That address, 28 Barbary Lane, is, I would argue, the most recognized address in gay literature. It is, of course, the sprawling apartment building overseen by transgender landlady Anna Madrigal. It is a place where, if you were a new arrival from Cleveland in the 1970s your welcome might be a joint taped to the door. Or where your new GBF would introduce you to a world that you didn’t even know existed back in the Midwest. Or where, for awhile, a lunatic lived on the roof before he fell off a cliff and was gone for good. Or was he?
The godfather of gay serial fiction, Armistead Maupin, has said that with the release of The Days of Anna Madrigal this month, the nearly 40-year-long run of Tales of the City will come to an end. Maupin said, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Louis Peitzman, “I’ve taken a great deal of care with all nine of these novels, and I want to leave on a high point. I’m also going to be 70 in May, so I’d like to leave a little space for myself to explore some new ideas.”
Like so many gay men of a certain vintage, Tales had a tremendous effect on me. I have no recollection about how I heard about the books, but I did, and with great trepidation, lest some bookstore clerk think I was gay —gasp— I purchased Tales of the City and subsequently devoured it, then More Tales, Further Tales and then 1984’s Babycakes, which dates my discovery to around 1985 or so. I was 21 years old.
I bought Significant Others as soon as it came out in 1987 and 1989’s Sure of You when it hit the bookstore shelves and I read and re-read them all multiple times.
To me, these books allowed me access to a world that I had not even known to dream about, my worldview so stifled at the time by my conservative upbringing in North Carolina; but I was far from the only gay man in the 1980s who ever-so-tentatively stuck a toe out of the closet because of Armistead Maupin and Tales of the City.
By 1993, when the first mini-series aired on PBS, I was living in Washington, D.C., nearly 30 and mostly out and my friends and I would gather each week to watch Tales unfold on the screen while I taped the episodes on my VHS recorder to watch over and over again.
I have such a distinctive recollection of Mouse (Marcus D’Amico) and Dr. Jon (Billy Campbell, who I had such a crush on!) waking up in bed together and Michael sneaking off to brush his teeth. When he returns to the bed, they carried on their conversation like it was the most normal thing in the world. Because it was, right? Except that we had never seen anything like that on television before. Men. In bed. Together. The morning after.
And instead of the expected follow-up of, “You will now be damned to hell,” Mona brings them breakfast and Jon sticks his finger in the marmalade pot and licks it off in perhaps the sexiest post-breakfast average morning scene ever put on film. We were mesmerized.
This is really on PBS? It was, and it was so amazingly controversial that it took five more years to get the funding to shoot More Tales and until 2001 to do Further Tales.
Today, I can’t think of the radiant Laura Linney — gifted actress though she is — without first thinking about Mary Ann Singleton. Nor can I imagine anyone else ever in the history of the world playing Mrs. Madrigal other than Olympia Dukakis.
Today, we have HBO’s much-hyped series about gay men in San Francisco, Looking, we have multiple gay-themed series on the web and on cable, we have a cable channel devoted to gay and lesbian programming, and we even have a front burner positive gay storyline on mainstream Days of our Lives. How far we’ve come since it was a scandal to see Billy Campbell’s ass.
We’ve got a long way to go, but through the first quarter century and first half-dozen books of Tales, and after all three TV mini-series, no same-sex couple could get married in the United States. Now you can, in 16 states (depending on what’s being litigated today). That’s an impressive leap forward.
I can’t imagine being that scared, closeted, young gay man that I was when I first found Tales of the City. It’s not often that we can point to a particular piece of literature and say, “This changed the world.” The nine books of the Tales series have done just that. And they’ve probably saved lives, too.
Thank you, Armistead Maupin. Your work has made an indelible impact.