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Looking for Mrs. Madrigal

I have only started to read the Tales of the City series, which famously describes a skein of characters, native and transplanted, to which Armistead Maupin thoroughly lays claim as an author. The dynamics of his tales and his uniquely etched characters truly up live to an Oscar Wilde’s saying that Maupin himself quotes at the beginning of the book: “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” What amazes me even more is that the main setting of the series is actually in my own neighborhood. Macondray Lane is a small pedestrian lane on the south-eastern side of Russian Hill in San Francisco. A wooded enclave in the heart of the city, and very inconspicuous, it was recast by Armistead Maupin as Barbary Lane. I just had the pleasure to visit this wonderful literary landmark (not known to tourists).

The entrance of Macondray Lane is on taylor Street between Green and Union, up the scaffold of wooden stairs.

At the top of the wooden steps I was able to grace the cobble stone and the lane opened up to have historic buildings on both sides. This is a mythical place, one of those places that make San Francisco the most wonderful place to live. As to Mrs. Madrigal’s house, I cannot really find it since there is no Number 28.

What a beautiful, romantic, out-of-the-way place! While I wouldn’t suggest going too far out of the way for this place, but if you like Tales of the City, you would love what Macondray Lane has to offer. I enjoy the tiny pool and the bench where I can sit and read, and enjoy the quietness.

[466] Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

“What about San Francisco?”
“What about it?”
“Did you like it?”
She shrugged. “It was O.K.”
“Just O.K.?”
She laughed. “Good God!”
“You’re all alike here.”
“How so?” he asked.
“You demand adoration for the place. You’re not happy until everybody swears undying love for every nook and cranny of every precious damn –”
“Whoa, missy.”
“Well, it’s true. Can’t you just worship it on your own? Do I have to sign an affidavit?”
He chuckled. “We’re that bad, are we?”
“You bet your ass you are.”


I have no excuse for not having read Tales of the City: having lived in San Francisco for twenty-five years, being gay, and knowing all the places mentioned in the book like the back of my hand. The fictional Barbary Lane that is the domain of the series is actually based on a street called Macondray Lane right in my neighborhood! It’s my backyard.

I’m not sure I even need a lover, male or female. Sometimes I think I’d settle for five good friends.

Tales of the City is the first book of the series. It opens with the arrival of Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, who, seeking a change in life and leaving her cagey one, goes on vacation to San Francisco and impulsively decides to stay. Soon she finds herself living in 28 Barbary Lane and working for Edgar Halcyon, president of Halcyon Communications. Her life becomes intertwined with those of her neighbors and co-workers. There’s the eccentric marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal, the hippy bisexual Mona Ramsey, the lothario Brian Hawkins, the sinister and cagey Norman Williams, and Michael Tolliver, the sweet boy-next-door gay guy who is always “thriving on downers.” Later, her boss and his affluent family come into Mary Ann’s social adventures by way of some astonishingly contrived coincidences.

Hell, Mouse! I hardly know any straight men anymore.
You live in San Francisco. (Mona Ramsey)

Tales of the City is no high literature, but Maupin writes with warmth, acuity and tremendous authenticity about ordinary people learning to live with themselves and one another, regardless of sexual, gender, and cultural difference. I think the charm is that San Francisco being a very small world in which these characters, all separated by less than six degrees of separation, and flawed by human frailty, criss-cross each other’s lives in shifting vignettes, in the most humor0us, unexpected way. How these lives often intersect is also blackest when it’s funniest, hinging on finding a sense of permanence and love in a world in which all the values are being reassessed. The book is a collective vignette of life in 1970s San Francisco, and in spite of the huge cast of characters, everything is explained and tied up neatly.

400 pp. Harper Perennial Paperback 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]