“Tales of the City” Is Back, and Its Characters Can Actually Afford to Live in San Francisco

Netflix reboots Armistead Maupin’s saga of love, family, and housing.

Charlie Barnett and Murray Bartlett in "Tales of the City"Courtesy Netflix

Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s beloved saga of life in San Francisco, begins with a fantasy of affordable housing. As the serial opened in the San Francisco Chronicle in May 1976, Mary Ann Singleton, a naive yet plucky tourist from Cleveland, has just decided to extend her stay in the city indefinitely. On her first day scouring the rental listings, the unemployed 25-year-old scores a room at 28 Barbary Lane, “a ramshackle, two-story structure made of brown shingles” located along a secluded footpath in the tony old Russian Hill neighborhood. “She liked it instantly,” Maupin writes. Of course she did: Her fully furnished single (utilities included) is $170 a month, or about $770 adjusted for inflation.

The enigmatic, anagrammatically named landlady, Anna Madrigal, is just as funky and endearing as her home. New tenants are welcomed with a joint taped to their apartment door. When Mary Ann asks if she objects to pets, Anna replies, “Dear…I have no objection to anything.” As Mary Ann later puts it, Barbary Lane is “like something out of a fairy tale.”

Anna, Mary Ann, and the other original residents of 28 Barbary Lane—the gay everyman Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, the restless bohemian Mona Ramsey, and the sensitive lothario Brian Hawkins—would become the core characters of the Tales series as it unfolded over nine books, the final one published in 2014. Anna, a transgender woman whose name can be rearranged to spell “a man and a girl,” becomes the mother of this surrogate family. (We also learn that Mona is her biological daughter). As new friends, lovers, spouses, and children are written in and out of the plot, she remains the series’ wise and witty elder.

The books are satirical and soapy* time capsules of life in San Francisco, but they’ve won a wide following for their humanity. Tales’ openly gay, lesbian, and trans characters and its matter-of-fact attitude toward sexuality were groundbreaking. Maupin wrote about gay bathhouses and the straight pickup scene at the Marina Safeway with the same sardonic eye. (“Smiling in the face of perversity,” as Mona quips.) He was the first American novelist to write about AIDS, and Anna Madrigal was the first transgender protagonist in mainstream literature. Michael’s coming-out letter to his mother, published in 1977, remains a powerful tribute to the cool gay city of love. “I know this may be hard for you to believe,” he writes, “but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being.”

Yet Tales’ daydream of belonging amid reasonably priced comfort now feels more fantastic than ever. In 2018, the median rent for a single apartment in San Francisco was more than $3,600. In May, single-family house on Macondray Lane, the Russian Hill footpath that’s the inspiration for the fictional Barbary Lane, sold for $4.6 million. In the growing subgenre of lamentations about the sorry state of San Francisco, the overheated housing market is another symbol of how the city has lost its unpretentious, welcoming soul.

Which makes this an interesting time for Netflix’s 10-episode Tales of the City series, which drops on Friday. The first Tales book was adapted into an excellent British series that aired on PBS in 1994. (The Family Research Council called it a “slick piece of gay propaganda.”) Two less-excellent Showtime sequels followed in 1998 and 2001. Removed from the source material by two decades, these adaptations were fun nostalgia trips. The new revival, helmed by showrunner Lauren Morelli, is loosely based on the last three Tales books, published between 2007 and 2014. But it’s set in this moment, offering an almost real-time glimpse of where Maupin’s characters and their city are at.

Twenty-eight Barbary Lane—now a neat, three-story Victorianish building with external staircases and an impossible view—remains the series’ touchstone. Ninety-year-old Anna, reprised by Olympia Dukakis, is still there, dispensing joints and bon mots. (As Out puts it, “Yes, a cis actress is still playing a trans woman in the revival—but it’s Olympia Dukakis, so we’ll let it slide.”) Michael lives upstairs, popping antiretrovirals and looking pretty spry for someone whom the most recent Tales book describes as a chubby guy “several years past sixty.” (Yes, a fortysomething actor is playing a Boomer, but it’s Looking’s Murray Bartlett, so we’ll let it slide.) The rest of the tenants are Millennials, including Michael’s boyfriend Ben (Russian Doll’s Charlie Barnett) and Mary Ann and Bryan’s daughter Shawna (Ellen Page).

The new, more ethnically diverse generation of Barbarians shares its predecessors’ sense of reverence for a home they have no obvious means of affording. “Everything that made me me came from Barbary Lane,” says Shawna, who tends bar at a “queer feminist burlesque co-op.” “It’s more than just an apartment, obviously,” says Margot (May Hong), who lives with her boyfriend Jake (Garcia), a trans man who’s studying to be a nurse. “It’s where we grew into us,” Jake adds. Ani (Ashley Park), one of the stoner twins who live in the “pentshack” with a million-dollar view, wonders, “Where are we supposed to find a two-bedroom for under $1,200?” $1,200!? The rent isn’t too damn high, but these renters may be.

May Hong and Garcia in “Tales of the City”

Courtesy Netflix

The link between identity and place is central to the new series. Mary Ann, played again by Laura Linney, has just returned to San Francisco after two decades away. She’s divorced from Brian and estranged from Shawna. When Anna announces, mysteriously, that she plans to sell 28 Barbary Lane, Mary Ann and Shawna bond over their need to figure out why. Michael is more sanguine. “Anna gave us a beautiful place for a long time,” he says. “We all knew it had to end someday.”

In the books, it ended long ago. While recovering from a stroke in the early ’90s, Anna sells the house to a “Hong Kong investor.” It’s subsequently “severely remodeled” into a single-family home by some “chums of Governor Schwarzenegger” and by 2014, it’s been flipped to some “dot-commers [who] made it look like a five-star B and B.” Selling off Barbary Lane wasn’t just a smart financial move but a realistic literary choice. Maupin’s characters had outgrown their old digs as he let them mature. Anna moves into a flat in the Duboce Triangle. Michael buys a renovated earthquake shack in Noe Valley. Brian buys an RV. Mona dies in England. The upwardly mobile Mary Ann decamps to Connecticut and eventually returns to the Bay Area as a “liberal rich lady from Woodside taking Zumba lessons at the Zen Center.”

Michael daydreams of moving somewhere cheaper, but as he realizes in Michael Tolliver Lives, “Were we to leave for momentarily greener pastures, I know we’d harbor the fear of all San Franciscans who leave—that the real estate market, that cruelest of sentinels, would never let us back in.” Likewise, Maupin has no illusions about the unreal real estate that launched his characters’ arcs. As he writes in his recent memoir, Logical Family, “I cringe when real estate agents today describe any property with wooden back stairs and a bit of shrubbery as a ‘real Tales of the City charmer.’ There is nothing charming about those prices. And the people who might have lived in such a place once upon a time, myself included, could not even contemplate living there today.”

Netflix Anna’s reason for wanting to sell 28 Barbary Lane clearly has something to do with her past, not her pocketbook. The first four episodes screened by Netflix don’t reveal what that might be, but there are hints that it involves an untold chapter of her life (and possibly Molly Ringwald?). We see an old photo of Anna standing in front of Gene Compton’s, the site of a pre-Stonewall riot where trans women and drag queens protested harassment by San Francisco cops. The long-shuttered Tenderloin cafeteria is “the Rosa Parks bus of trans history,” says Claire (Zosia Mamet), who’s making “a documentary about queer community and its dissolution as a result of the strangling grip that capitalism has on San Francisco.” A teaser clip shows a flashback to the mid-’60s in which a young Anna, played by Jen Richards, arrives in the city and sees Barbary Lane for the first time. That backstory promises to tie together the series’ intergenerational storylines—and explain how Anna acquired the prime piece of real estate that made them possible.

Jen Richards in “Tales of the City”

Courtesy Netflix

How the series handles this history lesson will say a lot about how it sees the present. In general, Maupin doesn’t fetishize the past like many San Franciscans do. His characters have been through too much to pine for the good old days. In one of the new series’ rawest moments, Ben calls out a middle-aged gay man (Stephen Spinella) for using the word “tranny” at a dinner party, only to be given a blistering lecture about how the “dignity and visibility” enjoyed—and demanded—by queer Millennials was hard won by an earlier generation. Afterward, Michael tries explain to Ben how surviving AIDS has affected his relationship with the past: “Part of me doesn’t want you to know all that sad shit from my past…Honestly, I try not to think about it, all that. You know, all the friends I lost. People I loved. But more than that, the sense of freedom, of fun. The feeling that the future was ours, you know, because that’s what really got taken from us.” In the books, the ashes of Michael’s boyfriend Jon are buried in the garden at 28 Barbary Lane.

Anna is likely to get the last word on this four-decade epic of love, liberation, and loss. She’s already gotten the first word: The opening episode begins with an off-camera interviewer asking her how San Francisco has changed since the ’60s.

“Not much, actually,” Anna replies.

“Really? You don’t think the city’s changed dramatically?” the interviewer asks.

“Well, we’re still people. Aren’t we? I mean, flawed, narcissistic, and doin’ our best.” That nicely sums up Tales’ disarmingly inclusive philosophy. Yet it’s dodging the question: Even if San Franciscans haven’t changed, something here has shifted. That a sweet old stalwart like Anna Madrigal now sounds like a contrarian just proves the point.

My guess is that the new Tales series will conclude with the house being declared a historical landmark, thereby protecting it from the dot-commers and the doomsayers. Yet if Anna somehow does go through with the sale, she’s really going to cash in: The “For Sale” sign in 1966 lists the price at $13,500—the equivalent of a little over $100,000 today.

 

* A few twists from the first couple of books: Mary Ann sleeps with her boss’s son-in-law, who has an affair with his wife’s gynecologist, who becomes Michael’s lover. Anna has an affair with Mary Ann’s boss. Mary Ann befriends a man who turns out to be a child pornographer hired by Mona’s mother to investigate Anna. He falls off a cliff at Land’s End…but is he really dead? (The answer is revealed more than 30 years later.) There are also subplots involving the Jonestown massacre and a cannibal cult based in Grace Cathedral.

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