San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge at sunset, California. (Photo: Getty Images)
Do you have any objections to pets?” asked Mary Ann Singleton, newly arrived from the American Midwest and looking for an apartment in San Francisco.
“Dear, I have no objection to anything,” replied Anna Madrigal, her would-be landlady, a man who had become a woman, the grande dame of 28, Barbary Lane where The Tales of the City (1978-2014) would unfold.
That encapsulated San Francisco to me more than anything that could ever appear on a picture postcard, like the soaring orange span of the Golden Gate bridge or the row of brightly coloured Victorian houses known as the “painted ladies”.
San Francisco’s captivating charm lay in those picture-postcard views. But its magnetic allure lay in its attitude. Armistead Maupin understood that perfectly when he started writing the Tales of the City in 1976 and its many sequels.
Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City written in 1976.
His Mary Ann Singleton, came to San Francisco by herself on an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, called her mother in Cleveland and said, “I’m not coming home, mom.”
Sitting in Kolkata, having never lived away from home, that line sounded like a declaration of love, some forbidden love at that, something tumbling out of the closet over a crackling phone line.
“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’.”
As a good boy growing up in Kolkata, studious, diligent, the kind of who always did his homework in time, I yearned to be silly. To me, San Francisco as conjured up by Maupin represented the freedom to be giddily silly.
On literary pilgrimages, we look for addresses. 221B, Baker Street of Sherlock Holmes fame. 138, Picadilly, Count Dracula’s residence. 124, Bluestone Road in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). But I never had any desire to go look up 28 Barbary Lane when I went to San Francisco. It was never about mapping the address though there are a dozen Tales of the City walking tours. You could have that Irish coffee at Buena Vista. You could see the pretty homes where the real-life Maupin lived on Telegraph Hill. You could go to the gay bar, the End Up, where Maupin’s Michael (Mouse) Tolliver won the Mr. End Up dance contest and lost a boyfriend. But the places were not important in themselves. The feeling was. I wanted to feel like Mary Ann after that third Irish coffee.
Classic panorama view of historic San Francisco Cable Cars on famous California Street at sunset. (Photo: Getty Images)
I have to say San Francisco did not disappoint. If anything it made Tales of the City seem a little whitewashed, almost monochrome. My San Francisco came alive on the late night bus when little old Chinese grandmothers rode along in companionable silence with bearded Salvadorean drag queens and Goth girls with jet-black hair, chalky faces and safety pins dangling from their leather jackets. No one stared. Nothing was too exotic in a city with a café named Bearded Lady and an Indian restaurant named Zante’s that doubled up as a pizzeria (tandoori chicken and gobhi on your pizza long before that was considered kosher). It was a city that allowed you to reinvent yourself, no justifications needed.
I moved in with someone who was a sculptor by day and a home health aide at night. His lesbian roommate left at dawn every day to go work in a muffin store. His best friend lived on AIDS disability and sprinkled flax seeds on his omelettes. My office had a deep-voiced Filipino receptionist who happened to be a nun who liked to belt out Memory from Cats. A cat named Toulouse hunted mice in our garden. Like Mary Ann Singleton, none of us, not even the cat, were native to San Francisco. But we flourished there like weeds. I didn’t need to try and find the real Barbary Lane. You could set up your own Barbary Lane anywhere.
The Painted Ladies of SFO (Photo: Getty Images)
I took it for granted that that was just how San Francisco was meant to be — God’s own haven whether for hippies, queers, anti-war demonstrators or migrants who had crossed the border illegally and washed dishes in taquerias.
But like people, cities change. Some years ago, I read Maupin was moving out of San Francisco, a city that had become exorbitantly expensive. It was front page news. “It’s been 41 years since I landed here and it gave me my story,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I keep reminding myself that Barbary Lane is portable.” The city eventually enticed him back. He missed it too much. But a few years later, he moved to London with husband and dog. “We want another adventure,” he said. The addresses made famous by Tales of the City would remain but as sterile tourist attractions.
When I watched Netflix’s Tales of the City this year, it made me tear up. The books had made me want to go there. The film made me realise there was no going back. San Francisco was a dream, more ephemeral than its famous summer fog. What AIDS could not do the city, Twitter had done. The tech giant had lobotomised the city, leaving little room for misfits, artists and oddballs. There was no point being sentimental about it. People like me had flocked there and played our role in turning San Francisco into a bloated shell of its old self, filled with swanky penthouses and homeless encampments, techies swilling chilled wine and drug-ravaged junkies parked on the street with their pitbulls.
It’s a different city now. Whether it’s better or worse is not for me to judge. I remember sitting at my college in the Midwest and writing Maupin a gushing fan letter. To my astonishment, he replied with a sweet little note.
When I moved to San Francisco, I noticed the street I lived on was just one street away from the one on his letterhead. I was tempted to go and ring the doorbell some day. I never did. I was living out my tales of the city already. The city had let me in just as it had embraced Mary Ann and her friends. I didn’t need to knock on the door of Maupin. Later, someone pointed out the letters of his name could be rearranged to read “Armistead Maupin Is A Man I Dreamt Up.” Just like the city.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, radio commentator and novelist. This article was published with the headline 'Theme for a Dream' in the print edition