Posts Tagged ‘28 Barbary Lane’

If you take a left on leaving the Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, you will soon find yourself tottering down Taylor Street, one of those hills that appear to drag you down to the bay before your time. Part way down the street on the left, between Green and Union on what is now part of Russian Hill, you will come across a wooden staircase, complete with handwritten sign, where a different form of worship takes place daily.


Those stairs lead to Macondray Lane, the acknowledged inspiration for Barbary Lane, where at number 28 resided landlady, Anna Madrigal and her “children” in the celebrated Tales of the City novels written by Armistead Maupin. There are few series of books and group of characters more beloved in all of modern literature. Inevitably, therefore, the residents are forced to share their idyll with a steady flow of pilgrims “doing the Tales tour”, taking photos of both the lane itself and the bay “peeping through the trees”, peering into windows and scouring the undergrowth for Mrs Madrigal’s famed “special” plants.  


Once at the top of the stairs you be walking on a series of cobbled footpaths through what feels like a wooded glade. The charming and diverse styles of houses share the space with profuse flower displays and other rich foliage. It is a magical place that perfectly captures the spirit engendered by Maupin’s books.



San Francisco boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the whole country. On the rare occasion that a property in Macondray Lane comes onto the market, the asking price is a mere fraction of that demanded in Pacific Heights (though, admittedly, the houses are much smaller).

But I know which I would rather live in.


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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?’

‘About what?’

‘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?’

‘It’s not.’

‘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.

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Having been back in the City for the past three days and nights, I am pleased to report that we are making great progress on the primary objective of this trip –  visiting locations we had, criminally, either  not patronised at all or given short shrift to on our previous eight trips.

The only part of Nob Hill we had explored previously had been the top floor restaurant of the Fairmont Hotel during an evening excursion on our very first (coach) trip 17 years ago. Whilst we contrived this time to try to access the Top of the Mark in the period between breakfast and lunch services, it gave us the opportunity to spend more time in the stunning Grace Cathedral, with its dazzling stained glass and murals.

A walking tour of the Civic Center took in a visit of awesome City Hall, which including access to Mayor’s office as well as the supervisors’ meeting chamber. The irony of a constant procession of (heterosexual) couples making their wedding vows within feet of the bust of Harvey Milk could hardly be lost on anyone aware of the ongoing debate about gay marriage in the country in this election year.

A return visit to flower bedecked Macondray Lane, likely inspiration for Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series of books, has been another highlight.

I don’t know whether it is the responsibility of the oh so lucky residents or the municipal authorities, but somebody really ought to repair that iconic wooden stairway before it rots away completely. That said, it did take my weight comfortably, so it may be more robust than it looks.

A few more random reflections on the trip so far:

1. As I start to write this on Opening Day, and look forward to Opening Night, when we will be part of the MLB experience for the first time, can there be another town that loves its sports teams more? Even major financial institutions fly Giants flags from their stratosphere stretching rooftops and vagrants -with little else to call their own in this world – besport team baseball caps or fleece jackets.

2. There may be no better place in the city to spend $5 than Hyde Street Pier with its collection of historic ships, notably the Glasgow built Baraclutha or the paddlesteamer ferry, Eureka, that once brought more than 2,000 commuters a day from Sausalito and Oakland?

3. We have, by using the J Church line from the Embarcadero to our apartment in Noe Valley, finally discovered the fabulous Muni Metro system – doh!

4. But we won’t desert the Muni buses or the crazy, clanking F Streetcar service, both of which provide the perfect stage for San Franciscans to play out their anxieties or set the world to rights.

5. Noe Valley is proving an excellent place to stay. It has the feel of a suburb but, because of the J Church Muni Metro, allows swift access into town. Both Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle, where we stayed in the past two years, much as we liked them, still felt as if they were “in town”.

6. The main thoroughfare in Noe Valley, 24th Street, provides an eclectic array of shops and restaurants, and it is interesting how the Mission at the eastern end morphs into Noe Valley as you travel west along the street. Tacquerias give way to smart cafes and trolleys to strollers –  a fascinating example of how San Francisco’s neighbourhoods coexist so fluidly.

7. On our first morning we walked into town via the Castro, the former Irish catholic neighbourhood that, since the sixties and seventies, has became the focal point for the gay community. As with other areas it boasts many beautifully renovated residences.

Enough for now – the Haight and the Giants beckon!

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