Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Michael Tolliver Lives (So Do I!)

Here you see my very first exposure to Tales Of The City.

I received the above from my dear, departed friend Arthur, who sent it to me mid-winter, 1977 as a sort of Valentine during the first year of his residence in San Francisco. Arthur and I had been all sorts of running buddies in New York, and upon his relocation to San Francisco during the previous summer, he became one of that city's most tireless boosters. We played a sort of snail mail can-you-top-this, each of us sending clippings and notes so the other could see what they were missing. I sent Arthur invitations from the most clever discos and all the news of Christopher Street and beyond. He'd return photos and bar rags, so I'd know exactly what he was up to; all the fun I wasn't having. Three months after this exchange, I trumped him by sending clippings from every local paper detailing the deadly fire at the Everard Baths, that prelude to the disasters that followed.

As you can see, Arthur has sent me "Love from the City that knows how...". I took great umbrage at that, being all of 22 years old. I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but I was sure I didn't like it.

The article itself was clever, though I had no idea who this Michael and Mary Ann were. I didn't quite grasp all of the references. Some of them seemed quite sophisticated and even daring to be appearing in newsprint. I pondered over such arcana as Oil Can Harry's, The Glory Holes, Fifties Queens and Grace Cathedral. I had no idea what an It's It was, or why one might want to consume more than one in a single evening. Michael seemed very exotic; both wise and jaded, a denizen of a city as foreign to me as Vale of Kashmir.

It wasn't until the following year that I was actually able to actually pick up the collection of these serialized chapters, and was disappointed to realize that the main focal point of the story seemed to be a singularly unpleasant opportunist named Mary Ann Singleton. I was not much interested in her foray into the provincial mating rituals of Men and Women of the Marina. I mean, I'd already read Cyra McFadden's "The Serial" the year before, and had had my fill of hetero high jinks. Michael doesn't even appear until page 45 of so, if you don't include a brief walk-on at the Safeway, where he rescues his boyfriend from Mary Ann's clutches.

It seemed that Michael was my age, but so much wiser. Even in my penthouse on 12th Street, I felt hopelessly inexperienced and woefully unsophisticated in comparison to his romps through the City.

But I did enjoy the book to a degree. I resented the truly byzantine plot twists required to keep a daily newspaper audience interested. The author, a nice looking man with a moustache and floppy hair, had an interesting voice, and when he wasn't sending his characters after child pornographers or trying to update Black Like Me, had a chatty and animated style that held my interest.

Unfortunately, by the time the second collection was published, I'd had my fill of Mary Ann and the Episcopal Cannibal Cult, and didn't read another Armistead Maupin book for the next couple of decades, until Tim brought me to San Francisco, and I understood. Upon my return to New York, I hit the Strand and assembled my motley shelf, volumes One through Six, all different editions. I plowed my way through, reveling his his love for the city, hating the mechanical plotting, and learning to completely despise his heroine. It wasn't until the final book that the author revealed his hand, showing Mary Ann for the bitch she'd always been. In an odd way, I felt vindicated.

My first encounter with Mr. Maupin occurred when San Francisco and I were still new. It was one of the crowded, rowdy after-work Friday afternoons at the Edge. There were men in jeans and men in business attire. There was a slightly manic air about the room, and it was clear that many of the assembled had started the weekend early. Tim and I found a place and were about to settle in, when I turned and faced an older gentleman about my height, whose eyes were literally inches from my own.

Now, Tim and I had enjoyed a rather silly adventure the night before, when we'd entered Daddy's and literally had to peel some of it's inhabitants off us. One benighted soul approached me with his arm outstretched, zombie style. I gulped and glanced over at Tim. The man in question wrapped his arms around me, settling his cheek on my chest and looked up at me with seemingly puppy dog adoration. Quickly, and out of desperation, I shouted "Look!", and pointed to the street. The man turned, freeing me, and I yelled to Tim "Run!", and we did, laughing out of the bar. If you're going to act like a cartoon, you might get treated like one.

The gentleman at the Edge the next evening wobbled a bit, and fixed me with what seemed to be the same doggy stare. In our extremely close proximity, I noted that his eyes were among the saddest I'd ever seen; he seemed to be silently beseeching me. After the previous night's escapade, I smiled and excused myself. As he wandered off, I heard the man behind me mention something about Tales Of The City, and I realized I'd been locking eyes with the author. But the author had moved on, finding fans elsewhere in the bar who recognized him and who rushed over to acknowledge his stardom. I felt awkward after our encounter, and watched a bit from afar. He seemed more happily engaged, and Tim and I continued our evening.

A couple of years ago, I was standing in the Dugout on a Sunday night as the bar began to empty out. I was bouncing from the jukebox to the bar and back again, as it my wont to do. A man bounded up to me, pointed to my chest and asked if I was from California. I was wearing my California Golden Bears t-shirt. I laughed and said: "Nah, I'm from Brooklyn, I just like the shirt!", and smiled. He mentioned that he was from San Francisco and I told him I would be heading out there in a couple of weeks. I noted my then-mania for walking the many staircases in the City and he laughed, telling me he'd once lived beside a prime example. As we talked, a considerably younger man walked over and joined us. We'd been discussing neighborhoods we liked when his companion volunteered that the two of them lived in Parnassus Heights. At that point my new acquaintance frowned and introduced himself as Armistead, his friend as Chris. He felt the need to mention that he was a writer, and I had the opportunity to say: "I know exactly who you are!". They were in town working on the film adaptation of The Night Listener, which they were shooting at the Jersey City Medical Center. The three of us fell into a rather deep conversation about East Coast winters and we discussed the casting coup they'd felt they pulled off. The two of them stared intently at me, all the while caressing and petting each other as they looked me over. It seemed odd, the now empty bar, the three of us held deeply enthralled by our conversation. Or whatever.

Tim finally bound up the stairs, exhausted, and took his place by my side. I introduced him, but he was too tired to take notice of who I was talking to and I soon begged off, bidding my new and clearly disappointed acquaintances a good night, as I took my boyfriend home.

Mr. Maupin's new book arrived yesterday and I've already read a couple of chapters. The voice is clearly Armistead's, and not that of callow young Michael. One could chalk this up to the many years between books and the fact that the author is a decade older than his character and no longer feels the need to pretend that he's anyone other than who he is. Here's Michael at 55, a report from the front. Here's Armistead at 63, handily surviving all the latest hurdles thrown up before us gay men of a certain age.

I'll tell you how I like it, soon enough. I might even pick up a few pointers.


Blogger Joe said...


11:08 AM  
Anonymous rangergeek said...

Schadenfreude. Armistad and his beau can't successfully initiate threeways either. Makes me and the partner feel slightly better about our wasted hours at the Dugout.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Huh...........I have that clipping, somewhere. I was terribly amused by it at the time even though I didn't get all the references either. I suspect it had something to do with my coming out shortly before, and seeing it published in a main line newspaper of a major city validated the life style I had decided to embrace.

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Thom said...

Ha! You might find yourself turning up as a character in the latest book!

I'll be interested to hear your opinion of Michael Tolliver Lives. It's next in my stack of books waiting to be read.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I've been wanting to read this, but like you at the end of Book Six I was totally over it and didn't care about any of the characters any longer. When I finished it, I felt as though Mr. Maupin had also finished it - writing it so that no one would ever want to know what happened to those people after that last book.

you'll need to give us a review when you're finished.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Zeitzeuge said...

I'm probably the only gay man in existance that hasn't read Tales of the City.

*turns in my card*

Maybe I should head to Borders over lunch.

1:15 PM  
Blogger seymour said...

Thank goodness for you

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Mark H said...

Great read! My partner and I came here to Portland, OR from the bay area in 1996, so thanks for the memory lane trip written beautifully! I DO think Tales was more interesting BECAUSE we recognized all things mentioned...they were local things. Oh well, you're right...Maupin's older, I'm 60, so just his writing a new book brings on lots of old stories. THANKS for writing this.

2:37 PM  
Blogger southbeachbum said...

I read it cover to cover on Sunday (I've got a torn calf muscle, so was homebound). I thought it was nice in that I could relate to a lot of it. He does have a knack for making you want to read just one more chapter before you put it down. I think it's a must-read "for gay men of a certain age." I even sent my (straight) Dad a copy for his birthday. Not sure how that will go over. He's 75 years old.

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Ursula Smyth said...

Hi, I'm a BBC researcher and saw your blog linked with Armistead Maupin. Do you want to be part of a programme with the author? If so please email me with questions for Armistead about Tales of the City (only on this book) as he will be talking about this to an invited studio audience on 12th July. Hope you can take part. Best wishes, Urs

10:01 AM  
Blogger Ice John's World said...

Nice story, Mark. And hope to see your new post soon.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Trinity2 said...

I have been a big fan of Amistead's for years! I stumbled across "Tales of the City" while at (my conservative) college and felt I'd stumbled onto a gold mine. It was the first book that had gay characters I had ever read. Although, I share your distaste for Mary Ann and wanted to hear more of Michael.
I had no idea that he had written another book so I will check it out and check back to see how you liked it.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

First of all, I'm SO glad someone's writing about a character other than Harry Potter.

Secondly, jealous of your Brushes with Greatness. I chatted with him for about five minutes at an in-store maybe fifteen years ago, and I left charmed that he took so much time to chat with me.

I enjoyed Michael Tolliver Lives. I thought he did the characters justice. I was a bit sad when I finished the last page, realizing this probably is the last we'll hear of Michael and the rest of the gang.

Interested in reading your review once you've finished reading it.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Huntington said...

Mary Ann has always been something of a mystery to me: how Maupin really feels about her, how we're supposed to feel. She doesn't come off as a total villain in Sure Of You only because we get to hear her internal monologue as she makes the decisions that undeniably hurt those close to her, but which she believes will bring her happiness.

One interesting thing Maupin does in Michael Tolliver Lives is show how Michael feels about her, and we get one vignette about Brian's feelings after all these years. But because MTL is first-person, she's still ambiguous from the reader's point of view. Ambiguous, like real people tend to be.

Anyway, I heard he's doing another one, told from her perspective. Should be interesting.

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I doing a report on Tales Of The City for a grade and I'd really appreciate it if you'd have a discussion with me about this book. I've read half the series and would like someone to talk about it with. Anyone who commented is more than welcome to engage in discussion as well. Thank you very much.

6:16 PM  

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