Thursday, June 2, 2016

Armistead Maupin & Me

When I think of Armistead Maupin, the first image that comes to mind is not San Francisco, nor is it a mustachioed charmer with mad storytelling skills.

No, when I think of Armistead Maupin, I think of a skinny young man in his early 20s on an L train in Chicago, devouring all of the Tales of the City books. That skinny young man, with his dark feathered hair and his own mustache was me. If you had seen him on one of those trains back in the day, you probably would have had a hard time making eye contact, because my head was bowed in both reverence and fascination, living in my head the fabulous, friendly, and dangerous lives of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.

Sure, the Tales of the City series of books was a triumph of pulp culture, a nostalgic and really innocent marker of times-gone-by. The books were entertaining, funny, and touching, because they were about people whom we could truly love living out far-fetched, often soap-operatic situations. We cared about Maryann, Mouse, and Mona because they were real...and we were hungry to see them thrive and find love in a confused and confusing world.

But I loved the Tales of the City books especially back in the early 1980s because to me they
represented a kind of utopia for a young man who was hiding so desperately in the closet. Those books were an escape hatch into a world populated by love and acceptance, things I thought were out of my reach as someone who was was different, as someone who deepest self was buried under equal heaps of shame and self-loathing.

That young man, engaged to be married and barely breathing through a mask he believed he could never remove, found salvation, hope, and redemption in the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane. He found a world where you could have friends, lovers, and acceptance not only despite being different, but also because of it.

It was a rare and wondrous thing and to the shy young man in that time, the books almost seemed like fantasy. But it was nice to live in that world for a while, to let loose of my fears and inhibitions and live vicariously through Maupin's characters, people I longed to know, but could never allow myself the freedom to do so.

Those books take me right back to that time, a time of bittersweet innocence, angst, and often uncomfortable growth. I didn't know it at the time, but they were lighting a future path for me, one that showed me that being different didn't mean I had to turn away from love. One that showed me I could not only accept myself for exactly who I was, but celebrate it.

So, maybe I'll roll a joint tonight, and open the very first book and start all over again. And I'll savor those who came before me and showed me the way...


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