. My only experience of the city was through those books, but the characters resonated so strongly with me, their experiences seemed so authentic, that I felt that I already knew how the city would feel. I was right too. This was 1996, not 1976, but the essential essence of San Francisco, as I'd imbibed it in Maupin's books, was still there waiting for me.
That essence was not just the blue skies, dense fog, the tumultuous hills, or the mix of glass towers, pink stucco and shingles. It was the people. San Francisco is best known, of course for the way it embraces gays and lesbians, but that is just the most obvious manifestation of a deeper attitude. There is something in the water here that lets you be who you are, and accept other people for who they are. We are long haired computer geeks, corpulent belly dancers, lesbian plumbers, bisexual teachers, gay accountants, childless cat lovers, rehabilitated alcoholics devoted to pitbull rescue, single mums by sperm donor, foster parents to disadvantaged kids. We're ordinary English girls who love science, literature, skin tight clothes, red wine, and blogging. We're comfortable in our own skins, and we don't expect everyone else to fit any particular mold.
I found my home in a six unit building in Duboce triangle. We were a bunch of twenty somethings, from all over the USA, with me as the token European. We were white, black, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, lesbian, or at various levels of working out exactly what and who we were attracted to. We looked like a GAP commercial. This was no doubt enhanced by the fact that several of the gang worked for GAP corporation at the time, and were generous with their corporate discount. We threw great parties. We went to all the coolest bars. We gathered in each other's living rooms around giant take out pizzas or moo shoo vegetables to to watch Seinfeld, Friends, Melrose Place, Buffy and Party of Five. We went on terrible dates. We got horribly drunk and helped each other home. Belatedly. sometime around the turn of the century, we grew up and moved apart, much like the characters in the books.
Maupin released a new book in the series this winter. Coincidentally, the first books are being made into a musical, to be premiered this summer, where else, here in San Francisco. I just booked tickets for Geekydaddy and I and several of our dear San Francisco circa 1998 friends; our 'logical family', as Mr. Maupin would say, and I can't wait to see it, my favorite stories embellished by my favorite art form, musical theatre, what could be better?!
Geekydaddy bought the book, "Mary Ann in Autumn" for me this Christmas and I am waiting for the perfect uninteruptable moment to crack it open. In anticipation, I have just re read the entire series for what must be the hundredth time. I was reminded again that the now so familiar and beloved streets and locations described in the tales were once just a fairytale to me, San Francisco being as far from Birmingham as the lost city of Atlantis.
Is their anything better than reading that first page of a much anticipated novel? Now that I've got this post off my chest, I think I am ready to dive in.