Today is the Gay Pride parade in the City. Some years I go to see everything, because everyone is so happy. People are dancing in the streets, usually one of Fred Phelps’ people are there yelling but eventually they get shouted out and go home, and a lot of people wear rainbow shirts or Endora shirts, because let’s face it, there’s no better role model for a gay man than Agnes Moorehead’s Endora. I know one person that will be there today. I know Armistead Maupin will be there.
I was seventeen when I first read Armistead Maupin. I was working at a library and one day I was shelved books where a paperback fell off my cart. It was a copy of Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I always loved stories about San Francisco, especially in the seventies because I was born there and lived there with my parents when I was little. I took the book home and started to read it that night.
The story was about Mary Ann Singleton, who on vacation, decided to stay in San Francisco and escape her humdrum life from Cleveland Ohio. At first, she hooks up with old high school friend Connie Bradshaw, but Connie is busy flying the friendly skies (she’s a stewardess) and bringing men home. MaryAnn then finds a lovely old apartment on Barbury Lane, where she meets Mrs. Anna Madrigal, a landlady who gives her tenants marijuana cigarettes and has a fondness for cloches.
Soon Mary Ann meets Mrs. Madrigal’s other tenants; Mona Ramsey, the freethinking woman who embraces anything that comes her way; Brian Hawkins, the ex-lawyer turned waiter who looks for love in all the wrong places; Michael Tolliver, who, like Mary Ann, is trying to find someone in the big city.
I loved these characters. I loved how real they were, how alive. I soon found out that Maupin originated the series in the San Francisco Chronicle and everyone would try to figure out who was who.I ordered from the library all of Maupin’s books and devoured them during a road trip to see my mom’s friend Missy in Washington. The first three were so much fun and lively. They were about friendships, love, and an occasional mystery thrown in. Further Tales of the City did have darkness to it; there was an undercurrent of gay bashing and then has a scene when two of the main characters are victims of a hate crime. When I read that scene, I was breathless, scared out of my mind. Please let them be okay, I prayed.
That was another thing about Maupin’s writing: he didn’t make the gay people stereotypes. Back then, hardly anyone famous was out; Rita Mae Brown, Truman Capote, and I can’t even remember who else. Rock Hudson was forced out when he revealed he had AIDS. In the movies, there was Revenge of the Nerds where they had one gay guy, a guy who excelled at pole vaulting because of his limp wrists. In the movie Mannequin there was Hollywood, who was very gay, very flashy, and easy to target. There’s nothing wrong with these characters per se, but a stereotype is a stereotype. Maupin blasted those stereotypes full force. He even refused to make Tales of the City into a TV show when one of the network executives suggested making Michael a serial killer.
That was when Maupin was getting serious about his work. He was losing friends left and right because of AIDS, and in his fourth book Babycakes it dealt with one of the characters dying from the virus. Suddenly a shadow appeared. The books were still funny but the easy days were over. Now it was serious. People were dying, and as a gay man, Maupin knew he had to write about what was going on. It was his duty to write about it. As Anne Lamott said, the duty as a writer is to look in the dark places, shine a light on it and show what is there. He did it with full force.
I read the last Tales book in Missy’s living room. I felt so sad, leaving 28 Barbury Lane behind. Then I thought the earthquake! Are they okay? Then I realized um, Jen? Baby Doll? They aren’t real. They were real to me.
Maupin then wrote Maybe the Moon, a book inspired by his friend Tamara De Treaux, a little person who worked inside ET’s costume. People loved the book and Darryl Hannah loved it so much she bought the rights to make a movie, then gave the novel to Jacqueline Onassis (Hannah was dating John Kennedy Junior at the time) Hannah later told Maupin that it was one of the last books Onassis ever read. If that’s not an honor, I don’t know what is.
Maupin went to London to promote Maybe the Moon. At that time, I was living there, homesick, and I found his books at the library. I reread them with joy and felt less alone. I knew I had to go see him.
I went to go see him on a February morning. Imagine my surprise when the line was down the block. I was amazed, but not surprised. I got in line and felt so excited. Just when it couldn’t get even better, it started to snow. Now this might seem like no big deal, but to this California girl, I was just amazed.
In the bookstore, I saw Maupin signing books and his then partner, Terry Anderson was with him. Terry Anderson is HIV positive, and he recently made remarks about Magic Johnson coming out saying he was HIV positive: “Now I feel that people will want to demand more progress in AIDS treatment, a Magic watch…. If they help Magic, then it will help me.”
Finally, it was my turn. I was so excited I could spit. When it came to me, I burst out saying: “Mr. Maupin, it’s such an honor to meet you!” I shook his hand right away. I continued to say, “I’m from Pleasant Hill, and your books have made me so less homesick!” I think he was so taken aback he didn’t know what to say for a moment, then laughed and started to sign my book. Looking back now it reminds me of when a lady so excited to meet Queen Elizabeth gave her a big hug. I shook Mr. Anderson’s hand and thanked him for what he said about Magic Johnson. He was taken aback as well, then grinned. “Where are you from again, Jennifer?” he asked.
“Pleasant Hill,” I said.
“We got a local girl!” Mr. Maupin said, giving back my book. “We traveled all this way to see someone close by.”
I thanked them both and walked out to the snowy day. Everything was so beautiful and lovely. It blew me away.
So today, I hope Mr. Maupin is celebrating in full force. He’s working on Tales books again, and I read Michael Tolliver Lives last year. In the latest one, he kills off a popular character. This upset actor Ian McKellen so much that he called Maupin up and said, “I don’t know how I can forgive you for this.” I knew how McKellen felt. I was in my backyard reading. After I read the chapter where the character dies, I put the book down. I realized tears were in my eyes. I looked up to the sun, sad, but thankful for the emotion, thankful that I had a chance to know the character at all, how blessed I felt that I could read such a master of his craft.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries