I'm reading
The gleaming world
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The gleaming world
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The gleaming world
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
23 February 2018

The gleaming world

“Carson McCullers wrote, ‘We are most homesick for places we have never known’.”

Written by Simmone Howell

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

 Secluded one-bedroom apartment on Russian Hill. Apply 28 Barbary Lane. You’ll know if it’s right for you.” —Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin

28 Barbary Lane would have been right for me. I knew as soon as I saw Mary-Ann Singleton climb the wooden stairs, and open the lych-gate to the dreamy three—tiered ‘painted lady’. When Mrs Madrigal summed her new tenant up via Tennyson (“You have that look about you. You can’t wait to bite into the lotus’”) I searched out the poem (The Lotus Eaters) and copied the lush lines into my writing book:

and the clouds are lightly curld

Round their golden houses,

girdled with the gleaming world

In my post-high-school existence, the gleaming world was to be found in TV and books. I liked to read about dreamers and drop outs in unconventional living arrangements, like the characters in Michael Hornburg’s Bongwater and Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. But it’s Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City that most readily whirlpools me back to that time of freedom and possibility.

In 1992, the first three Tales books were adapted for TV—and this is how I came to them. I loved the freewheeling utopia of 1970s San Francisco, the gleeful gayness; I loved Mona’s hair, Mouse’s Y-fronts, Mrs Madrigal’s caftans, and Connie Bradshaw’s catchphrase (‘FanTABulous!’) The opening credits ran with Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo segueing into something jazzy and beguiling. Settle in, the music seemed to say, meet these interesting people, wish they were your friends : Mary-Ann, the naive transplant from Ohio; Mona, the kooky copywriter; Michael ‘Mouse’, Mary-Ann’s endearing psychopomp, who would ease her journey into the brave new world.

I dreamed about Barbary Lane. I wanted mess and epiphanies. In the cafes up and down Brunswick Street, people posted share-house ads, and this, too, was the gleaming: lesbians and activists and smokers in double-story terraces with veggie patches and cats named Dante. In the suburbs, everything happened behind closed doors; but in the city, it was like the doors had been blown off their hinges. Everything was OUT. Trouble and wonder pressed together.

I read the Tales of the City books in order, as fast as I could find them, in the bedroom of my first share-house (blue walls, red curtains), and in between stamping punter’s hands on quiet nights at the pub. Fitzroy was a little village and I romped within the triangle of Princes, Wellington and Gertrude streets. I fell in love with pub people. They were older and funnier than my high school friends. I didn’t know their histories. I’d never had to suffer small-talk with their parents. At first I tried to mix my old and new friends, but there was a tension—I was a different me depending on my company. It was the same for Mary-Ann Singleton. She was not the same girl she’d been in Ohio. Like Mary-Ann, I longed to belong. I was working on my look (flannel shirts, Poppy lipstick), working on my thing (poetry! CAE courses!) and, for the first time in my life, I was becoming conscious of how sheltered my upbringing had been.

The gleaming world was people from all over, a stew of strangers, who would teach me things, who would forgive my ignorance and become my friends.

In Tales, Mary-Ann and Mona first meet by the garbage cans. Mona ‘reads’ Mary-Ann’s trash. Mary-Ann’s eaten the avocado but saved the pit to plant on her windowsill, balancing her sophisticated tastes with her practical nature. My housemates had curious habits too. Dylan poached eggs using only a saucepan and water (the trick was to get the water raging hot). Matt saved dollars by using toilet paper as a coffee filter. Kate cooked Asian vegetables that looked like surrealist dream food. In my second share-house my flatmate was cultivating weed in the atrium, but there was no direct sunlight and her crops failed to thrive. In my third share-house the departing hippies had chalked a message on the back of the toilet door: Lolamai—Everything is Beautiful. They’d also left sanitary pads in the compost.

When I think of this house, it’s always raining. I remember pallet furniture, Bonsoy cartons, Tom Wait’s The Early Years on high rotation. I remember being single and depressed and cold. (I was okay with the outside loo, but this place had an outside bathroom as well.) It seemed there was no escaping Mona’s Law: “You can have a hot apartment, a hot lover, and a hot job, but you can’t have all three at the same time.” I didn’t even have one. A cranky fug came over me. One flatmate moved out, and another one moved in. Eventually, I was asked to leave. I was so aggrieved I upturned their lucky horseshoe on the way out. (I feel bad about it now.)

Some years before writing Tales of the City, Maupin lived in a red shed on a rooftop high above San Francisco with views of Coit Tower and Alcatraz and all the up-down streets in between. He wrote the ‘pent-shack’ into the novels, but 28 Barbary Lane, Mrs Madrigal’s exotic apartment building was only ever imagined. Maupin had wanted to invent a literary fictional address, a mystery, a place readers would seek out. And they did, and still do. Today there are tours and Flickr sites devoted to the ‘Tales’ world. Maupin himself added a google map to his website featuring locations and landmarks. I am not the first to stand, woozy and thrilled, at the base of the stairs on Macrondray Lane—where the exterior of the apartment house was filmed—and I won’t be the last.

Carson McCullers wrote, “We are most homesick for places we have never known.” Most of my spiritual homes are fictional. At last count, I have lived in thirteen houses. I like to think I’m good at moving, but I feel anxious when I think of mail still arriving for me at places I’ll never return to. It’s like my old selves bobbing up.

In the last decade Maupin has written three more Tales books. They are more self-contained but still connected: (Michael Tolliver Lives, Mary-Ann in Autumn and The Days of Anna Madrigal) the last is intended to be the final book in the series. But as the now ex-landlady says, “There will be no tidying up, dear.” Binge re-reading Tales of the City, I find the books still move me. Maupin’s form is brisk and funny, but there are gaps. I realise, how much of myself I must have worked into the white space between the text, on the first go around, the way that you do as a reader—especially when you’re young—when you carry a book and a book carries you.

Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell is a Melbourne writer. Her YA novels Notes from the Teenage Underground, Everything Beautiful and Girl Defective have been published around the world. Her non-fiction is mainly about houses, pop culture, maps and memory. She is currently undertaking  a PhD in creative writing, researching teenage memoir and dream-lives.

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