Posts Tagged ‘Tales of the City’

My wife observed the other day that she hadn’t seen me reading my Kindle lately. I’ll confess that I hadn’t realised this was the case, especially as I had been steadily adding books to it over recent weeks.

But she was right – I hadn’t sat down and read anything for any appreciable length of time since Christmas.

And that set me thinking.

What was the point, after years of agonising over the propriety of buying one in the first place, of not taking advantage of the opportunity it gave to read more widely and often? All I was doing was filling yet another bookcase – albeit a digital one – with more books I was unlikely to read (although I already owned some of them in print form).

And then I remembered that one of the prime motives for finally succumbing to the evil lure of the e-reader at all was to enable me to take all the books I “needed” on vacation without compromising my luggage allowance.

I had already been struggling with the dilemma of which guide to San Francisco I would take on our upcoming trip to the area, as well as which book I would take for leisure reading (not that I ever get beyond the first couple of chapters when I’m away, especially since now I devoted most “downtime” to my blog and other social networking).

So how might I resurrect the ailing appliance?

Well, it wasn’t much to look at for a start. The austere black cover I had bought for it, while practical and inexpensive, made it blend into the background in the office (a.k.a. the front bedroom). I’d effectively forgotten about it, except when I was browsing on Amazon.

I needed, therefore, to make it look as appealing as so many of the books I would be obliged to leave at home.

The dilemma was solved, however, by the simple addition of the last Grateful Dead sticker I had bought on Haight Street last June – cool, distinctive, colourful and exactly the right fit.


Immediately, I wanted to delve inside and re-acquaint myself with my recent purchases.

A case of definitely judging an e-book by its cover.

Yes, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the novels of Thomas Hardy were there as they should be. But, more importantly, the 2014 edition of San Francisco Not for Tourists and Gary Kamiya’s wonderful Cool Grey City of Love, and not forgetting Armistead Maupin’s latest and last Tales of the City novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal, were there waiting for me too.

So I am actually “good to go” (note how I am already slipping into the Californian vernacular) after all, although I hadn’t realised it.

An added bonus is that I had also loaded a couple of books that my wife might wish to read in the unlikely event that she should finish the supersized novel that she had already elected to weigh her hand luggage down with on the flight.


So I’m now back into the groove of turning to my Grateful Dead infused e-reader when I have only a few minutes to spare – preparing the evening meal, sitting on a bus and even – no I won’t mention it – conducting business in the smallest room in the house (much more manageable than the Sunday Express my father used to disappear there with).

And with declining eyesight, how great to be able to increase the font size of what I am reading!

Now, where did I put the charger?

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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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How would you feel if you walked into a restaurant this evening and were immediately greeted by the head waiter admonishing you in a broken English Chinese accent to “sit down and shut up”, then ignoring you completely or, if you were lucky, hurling the menu at you?  Oh, and don’t make the mistake of requesting an English translation of that menu if you want to avoid a further volley of vitriol. And if you are a woman, or have women in your party, keep a close eye on that waiter because he is prone to grope female customers (the only time he is likely to crack into a smile).

So how would you react?  Walk out?  Ask to speak to the manager?  Post an adverse review on TripAdvisor?  Sue the restaurant?  Punch the waiter’s lights out?

Well, that is likely to have been your experience had you visited the Sam Wo restaurant on Washington Street, between Grant Avenue and Waverly Place, in Chinatown during the decades following the second world war.  And it is equally likely that you may have chosen to dine there in the express hope that you would be on the receiving end of such appalling service.  Indeed, being insulted at Sam Wo became as much a “must do” San Francisco experience as drinking Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café or driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Your tormentor would have been Edsel Ford Fong, the “world’s rudest waiter”, who, in the words of Stephen Jay Hansen in his excellent The Other Guide to San Francisco – or 105 Things to Do After You’ve Taken a Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf, “baits and berates male customers and shamelessly hustles every woman who enters his domain.  He’ll throw you a load of chopsticks with a brusque “Dry!” or spirit away your date to help him wait on tables.  He’s a refreshingly irreverent wit and an absolutely crazed madman”.

It’s No. 58 by the way (of the things to do that is, not a dish on the menu).

Fong, who was born in Chinatown on 6th May 1927, was an imposing figure measuring six foot and weighing 200 pounds, sporting a severe crew cut hairstyle and wearing both a long apron and permanent scowl.  He exploited his reputation brazenly, criticising customers’ menu choices, getting orders wrong (deliberately?), slamming food on the table and spilling it over the customers, refusing to provide knives and forks as alternatives to chopsticks, removing plates before the customer had finished eating, and reacting angrily to tips that didn’t exceed 15% (surely such an entertainer has a right to expect more?!). Unsuspecting white tourists were particularly fair game for his most patronising and scurrilous comments.

Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was a regular patron of Sam Wo and an amused advocate of Fong, repeating Edsel’s finest insults from the night before in the next morning’s edition of the newspaper.  Fong would respond by proudly waving it at anyone in the restaurant who was interested or wan’t, it was all the same to him.

He died in April 1984 but his legacy lives on in many ways, not least in the occasionally churlish service still prevalent at Sam Wo today, though it lacks the panache brought to it by Fong.  A series of club-level Asian food stands at AT& T Park are named after him, and his status in the community has been visually commemorated in his inclusion in the 200 foot long, 7 foot tall “Gold Mountain” mural depicting Chinese contributions to US history, painted on the side of an apartment building in Romolo Place near the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach.

Fong also appears in  Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and was played by Arsenio “Sonny Trinidad” in the ensuing miniseries.

I’ll finish with an excerpt from the book where our heroine, naive Mary Ann Singleton still fresh out of Cleveland, and taken to Sam Wo’s by bumbling private investigator, Norman Neal Williams, bears the brunt of Fong’s ire:

“Hey, lady! Go wash yo’ hands!’

Thunderstruck, she turned to see where the voice had come from. An indignant Chinese waiter was unloading plates of noodles from the dumbwaiter. She stopped in her tracks, stared at her accuser, then looked back towards the rest room.

The sink was outside the door. In the dining room.

A dozen diners were watching her, smirking at her discomfort. The waiter stood his ground. ‘Wash, lady. You don’t wash, you don’t eat!’

She washed, returning red-faced to the table. Norman grinned sheepishly. ‘I should have warned you’.

‘You knew he would do that?’

He specializes in being rude. It’s a joke. War lord-turned-waiter. People come here for it.’

‘Well, I didn’t’”.

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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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