Vanity Fair Amongst the Lotus Eaters

February 27, 2015

Sometimes I miss California.  Some of my family moved there when I was young and once we’d traveled west to see them, California became more than another state on the map; it became a state of mind.  It was a place with gentler weather and attitudes that believed in potential as much as my home state believed in realism, or at least that’s how it seemed at the time.  Granted, this was between the late 60’s and early 80’s when California was “the place to be” and I was getting trips to Disneyland but I still miss that pervasive feeling of “yes” that was the California I knew.  The residents (very few of the people I met there were natives) might have seemed a little self-indulgent at times but most of them turned out to be very kind and I really loved being there.  All those feelings rush back whenever I pick up Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Maupin was another Golden State émigré when he started writing a syndicated column about San Francisco and the other immigrants who found themselves in its embrace during the 1970’s. He wanted to report on the phenomenon of grocery-store cruising (think of it as singles bar with produce) without naming any names.  So he published a fictionalized news column that introduced the slightly out-of-step Midwesterner, Mary Ann Singleton to this meat market with a butcher’s shop.  People wrote to his paper’s publisher asking for more of Mary Ann’s adventures and Maupin obliged adding Mona Ramsey, the aging refugee from the 60’s whose ramshackle life was, in her own terms, “down to seeds and stems” and Mona’s best friend, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.   No one would believe it now but Maupin broke ground in Tales of the City with Michael as one of the first leading gay characters in a continuing serial.  By this time, California readers of his column were faxing it to friends in Barstow and Phoenix.  A whole host of wonderful characters showed up including the perpetual lothario, Brian Hawkins and everyone’s favorite landlady, Anna Madrigal.  Then the real fun began.
Have you ever read Thackeray’s comedy, Vanity Fair?  It’s a wonderful satire of English society where everyone is trying to get ahead, socially, financially or otherwise.  It has a host of characters and the minor ones you meet in the beginning find their way back to the plot by the end.  Tales of the City is like that.  The plot is ridiculously interconnected (although many of the characters don’t know all the connections) so half of the fun of the story is guessing where and how the guy in Chapter Two will come back in Chapter Ten.  Maybe that was Maupin’s way of playing games or keeping his readers interested but I think it was an observation about San Francisco: never mind how big this place looks from the air; we’re really a very small town.
Like any small town, secrets and scandals abound and there’s a half-hearted mystery to boot but the clearest theme in this first book is that San Francisco is a great place if you are looking for your life. (There are nine installments in this series so far and I’ve quit believing Maupin when he says he’s finished; he fooled me twice before with those words and twice fooled is my legal limit.)    Maupin opens this book with a quote from Oscar Wilde:”It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.”   Maybe that’s because for some, it remains “the place to be.”  A place where the very nature of being includes a laid-back enjoyment of life.  Where anything can happen and anyone can reappear.  Now, that’s what I call potential.

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