Maybe Armistead Maupin doesn’t, but I do. His Tales Of The City books are the very essence of my halcyon days of young gaydom.
A summer day in 2007, I was lying naked on the beach on Sauvie Island, just outside of Portland, Oregon. Because I am, or rather was, a redhead, I need to be in part-shade or dappled sunlight. I was surrounded by dozens of hot gay men, gathered at their little setups in the full sun on the beach, alone and in groups. I didn’t want to be doing it. I was embarrassed. I wanted to appear hot, yet cool. But, there in the shade, I had burst into tears while reading Maupin’s newest installment in the much-loved Tales Of The City series, Michael Tolliver Lives. I was shedding tears of joy for the reunion with some of my favorite characters in literature, but also for my own loss of innocence and the glance at my own mortality. But mostly, I was crying for the beauty of the writing and the pleasure of having the main character Michael Tolliver still be alive after a presumed early death from HIV.
I read the original Tales Of The City in the serial installments from the San Francisco Chronicle, alerted to them by a friend, Beach Blanket Babylon star Nancy Bleiweiss, who lived in the city at the time. I savored each one.
Maupin had more or less revived the Dickensian serial novel, which makes you laugh, and makes you cry, and makes you anticipate the next episode. I had a real romance with San Francisco in the 1970s. I spent as much time there as I could afford. I was living in Los Angeles when PSA Airlines (now long gone) had a “Midnight Flyer”: a no reservations, stand in line, $25 flight from LAX to SFO. I liked to take advantage of the deal. The Midnight Flyer was my introduction to the Mile High Club. Only in the 1970s, could a young man travel to San Francisco to get laid, and then have it happen on the flight there. I didn’t even need to touch ground to get some dick.
As each new book in the Tales Of The City series was released, I would get myself to the Different Drummer Bookstore (in the 1970s and 1980s there were actual gay bookstores) on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and I would purchase the latest installment. I wouldn’t read it though. I would go back to book number one and start again at the very beginning. It was 18 years between Sure Of You and Michael Tolliver Lives, quite the wait. It was good, but emotional, to be back with my friends from 28 Barbary Lane.
Maupin is a Southern gentleman, born into a conservative Christian family and raised in North Carolina. He attended the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the start of his career Maupin worked at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, a station then managed by future Senator Jesse Helms. Helms nominated Maupin for a patriotic award, which he won. Maupin says he was a typical conservative and even a segregationist during this era and that he admired Helms. He later condemned Helms at a gay pride parade on the steps of the North Carolina State Capitol. Maupin is a veteran of the US Navy; he served several tours of duty including one in Vietnam during that War. Maupin claims that he knew he was gay since childhood but didn’t have sex until he was 26 years old, and he only decided to come out of the closet in 1974.
Maupin was in a relationship of 12 years with Terry Anderson, a remarkable journalist and gay rights activist. Sir Ian McKellen is one of his best friends and a former lover. Christopher Isherwood was a mentor, friend, and is named as an influence as a writer. He was once a fuck buddy of Rock Hudson:
“I’m the age now that Rock was when he picked me up, so I can understand how he felt, how his fame limited his freedom. You get kinder as you go along.“
I was born in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. I have spent a lot of time in San Francisco, including most of the summer of 1972. What a great year to be young and hung and in the city. When I mention this to other gay men of a certain age, a dreamy faraway look will come over their faces and they talk about how much Maupin’s Tales meant to them. I knew of someone that had asked to be buried with his copies of the books. Maupin’s writing continues to take me by surprise, plus amuse, and touch me.
Maupin has the special gift of gently noting how much we all have in common, gay or straight, liberal or conservative. Everyone craves a little love, we all want to be treated with a touch of kindness, and we’re all just trying to enjoy our time until the end.
In summer of 2011, I savored Mary Ann In Autumn, the next in the Tales Of The City series. It had me so engaged that I had to force myself to read just a short chapter a day so as to draw out the experience of being back with those beloved characters from 28 Barbary Lane one more time.
In 2014, while enjoying my many months of luxurious chemotherapy, I took on the last of the series, The Days Of Anna Madrigal, a cathartic but satisfying end of the journey for the Tales Of The City books, if not for me. Spoiler alert: Michael Tolliver and I both live.
I also consider Maupin’s insanely suspenseful, un-put-downable novel The Night Listener one of my all-time favorites
When I think back to the first time I read his work, I see now that in his writing, Maupin was always way ahead of the curve on the subjects of homosexuality, transgender issues, HIV/AIDS, feminism, race, celebrity, drugs, ageing, and the perils of living in the closet.
Maupin is married to yummy photographer Christopher Turner. Maupin saw Turner on a special website and then chased him down saying: “Didn’t I see you on Daddyhunt.com?” The Maupin/Turners were married in Vancouver, BC in 2007, though Maupin says that they had called each other “husband: for a long time. It was a big deal when the couple bailed on San Francisco and moved to Santa Fe along with their labradoodle. I truly felt it was the end of an era. Then the couple went back to San Francisco. Now it seems they are parked in London, and who can blame them.
His Logical Family: A Memoir was my favorite book of 2017. With all the humor, heartbreak and hope I got from his Tales Of The City series, Maupin looks back at his youth and shares the memories of families, friendships and affairs that took him from North Carolina to Vietnam to San Francisco, the city that he fell in love with. It served as a text book for living when I needed it most.