|The 40 In 40 Days Project.|
24. The “Tales of the City” House (1993)
The Au Pairs
|Ah, the Jet Set
Years. What fun they were…
For seven years (1989-1996), K worked
as an international product manager for a Finnish biotechnology company.
A major part of his role entailed creating and maintaining a global
distribution network for his company’s products. Naturally, this meant
a hefty amount of foreign travel. In fact, this meant a colossal
amount of foreign travel. We calculated that over the seven years, on
average, K was away from home for about one third of the time. Of
course, this put a huge strain on him, and on us. It was a difficult and
testing time, in many respects. However, it did give K the experience he
needed to set up his own company, and to make it a success. And there
were, of course, certain distinct benefits along the way.
Not least of those benefits – at
least from my point of view, stuck back in Nottingham while K gadded
about the globe – were the enormous number of Air Miles which K
clocked up, and which we eagerly converted to free flights and posh
hotel rooms. We would also tack our holidays onto the end of K’s
business trips – that way, the company would pay for his flight and we
could split the cost of my flight between us. As a result, we were
averaging around four foreign jaunts a year.
One of the best of these jaunts came in
Spring 1993. We started off in Banff, staying at the Banff Springs
Hotel, where K was attending a conference. This place struck me as the
real life equivalent of the hotel in The Shining - it was easy to
picture Jack Nicholson stalking the empty corridors during the off-peak
season. We then flew down to San Francisco, staying there for a week or
so, with a night away at Yosemite. Then on to Boston, and a brief stop
in Toronto before flying home.
So, there we were in San Francisco, on
a beautifully warm and sunny afternoon, looking for the real life
Barbary Lane (as featured in Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City
series). Our Rough Guide told us that Barbary Lane was based on a street
on Russian Hill called…well, I forget what it was called now, and in
any case, it could probably do without any more publicity. This was a
good year or so before the “Tales” TV series put the place firmly on
We find the street sign without too
much trouble. Look, those must be the famous wooden steps leading up to
the lane! We clamber up the steps and into the narrow, quiet lane, with
houses on either side. Wow – this looks just as we had always imagined
As we approach one house on the right
hand side, about halfway along, a smallish grey-haired lady is fussing
about with the wisteria growing up on its frontage. “Oh dear,” she
remarks to us as we draw level, “I just can’t seem to be able to tie
this back properly – it looks so untidy.” We fall into conversation
– the weather, where we’re from. She has a kindly, slightly scatty
manner and a lively twinkle in her eye.
After a while, she asks us a question.
“Would you like to come inside and see a dirty…”
She pauses. Comparing notes later, we
discover that we both had the same thought: is she going to say “dirty
“…a dirty old typical American
house? You’d be very welcome.”
Well, how could we refuse a visit
inside a house on Barbary Lane? Besides which, this sweet little old
lady does rather remind us of someone. So we step inside her house.
The house is larger than it looked from
the outside. It has an eccentric layout, with odd corners, passageways
and staircases here and there. It has a lovely, weathered, Bohemian
charm to it. LOL tells us that she rents various rooms out to people.
One of her lodgers, for instance, worked as a designer on Star Wars,
and she shows us some of the original props. In her basement, she has
set up a studio, where she does her paintings. There are quotes from
Rilke poems pinned up on the walls, which her husband has supplied for
inspiration. Upstairs, we stumble across a small enclosed outside area,
tucked away and invisible from the street, where she is growing potted
geraniums – apparently, it’s quite a sun trap. We climb up onto the
flat roof, which boasts a perfect view out over the bay – there’s
Alcatraz, there’s the Golden Gate bridge, there’s Sausalito over in
the distance. We come back down and meet some of LOL’s family, who
have come over for a visit – they are all bright, charming, welcoming
LOL asks us, with a vague tone in her
voice, whether we’ve ever read any of the books that have been written
about XYZ Lane. She hasn’t yet, but she really must get round to it.
She only moved in last year. Before her, a gay couple had lived here for
about 18 years. I’m calculating mentally – that would be 1974 to
1992, then. The first “Tales” book came out in 1976, and the final
book in 1992. That fits rather neatly, doesn’t it? LOL then points out
of the window, down the lane, towards a much smaller looking house with
a clapboard frontage. Apparently, an elderly lady lives there, who was
actually born a man – she had the operation many years ago. LOL has
heard that she features quite a lot in the books – is that right? Oh
yes, it most certainly is.
We eventually take our leave. But it’s a wrench. There’s something about this house which makes us feel like getting our things, bringing them over straight away, unpacking, and never leaving again. It’s that kind of house. And it’s just what we always thought Anna Madrigal’s house would look like. Our theory, for what it’s worth: Armistead Maupin took the Anna Madrigal character from down the lane, placed her in his friends’ house a few doors up, and spun his fiction from that starting point. We like this theory, as it would mean we had just – briefly – stepped out of reality and into one of our favourite works of fiction. And just how magical and wonderful is that?