‘Connie, I’ve found this darling place on Russian Hill on the third floor of the funkiest old building…and I can move in tomorrow,’ said Mary Anne Singleton when she realised she was moving up in the world.
I travelled 5000 miles to make a pilgrimage to a place that isn’t real. The mythical Barbary Lane is more of a state of mind than an actual place: the heart of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels. The famous wooden steps which lead up to it are real enough, and this is where people from all over the world go to have their picture taken. Standing on those steps I got a feeling of the fantastic history of San Francisco, following in the footsteps of Mary Anne Singleton, the starchy secretary who ran away from Cleveland to live a more colourful life.
The Victorian apartment house should be perched at the top of the Macondray Lane steps on Russian Hill, but all that greets the curious tourist, breathless from the steep incline of Taylor Street, is a dark fern-lined alley between buildings which bear little resemblance to the movie set (which was based on a place on Napier Lane.)
In the movies, the house itself is magical. At night, the garden is lit by Chinese lanterns and fairy lights, ‘the whole fantasia’ as Michael fondly remembers in Michael Tolliver Lives. Marijuana plants nestle next to Azalea bushes as the sound of moaning foghorns drift up from the bay. Maupin had created an iconic place to rival Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, but here a new tenant would receive a joint taped to a welcome note on their front door, a gift from Mrs. Madrigal, ‘the mother of us all.’
Not everyone was happy at number 28. “The moon is in ca-ca,” said Mona, the free-wheeling hippy with displacement issues who leaves the warmth and safety of Barbary Lane to forge into the wide blue yonder in search of her roots. ’You can’t hide from the cosmos!’ she says when Mary Anne is shocked by her nudity. It’s Mona who inspired the tagline of my blog, ‘Dreams of a Free Spirit,’ the questing romantic with her Buddhist chants and cosmic consciousness. Of all Maupin’s characters, Mona is the one who really chimes with me. I’ll travel a long way to find a place like Barbary Lane.
Below you can see a clip from the Tales of the City tv series, and Mary Anne’s wide-eyed arrival at the house. The series was funded by Channel Four in Britain because the US networks refused to portray gay people in a positive light. How things have changed…
Jump to 1.30 to see the where it all began…
I had to ask two taxi drivers and a realtor how to find the steps, so here’s a map…
Armistead Maupin’s new novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal will be published in 2013. Keep an eye on The Vibes for updates.
My adventures in San Francisco Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City Halloween in the Castro