As his Tales of the City are released in ebook form, Armistead Maupin reflects on their 35-year journey from newspaper column to electronic text – and how they used his life as a 'jumping-off point'
guardian.co.uk, Monday 12 March 2012 08.23 EDT
I remember this guy. He usually dressed like a clone in flannel shirts and 501s, so he must have thought that loosened knit tie would make him look more journalistic. He had just moved into a cottage in the Castro, having bounced between Russian and Telegraph Hills for most of the 70s. For five years, off and on, he'd been writing a column for the morning newspaper that was, in effect, a story without an ending. He wrote his columns on carbon paper, keeping one copy and delivering the other to the newspaper office, often in a frantic last-minute dash in his Volkswagen convertible. There were times when he was barely two days ahead of his readers. Like them, he was waiting breathlessly for what would happen next – but counting on his life to provide it.
In that regard San Francisco never failed him. His tales were often fuelled by the people around him: a closeted movie star who lured him (rather easily) to his suite at the Fairmont Hotel, a socialite who threw a fancy luncheon "to rap about rape", a homeless man who offered him coffee in a hidden lean-to on Telegraph Hill, a hulking construction worker who slow-danced with him at a gay rodeo. When a "co-ed bathhouse" opened on Valencia Street, this young man was there, taking notes. When the newspaper offered him cruises to Mexico and Alaska, he went on them – in part to see where they would lead his imagination. His never-ending story was a snuffling, ravenous beast that had to be fed on a daily basis, so anything meaty and available was tossed into its waiting maw.
When, for instance, he went home one night with someone aroused by his shoes (the Weejuns he wore with his rugby shirt), he folded that incident straight into the mix. He even wrote about the things that hurt, the "affairettes" that broke his still-adolescent heart – the gorgeous but uptight doctor named Jon who performed mastectomies, the harmonica-playing marine recruiter who read him German poetry in bed and gave him a keychain that said: "The marines are looking for a few good men." It helped him make something useful – or at least entertaining – out of his romantic misadventures.
Which is not to say that his tales were especially autobiographical. The guy in this photo was all of his characters and none of them; reality was just his jumping-off point. He used to say that he was far more like DeDe Halcyon Day, the "recovering debutante" in Tales of the City, than Michael Tolliver, the romantic gay Floridian. After all, he had never entered a jockey shorts dance contest or swum naked into the Bohemian Grove with his clothes in a garbage bag; he would not have had the nerve. His nerve was largely confined to the written word and his insistence that gay folks were part of the human landscape and therefore deserved a place – and equal billing – in his chronicle of modern life. He was often at odds with his editors about this. One of them even kept an elaborate chart in his office to insure that the homo characters in "Tales" didn't suddenly outnumber the hetero ones and thereby undermine the natural order of civilisation.
And this guy loved that. He loved frightening the horses with that goofy grin on his face. He had kept his heart (and his libido) under wraps for most of his life, only to discover that the thing he feared the most had actually become a source of great comfort and inspiration. It thrilled him to testify for his own kind, to offer a pleasing shock of recognition to people whose stories were rarely told anywhere, much less in a "family newspaper". He used his column, in fact, as means of finally telling the truth about himself, coming out to his parents in North Carolina in the very letter that Michael Tolliver wrote to his folks in Florida. He would not have been able to do any of this had he not felt so embraced by a city where everyone – gay, straight and travelling – had learned to recognise, if not yet fully celebrate, the infinite possibilities of humanity.
That was 35 years ago, but I've been thinking about this young man a lot as my never-ending story enters an astonishing new era – one in which it can travel electronically to readers anywhere in the world. Could that guy in the loosened tie possibly have guessed how long his story would last or imagine the doors it would eventually open for him? It's better, perhaps, that he remained in the dark, living in the moment and sailing on his dreams. Come to think of it, it's always been better that way.
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