As children, we develop strong affinities with certain characters from the books we read, sometimes because we can relate to their experiences, but more often because they fire our young imaginations. For me, it started, understandably, with Alice, Pooh and the Famous Five, but, in my teenage years, I graduated onto Hamlet, Pip, Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliff, Leopold Bloom, Huck Finn and many others.
But it was later in life, when I discovered the Tales of the City series of books by Armistead Maupin, that I met the most attractive and extraordinary character of them all – Anna Madrigal, the green fingered-transgender landlady of the “crumbling, ivy-entwined relic” called 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill in San Francisco. Her courage, warmth and humour (and taping of joints onto new tenants’ doors) have inspired and delighted in equal measure ever since.
The stakes were high, therefore, when I first saw the Channel 4 TV series. Could any actress possibly play this woman? I was surely destined to be disappointed.
I needn’t have worried. The glorious Olympia Dukakis, due to be awarded with her Hollywood Walk of Fame star as I write this, was born to play her.
With the ninth book of the series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, scheduled for release later this year, it seems a good time to ponder some of the most memorable statements from the great lady. Here goes:
Mrs Madrigal smiled. There was something a little careworn about her face, but she was really quite lovely, Mary Ann decided. ‘Do you have any objection to pets?’ asked the new tenant.
‘Dear……I have no objection to anything’.
‘Help yourself to a joint, dear, and don’t bother to pass it around. I loathe that soggy communal business. I mean, if you’re going to be degenerate, you might as well be a lady about it, don’t you think?’
Mine’s (her favourite year) 1987,’ said Mrs Madrigal. ‘I’ll be sixty-five or so….I can collect social security and stash away enough cash to buy a small Greek island.’ She twirled a lock of hair around her forefinger and smiled faintly. ‘Actually, I’d settle for a small Greek.’
He felt a surge of recklessness. ‘What would you say?’
‘The end. Your last words. If you could choose.’
The woman studied his face for a moment. Then she said: ‘ How about…”Oh, shit!”‘
‘Some people drink to forget,’ said Mrs Madrigal, basking in the sun of her courtyard. ‘Personally, I smoke to remember.’
‘How can Anna Madrigal be an anagram for Andy Ramsey?’
‘But you said….’
‘I said it was an anagram. I didn’t say what for.’
‘Then what is it?’
‘My dear boy,’ said the landlady, lighting a joint at last, ‘you are talking to a Woman of Mystery!’
‘Oh Mona, we’re all damned fools! Some of us just have more fun with it than others. Loosen up, dear! Don’t be so afraid to cry…or laugh, for that matter. Laugh all you want and cry all you want and whistle at pretty men in the street and to hell with anybody who thinks you’re a damned fool!’ She lifted the wineglass in a toast to the younger woman. ‘I love you dear. And that makes you free to do anything.’
‘I can’t trust you.’
‘Yes, you can. I was a weasel of a man, but I’m one helluva nice woman.’
‘Girl? gasped Mona.’ ‘You’re a woman!’
Mrs Madrigal shook her head. ‘You’re a woman, dear. I’m a girl. And proud of it.’
Mona smiled. ‘My own goddamn father…a sexist!
‘My darling daughter,’ said Mrs Madrigal, ‘transsexuals can never be sexists!’
‘Then…you’re a transsexist!’
The landlady leaned over and kissed Mona on the cheek. ‘Forgive me, won’t you? I’m terribly old-fashioned.’
She was sixty now, for heaven’s sake……Sixty. Up close, the number was not nearly so foreboding as it had once been afar. It had a kind of plump symmetry to it in fact, like a ripe Gouda or a comfy old hassock.
She chuckled at her own similes. Is that what she had come to? An old cheese? A piece of furniture?
She didn’t care, really. She was Anna Madrigal, a self-made woman, and there was no one else in the world exactly like her.
She tugged his earlobe affectionately. ‘I want what’s best for my children.’
A long pause, and then: ‘I didn’t know I was still part of the family.’
The landlady chuckled. ‘Listen, dear…when you get this old lady, you get her for life.’
The landlady knelt and plucked a weed from the garden. ‘ Sounds to me like you’re matchmaking. I thought that was my job around here.’
Mary Ann giggled. ‘If I find anybody good for him, I’ll make sure you approve first.’
‘You do that,’ said Mrs Madrigal.
Mrs Madrigal took it all in stride, but drew a deep breath when Mary Ann had finished.
‘Well, I must say….you’ve outdone yourself this time.’
Mary Ann ducked her eyes. ‘Do you think I was wrong?’
‘You know better than that.’
‘I don’t do absolutions, dear.’ She reached for Mary Ann’s hand and squeezed it. ‘But I’m glad you told me.’
‘Hey,’ he blurted, ‘you should grow your fingernails long.’
Now on her hands and knees, Mrs Madrigal looked up at him. ‘Why is that, dear?’
‘You know, like those housewives in Humboldt County. Works much better than tweezers, they say.’
She handled this clumsy inanity with her usual grace.
‘Ah yes, I see what you mean.’ Falling silent again, she searched until she found the tweezers, then stood up and brushed her hands on her skirt. ‘I tried that once….growing my nails long.’ She caught her breath and shook her head. ‘I wasn’t man enough for it.’
The last time we saw Anna was at the end of Mary Ann in Autumn – a frail old lady who cannot trust herself to pour a cup of coffee, a stroke survivor who puffs (admittedly “demurely”) on nothing more risqué than a vaporizer. But she still plays girlishly with her wayward hair and wears garish kimonos, and is able to dispense sage advice to her “family”.
I almost hesitate to open that next book when it arrives.