On Friday I saw the new Armistead Maupin documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin.
The movie is basically a love letter to Armistead Maupin and the Tales of the City. I liked the film, even though there were moments when I felt like it was becoming a 90 minute book trailer for his upcoming memoir, which I don’t need any convincing to buy.
The scenes where Maupin was performing for an audience reminded me why he’s deserving of a documentary. He’s a better writer than people give him credit for. Maupin has a lovely turn of phrase and a way with metaphors that comes from his southern roots. He can also be really campy when he wants to, which shines through in his personality as much as his novels.
As a narrative documentary, the film is very effective. I didn’t know that Armistead Maupin worked for Jesse Helms in his 20s only to be attacked by Helms in the 90’s after the Tales of the City miniseries aired on PBS. I also didn’t know that he met Richard Nixon at the White House, or that his father was a White Nationalist.
The stories of how Maupin emerged from the closet were the most interesting to me. He basically suppressed his sexuality for so long that when when he moved to San Francisco, he didn’t just come out of the closet, he broke down the door and made furniture out of it.
I knew the newspaper series was ahead of its time, but I didn’t realize just how ahead of its time until I heard the former editor of the Chronicle talk about his concerns with the direction the story was going and the introduction of more gay characters as it went along.
I loved the clips of interviews with Maupin from the seventies and eighties. The best parts of the film are meeting some of the people who inspired the characters in the books. There’s his roommate and friend Stephen Beery who undoubtedly was the basis for Michael Toliver. In the interview footage, Stephen comes off as goofy and sweet, a person who said what was on his mind regardless of propriety.
Another person you meet is the food writer (whose name I forget) at the Chronicle whom Maupin partied with. She comes off as one of those garish seniors who defy age and provides some of the funniest lines in the film. I’m positive she was the inspiration for the character of Mona. There’s a scene in the film where she describes his coming out to her. Upon Maurine’s telling her he’s gay, she says, “Big fucking deal. Half of San Francisco is gay.” The way she said it sounded exactly like Mona’s dialog from the books.
Most of the audience at the screening were middle-aged men and lesbians who obviously identified with the books. Let’s just say, there weren’t a lot A-gays in the crowd. Not that it’s a bad thing; these are my people and it’s nice to reconnect with them. In some respects, I felt like I was at an Anne of Green Gables convention.
The screening could not have come a better time. I just spent the last three months re-reading all nine volumes in the series. I started on February 14, the day of my best friend, Keith’s, birthday. Keith died four years ago, and for some reason, I was having a really difficult time of it this year. Reading Tales of the City always helps me feel closer to him; they were the only books he ever read.
The last time I read all the books in one stretch was ten years ago in anticipation of the release of Michael Toliver Lives. I read the subsequent two books, Mary Ann in Autumn and The Days of Anna Madigral, as soon as they were published but I didn’t go back and revisit the earlier books.
The series has always served as a touchstone for me. The books are a great way of reflecting on my life, and the world in general. They’re not genius like Remembrance of Things Past, but Maupin’s reliance on pop culture and current events takes me back to where I was at that point in time. The books are like a journal in that sense, resuscitating old emotions and jogging memories.
As I read them this time I noticed that, the first three books (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City) are about the friends you make in your twenties. You go on wild adventures; you’re willing to take more chances, and throw caution to the wind. You know what you don’t want from life, but you’re not exactly sure what you do want from it.
I also noticed how often the characters call each other out on their shit. I became more aware of each character’s flaws by what another character said when they were mad at them. As far-fetched as some of the scenarios in the books can be, the emotions get pretty raw and the fights can get pretty personal.
There were scenes that reminded me of episodes from my twenties where I fucked someone over, either by design or by accident, and was called out on it. What defines those moments are not what I did, but how I felt when confronted with my actions. The people who actually said something are the ones I remember the most and still talk to today. They made me a better person.
The next three books (Babycakes, Significant Others, and Sure of You), illustrate how the relationships from your twenties evolve and mature in your thirties. Some friends disappear for a while and come back. You find yourself becoming better friends with the people who used to be in the periphery of your social circle. You hang onto grudges with the people in your life. And even though you still love them, you replay moments, good and bad, that remind you of why you are still friends.
I think Babycakes is perhaps one of the most underrated books of the eighties. It perfectly captures the fear and paranoia of the AIDS crisis as well as the sense of loss and mourning we were all experiencing. It’s a beautiful portrait of a gay man struggling with survival guilt and trying to navigate an uncertain future and his place in it. If you ever want to know what the AIDS crisis was like, I recommend reading this book, it captures it perfectly.
Sure of You, was meant to be the final chapter of the series. The book is another example of Maupin’s skill as a writer. Maupin drops all the pretence of intrigue and adventure from the previous five books and settles for what feels like a drawing room comedy about the eighties.
There’s a heartbreaking moment between the series’ ingenue Mary Ann Singleton and her adopted daughter Shawna. Mary Ann bequeathes a suitcase full of Shawna’s birth mother, Connie’s, possessions to her. The case is literally a time capsule of the first book in the series. Contained in it is a terry-cloth python with plastic eyes that roll.
That snake and Connie’s other possessions represent everything Mary Ann hated about Shawna’s mother, and yet they sum up the innocence and niavete of the first book.
Who would have dreamed she would end up the custodian of Connie’s memory? Maupin writes of Mary Ann. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced many times over the last thirty years.
No one was more surprised than I was when Maupin added three more books to the series (Michael Toliver Lives, Mary Ann in Autumn, and The Days of Anna Madrigal). I remember being hesitant to crack open the seventh book for fear it would ruin the series, the way The Phantom Menace ruined Star Wars. The seventh book does have the feeling of being tacked on at the end, but I certainly identified with Michael Toliver and in his fifties.
What the last three books are able to capture is the new people in your life as you get older. Maupin introduces a group of younger characters who inherit the memory of 28 Barbary Lane and embody what San Francisco has become. He makes you care for these people the way he made you care for Michael, Mary Ann, Mona, and Brian.
At the same time, the relationship between the original four has evolved yet again. They are still in each other’s lives, but not the way they were in the seventies and eighties. They’re more like an extended family; a lifeline to the past.
Reading the last three books, I found myself reflecting on the relationships I had in my twenties. At the time, I thought my closest friends and I would be joined at the hip until old age. Instead they’ve become tertiary characters in the story of my life. I still love them and chat with them as often as I can, but I have a completely different circle of friends now. When I speak of my roommates from my twenties, it’s like I’m talking about a galaxy far, far, away.
Coming back to the books this time, Maupin’s mediation on aging rang true with me. As someone who is looking down the barrel of fifty, I often worry if I’m going to have enough money to retire, will I have to leave Vancouver, and who will take care of me. According to Maupin, these things have a way of working themselves out in the end.
My favourite lesson from Tales of the City, are the immortal words of Connie Bradshaw: Look, if you can’t deal with your own sexuality, hon, you’re gonna get screwed but good in this town.
Basically, life throws you curves balls; either get in the game or go home. I’m happy to stay I’m still in the game, and intend to keeping playing until it’s physically impossible.