‘Tales of the City’ Turns 40: as the World Burns

40 years ago (in 1978), the first of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ installments appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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The ‘Tales’ would eventually be published as 9 novels, from the first ‘Tales of the City’ to 2014’s ‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’. Maupin, who came of age as a young gay man in San Francisco during the halcyon pre-Aids golden age of the 1970s, chronicled a changing city through vignettes surrounding a cast of memorable characters. These characters are archetypes of the San Francisco of-then, and according to Maupin, all bits and pieces of the author’s personality, a sort of dramatized autobiographical sketch. Maupin, hailing from a conservative North Carolina dynasty, found liberation in San Francisco. But alongside liberation, much quirkiness, whimsy, satire, and yes, darkness.

What is most remarkable about the ‘Tales’ series is the way it captures the essence of a vanished world. San Francisco at the turn of the 1980s, just before AIDS decimated gay life in the city and forever transformed the relationship of gay men to urban space. But also, before San Francisco’s first tech boom (which ramped up in the mid-late 1980s) and began the violent cycles of gentrification that continue today in ‘web 2.0’. San Francisco before the murder of Harvey Milk, Mayor Moscone and the mass-suicide of the ‘Jonestown’ cult, (which all happened in November 1978). San Francisco before the neoliberal and growth-friendly leadership embraced whole-heartedly the Manhattanization of downtown and oversaw the replacement of the South-of-Market district from a working-class, artist and LGBT enclave to the dot.com playground it is today. The San Francisco captured in ‘Tales’ is weird and rough around the edges, yet endearing.

In Maupin’s ‘Tales’, sexuality is non-binary and interwoven, with several characters (straight, gay, bisexual) enmeshed in various liaisons. In ‘Tales’, San Francisco is inexpensive and smart phones are non-existent. Dates happen at the roller skating rink or the bath house. There are no Apple Watches or Alexas.

The earnest young gay man, spreading his social (and sexual) wings for the first time, encapsulated in Michael Tolliver or ‘Mouse’. The naïve and white-bread Midwest newcomer, opening up to West coast libertinism and hedonism, in the form of the young woman, Mary Ann Singleton. The mysterious, elegant and avuncular Anna Madrigal, landlady with a secret (and a ready bowl of pre-rolled joints), ultimately one of the most memorable and perhaps earliest significant transgender characters in popular culture. The carefree and bohemian (and bisexual) Mona Ramsey, who takes Mary Ann under her wing.

And a supporting cast of San Francisco types: the WASPY socialite DeDe Halcyon (of Pacific Heights) and her scheming, bisexual husband Beauchamp Day. The lothario Brian Hawkins. The rough-as-tumbleweed Momma ‘Mucca (from Winnemucca), who runs a Nevada desert brothel but has complex ties to the urban characters.

This San Francisco is quaint and small-town, and yet, one can still find these stereotypes around the city, recycled for new generations. Despite the city’s changes, encroaching mono-culture and sanitized urban spaces, it retains a powerful gravitational pull for the adventurous, the queer, the questioning, the naïve, the young.

‘Tales’ was made into a successful TV miniseries in the early 1990s (starring Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal and Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton) and is now being again made into a series (with Linney attached to the project) updated for the millennial age, produced by Netflix.

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Characters ‘Mouse’, ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘Mona’ in the TV Series ‘Tales of the City’ (Channel 4 UK, PBS/ Showtime US)

If there is a critique of what ‘Tales’ captures / captured, it would be in the things absent. Maupin had a deep window into white, WASPY and gay San Francisco and dissects that personality spot-on, but there are few to no characters of color and San Francisco’s Asian and Latinx cultures are seen as supplementary appendages and not as the central motifs that they are (alongside Gay culture, WASPY old Pacific Heights, the Hillsborough set, etc.) But Maupin’s world did not extend to the city’s edges nor are ‘Tales’ meant to be a sociological analysis of class, race and ethnicity in the Bay Area. Rather, they are snapshots of a certain time, a certain place, and a certain magic in a city that at least historically has been a place of awakening, self-knowledge, and above all, love and freedom.

The geographic center of the series is ‘Barbary Lane’, the garden-filled mews high on a steep hill, often shrouded in fog, within ear-range of the ubiquitous fog horn, where Mary Ann Singleton, Anna Madrigal, and several other characters live. Barbary Lane was based on the real ‘Macondray Lane’, located in Russian Hill.

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Macondray Lane in Russian Hill, stand in for ‘Barbary Lane’ in ‘Tales of the City’

This collection of characters living together on such a picturesque mews is, too, a relic of history: it is highly unlikely today that such a quirky assemblage of bohemians would be able to afford Russian Hill, let alone anywhere in the city. Mary Ann Singleton after all came to San Francisco from Cleveland without a job! (But quickly found one, thanks to the kind patriarch and advertising executive Edgar Halcyon, father of DeDe Halcyon, but then, I digress into spoilers..).

So, looking back 40 years, and with ‘Tales’ about to be re-released by Netflix, I have mused on what a ‘new’ episode might be like, given today’s San Francisco. I will close with a bit of mock dialogue-cum-fan fiction, of what a synopsis of the episode ‘November Smoke’ might contain.

II. Fictional Episode of ‘Tales of the City’: 40 Years on – ‘November Smoke'” (Courtesy of Jason Luger). wildfires.jpg

Scene: November 11, 2018. The air in San Francisco is thick with smoke and ash particles from record breaking wildfires hundreds of miles away.

Mary Ann Singleton, from Cleveland, arrives in the city with hopes and dreams and some training with Microsoft Office Suite. She is ‘ok’ with Excel, in her words.

Mary Ann has heard about an apartment open house in Russian Hill. The apartment is 400 square feet with a shared bathroom with two other units, but it looks cute in the photos. Mary Ann saw that the price said “$4,500 per month” but assumed it was a mistake – surely it was $450 a month, still more than such a unit would cost back home in Cleveland. She walks up a steep hill and almost doubles-over in a coughing fit – the air is hard to breathe. The smoke is so thick that Mary Ann doesn’t notice the Coit Tower, which would be visible straight ahead on a clear-air day. Mary Ann stops half-way up the hill to take a rest, and notices a woman sitting on the curb to her right. The woman does not appear to be wearing pants, and is furiously scratching herself, and Mary Ann notices there are open sores covering the woman’s legs. ‘My goodness’, Mary Ann catches herself saying aloud.

Upon arriving at the address she has written down on a piece of paper in her pocket, Mary Ann knocks on the door of the apartment, and a friendly man opens it. Mary Ann sees that there are 20 people already inside, taking pictures. All white (like her), but much younger – they seem to be in their early 20s (Mary Ann is almost 30). Mary Ann sees several of the others hand packages to the man (who must be the landlord) – credit histories? Bank statements? Employment references? Mary Ann has none of those things. Dejected, she leaves.

Luckily, Mary Ann has a friend she can stay with – a gay man named Michael. Mary Ann meets up with him, and they head to lunch in a trendy neighborhood (having looked at the menu, Mary Ann isn’t sure how she’ll pay for her meal – but hey, she has just arrived, should treat herself). Michael seems distracted, though. He keeps checking his watch (one of those fancy Apple-watches, Mary Ann notices), and barely makes eye contact with her.

“Let me show you this guy who wants to meet up with me”, Michael says, and shows Mary Ann a photo on his phone of what appears to be a man’s torso – no head. “You can’t see his face?” asks Mary Ann. “Face? Lol.” says Michael, “I can see his 6% bodyfat and I’m interested”. Mary Ann doesn’t know what “bodyfat” is, but doesn’t want to ask since that might make her seem unsophisticated.

After brunch, the two stop at a Cannabis store and buy some chocolate snacks. Mary Ann eats one, and says goodbye to Michael, and goes for a walk to Golden Gate Park. She starts to feel strange: is this what pot makes you feel like, Mary Ann thinks? Time seems – slower, but also faster; the grass seems a bit greener. She falls asleep on the grass, under a Monterey Pine. When Mary Ann wakes up, she is freezing: the fog has come in, blowing away the smoke. She forgot a jacket.

**

A few days later, Mary Ann finds an apartment. Well, not so much an apartment, as a room in an older woman’s apartment. But it is affordable, and she’s told, in a good location. Meanwhile, Mary Ann has found work as a caterer (on the weekends), and a waitress at a Peruvian restaurant downtown. She has not had any replies yet from office jobs.

The woman’s name is Anna Madrigal, and she is kind, if a bit mysterious. She and Mary Ann find themselves sitting in Anna’s living room, which Mary Ann now shares. Anna seems upset.

“What’s wrong?” Mary Ann asks.

“Well -” Anna Madrigal begins, “it’s just that the President – Trump – he’s going after transgender rights again. He is trying to get the Justice Department to basically nullify the definition of transgender as a third sex and thus force us into binary understandings of gender.”

Mary Ann is confused, but listens. Later, she Googles “transgender”.

**

DeDe Halcyon, eldest daughter of business titan Edgar Halcyon, is packing up her last boxes. She and her husband Beauchamp are moving. Having lived in Pacific Heights for decades, they finally decided that she and Beauchamp should make a new start in Nashville, Tennessee (and Beauchamp is from the South, anyway). It will be nice to be closer to family and oh, the things they could do by saving $10,000 a month on rent.

On the way out of the city, crossing the Bay Bridge in their Subaru, DeDe takes a look back at the smoke-filled sky; the new Salesforce Tower standing watch like a sentinel. In Oakland, DeDe notices a tent city under the elevated freeway – she had not seen this before. And further along, a row of what look like tiny dog-houses. She wonders: are people living there, or animals? This is her last thought as the Subaru leaves the urban sprawl and heads East, toward the Sierra Nevada (now engulfed in flames); toward Nevada; toward Nashville.

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*

 

 

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Internment’s rural racializations: an interview with Rita Brogan, co-curator of ‘Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island’

“People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.” — Rita Brogan

Suitcases from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

White luggage tags mark a pair of battered, tan hard-cased suitcases. These tags indicate the suitcases’ owner, Tsuma Yoshima. But they also mark something more pernicious: internment, the forced government removal of Japanese-Americans from their homes. “So this was Executive order 9066,” Rita Brogan tells me speaking of these suitcases. “People were given two days’ notice and were allowed two suitcases,” she continues “so that’s why we have these suitcases here.” During World War II, President Roosevelt signed the executive order, forcing Japanese-Americans out of their homes and onto internment camps, and decimating once-thriving communities up and down the West Coast.  “Every family got a number matching the tag on the suitcase and a tag that topin on your clothes so they would know what belonged to what,” Brogan continues. She tells me of a Japanese-American student at Vashon High School who was “the valedictorian in 1942,” but “evacuated 13 days before graduation so he was, of course, never able to give his valedictory speech.” She also describes how “people wore many layers of clothing because they were only allowed what they wore plus two suitcases. It was really hot.”

Rita Brogan is a Japanese-American business owner and longtime Vashon resident, who has been a long-time activist in and around Asian-American affairs and civil rights in the Pacific Northwest and nationally. Brogan recently co-curated Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island, an exhibit at the Vashon Heritage Museum, which runs through Spring 2019.

Rita Brogan in front of the entrance to the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Vashon is an island the size of Manhattan with a population of 12,000, and is about two miles and a 20 minute ferry ride from Seattle. In 2015, the island was declared the “most liberal place in America” (many contested this declaration). The rural island is arts-rich, queer-friendly, and in 2017 was described by a Los Angeles Times writer as “one of the region’s experimental laboratories, a place where new strains of environmentalism and progressivism flourish, unencumbered by mainland reality. It presents an increasingly rare constituency: rural but not red.”

A 20th century map of Vashon Island from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

In Seattle, internment wiped out Japanese-American businesses at the famed Pike Place Market, which by the early 1940s, represented 80% of the market’s business. Although internment often conjures an idea of Japanese-Americans removed from West Coast urban centers, Joy and Heartache reveals the rural dimension of the devastating and dehumanizing forced removal of U.S. citizens. It brings to life stories of chickens and strawberries on Mukai farm, of Vashon Japanese-Americans planting cherry trees and curating dances and other cultural programs, and of anti-Japanese violence by white residents. I interviewed Rita Brogan who co-curated the exhibit, to learn more about the central role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon, and to think through the impact of internment, and racialized spatialization, in a rural area.

“Mama-san in the Strawberry Field” (2018), metal sculpture by Miya Sukune at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

JASMINE MAHMOUD: How did you get involved with curating Joy and Heartache? What were some ideas and themes that you wanted the exhibit to communicate?

RITA BROGAN: I got involved because I have many decades of activism around Asian-American issues, Japanese-American issues and Asian-American studies and I had already been doing some pro-bono work with the Mukai Farm [& Garden] on Vashon Island on branding and outreach. The Mukai Farm is on the National Registry of Historic Places and has been called the best existing example of a Japanese-American farmstead in the United States, and it was an important community center. Through this, my interest grew in the larger historic role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon. I wanted to find out more about why Japanese-Americans played such an important role in the economic and social history of Vashon Island but also what happened to them. I got involved because there was a group that wanted to do an exhibit of Japanese-American history on Vashon, but they really felt the need to engage people of Japanese-American ancestry in creating the exhibit.

MAHMOUD: What’s the importance of having this exhibit on Vashon and what does the Japanese-American presence and then displacement mean for the history of Vashon and the Puget Sound area?

BROGAN: We wanted to cover the entire history of Japanese presence on Vashon Island. That presence changed significantly with the disruption caused by internment during World War II. The first Japanese settlers were mostly young Japanese males who were trying to find economic opportunity in America. That period of time at the beginning of the twentieth century and the latter part of the nineteenth century was a period of major economic upheaval in Japan. Many Japanese young men became intrigued by the idea of creating a new life in a new world, but also were being recruited as labor for various projects in America.  

We organized the exhibit around five stages of the Japanese socio-cultural evolution in America, which we called: Hope, Struggle, Trauma, Resilience and Identities. That first phase, when the young men first came to Vashon Island, we called Hope.  They and the picture brides they subsequently brought over, all had great hope for life in the new world. What occurred on Vashon, as was true in other communities as well, but particularly true on Vashon was that the Japanese-Americans community—despite major discriminatory laws such as the Alien Land Law, anti-immigration harassment and anti-immigration laws—began to make a life for themselves. They were very successful in farming. Their families placed a great deal of emphasis on education and on community, both involvement in the Japanese-American community but also involvement in the larger community. By the time that World War II came around, there was a really significant Japanese-American presence in Vashon Island society and Japanese-Americans in many ways dominated the agricultural economy. Of course, that changed overnight.

Image from ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

People were given two-days’ notice that they were going to be evacuated from Vashon to a place unknown. Besides the clothes on their backs, they were allowed two suitcases a piece. Unlike other Japanese Americans, Vashon evacuees were moved around frequently during the period of internment.  Some Vashon Japanese-American families moved up to five times. Vashon’s Japanese-American community was pulled apart in the process, moved to different locations throughout the United States. Only a third returned to Vashon after the war.

Luggage tags at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Even though many wanted to come back to farming, their farms had been neglected for four years and only a few could be restored. Also the agricultural economy throughout the nation changed because the interstate system which made it much easier to get produce from California. So even the those who were trying to make it in agriculture were ultimately not successful.

Image of an internment camp from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

MAHMOUD: Why is it important for people who often think about Internment only affecting Japanese-Americans in cities to also think about Japanese-Americans on Vashon and on rural areas?

BROGAN: It’s important to understand that everyone who lived on the West Coast was affected and what the disruptive impact of internment in rural areas was, I wouldn’t say that the rural experience was worse than the disruption for urban Japanese, but it did have a more significant impact for the island economy. It was bad for everyone, but sometimes people just don’t think about rural people.

Map of internment camps. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD: The exhibit had so much great photography, art, and poetry. How you did you think about those artistic aspects? What did this art communicate in the exhibit?

BROGAN: Photographs were particularly telling. For example if you look at the picture of an elementary school class in 1939 there were more Japanese-American students than whites. When you look at the class picture 10 or so years later there are no Japanese students.  This is a poignant example of how the evacuation changed the world for Japanese Americans on Vashon. We also included some of the anti-Japanese cartoons of the period, created by people like Dr. Seuss; a lot of people don’t realize how anti-Japanese he was. I think that the historic photographs certainly help bring the stories alive.

We also had a terrific opportunity to involve visual and spoken art. We asked Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma to create a poem on the exhibit and so he organized his poem around the themes: “Hope,” “Struggle,” “Trauma,” “Resilience,” and “Identities.” [See this video for Pruiksma reading from his poem “Here” written for the exhibit.] His poetry brought so alive the issues that Japanese-Americans were dealing with, both culturally and politically. We also got a grant from King County’s 4Culture, and Miya Sukune, one of the Japanese-American artists on Vashon, was able to use that to develop six metal panels that depict the lives of the Matsuda family on Vashon Island such as having bon odori dances at the Tule Lake internment camp. There arts played a really meaningful role in communicating and message and making a visceral impact.

Image of a Miye Sukune’s metal sculpture “The Dust Storm (Mary and Ardith)” at the “Joy and Heartache” exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD:  What is the most interesting thing you learned from the process of curating this exhibit?

BROGAN: I would say that I had not really known or even thought about how the internment fundamentally changed both Japanese Americans who were evacuated, but also how it fundamentally impacted the entire Vashon community. Going through the sources really gave me a much more in-the-moment appreciation for the experience.

MAHMOUD: I’m curious what this history that you’ve excavated means for present day Vashon.

BROGAN: This has been the most popular exhibit that’s ever been shown at the Vashon Heritage Museum. It’s gotten a lot of attention on Vashon as well as off-island. There are a lot of people in the larger Japanese-American community who have come to Vashon to see the exhibit. It’s gotten great media attention as well.

This means many things. One is an appreciation for the historic experience of Japanese-Americans on Vashon Island, but a very current message about the continued discrimination against immigrants and people of color in this country.

MAHMOUD: Do you have any other thoughts to add, Rita, or any other closing thoughts?

BROGAN: Well we didn’t really talk about the stages that much: “Hope;” then the “Struggle” phase went through the hardships that people had to endured in order to make their way in America. “Trauma” refers to the evacuation and internment. “Resilience” refers to the period right after World War II where Japanese-Americans tried to reintegrate into society and in doing so tried to become more American than American and more white than white. Many tried so hard to prove that they were not only equal to but that they had to be better than white Americans. And a lots of that thinking changed during the 1960s and 1970s, with the cultural disruption of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Third World Movement, where so many younger Asian-Americans were saying “no we need to be proud of who we are.” So that’s why the last stage is called “Identities.”

An excerpt from the program translated in both Japanese and English. In September, Brogan hosted a homestay with the Japan-American Society Grassroots Summit, a U.S.-Japan exchange that brought dozens of Japanese citizens to Vashon and the Pacific Northwest. With the exchange, many Japanese visiting the Pacific Northwest toured the exhibit which was translated from English to Japanese.

The Japanese-American community today on Vashon is very different from the Japanese community before World War II. The Japanese-American population on Vashon today includes few of the original farming families.  Today the community includes people who have moved to Vashon because of the schools; it’s made up of war brides, retirees, commuters– folks who haven’t had the same experience as Vashon’s Japanese-Americans prior to World War II. And yet we continue to face and combat discrimination and racism. For the “Identities” section of the exhibit, we tried to debunk the idea that the Asian-Americans are “model minorities.” We document continued discrimination, but also celebrate the fact that there are some really wonderful ways in which our culture is being embraced by younger generations.

People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.