Let’s talk about books and movies, shall we? Specifically, one series of books and a string of mini-series based on those books. In 1978, Armistead Maupin published “Tales of the City”, a collection of related stories he had written for the San Francisco Chronicle, a serial that had proven enormously popular, regionally. The stories center around a rooming house at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco, wherein resided a wildly-divergent group of people, some of whom happened to be gay.
As a young gayling in Oklahoma, I snatched that book up as soon as I could get my hands on it. I needed to know more about my people, even if those people only existed in the mind of another writer. (Of course, I had to do this snatching on the down-low, because it was Oklahoma, and showing the tiniest hint of interest in San Francisco (known by homophobes across the nation at that time as “the place where the fags live”) could get your ass kicked or killed. Not kidding, true story. And in some parts of Oklahoma, and Texas, and, well, any red state, it still can. Ignorance and bigotry leave deep stains that are hard to wash out.
Potential ass-kicking aside, I loved the book. It was a vision of freedom and acceptance that was hard for me to accept as a possibility, but at least I could dream about it. It’s not the greatest book, ever, but it is a fine one, indeed. Over the next decade or so, Armistead continued the story in five other books. (He eventually produced three more, but the original six are considered the core story.) In 1993, PBS released a mini-series based on the first book. Showtime then took over and released mini-series based on the second and third books, in 1998 and 2001. I’m only mentioning all of this to show that I have been deeply-invested in these characters since before I could legally drive, and that was many centuries ago.
Recently, Netflix dropped a new mini-series, a revisit to San Francisco wherein we pick up the story decades later in the (relative) present day. Partner and I were giddy with anticipation, so as preparation we marathoned all three of the original series. (And all three of them still hold up, despite the fact that the actors playing some of the characters fluctuated over time. Some of the story arcs are hokey and mildly absurd, but the baseline acceptance of messy people in all their glory still rings true. That’s very important to me. We all stumble. And the people who help you get back on your feet are the people you cling to, tightly.
All of the proceeding leads to the actual crux of this post. (Yes, I know, it takes me a while to get there.) Earlier this afternoon, Partner and I watched Episode 4 of the new series. There is one segment where a couple in the story (older guy, younger guy, it happens) attend a dinner party, with the attendees of said party being all older except for young lover. At one point, Young Lover objects to one of the olders who has just referred to transitioning people as “trannies”. Young Lover (and we as viewers) knows transitioning people, and he finds the label offensive.
In the interchange that follows, one of the olders (actor Stephen Spinella, in an amazing monologue) goes off on Young Lover, making it very clear that the youth of today have no idea what is was like “back then”, they have no conception of how hard people fought to give them the rights they now take for granted, and that someone who has never experienced true oppression and suffering has no right to tell someone else who has experienced such what they should or should not do or say.
Young Lover, by the way, is black. And gay. So of course he knows about oppression, how could he not in a country where the asshole at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stokes the fires of racism every day? Yes, Young Lover has his valid points. But so does the Old Queen, and I side with him. (Yes, I just used one of the labels we shouldn’t use. Because I lost loved ones to AIDS and I survived the open-carry bigots in Oklahoma and I marched and I fought and I did everything I could to ensure that one day a young gayling could buy a copy of Tales of the City and not have to worry about who saw him doing so.)
Shortly after this powerful scene, there’s a related one outside the dinner-party house, a dialogue between Younger Lover and Older. Younger asks Older why he didn’t defend him and why he never talks about his past. Older responds with some of the most precise lines I have ever heard about the dark madness of the AIDS epidemic. It’s beautiful and poetic and heart-wrenching.
Naturally, because my heart is so far out on my sleeve that it’s in a different zip code, I burst into tears while the flashbacks pummeled. (Cleo the Cat looked at me with concern, mostly worried about how all this might affect the status of her food bowl, but she did at least touch my leg with one of her paws, showing moderate support.) The right writer in the right situation can move mountains, and the mountains certainly moved for me.
We’ll wrap things up with a few questions.
Is it possible to appreciate what you have if you’ve never gone without?
Are the younger generations able to learn from the older, or do they have to experience life in order to reach any conclusions?
Have you done what you can to ensure that both the older and the younger get the chance to finally find their own 28 Barbary Lane?
Thanks for listening. I just couldn’t let this moment go without some degree of introspection. Tomorrow, we’re back to the funny.
Categories: My Life