Postcard from Highway One #49: Tales of the City

24 January 2006

In Exploring Atlantis, I skipped quickly over my surprise stumble across Grace Cathedral while taking the Powell-Hyde Cable Car down to Fisherman’s Wharf, with the excuse that Tales Explorations deserved a postcard of their own; Well, here it is!

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, for those who don’t know it, is a rollicking romp through the San Francisco of the late seventies and eighties, following the lives of a handful of people as they interact in the city, most of whom live on the romantic Russian Hill, but also including some of the city’s social elite from further afield. In case you hadn’t yet worked it out, I’m passionate about Maupin’s work having read the novels at least ten times and watched the mini-series’ of each of the first three novels almost as often.

I had planned to visit a couple of Tales haunts, but as you can imagine, my accidental stumble across Grace Cathedral was a delicious discovery.

After my wanderings around the wharf, I took the Powell-Mason line back towards Market, disembarking at California where I lazily waited to transfer to the California Cable Car rather than walking the few blocks to Grace: It was uphill! San Francisco uphill!

The cathedral itself was not at all what I expected; A very severe, forbidding building in concrete. So much so that in spite of my intense desire to enter and look for a stray human foot or arm floating around aka the “cannibal cult” from More Tales of the City, I resisted.

This whole area was a veritable treasure trove of More Tales references; The Mason’s building opposite, its inhabitants described as a cult of sorts; the Pacific Union Club just across Huntington Park in a building which was originally the home of the Flood family and hence “on the mountain of the flood”; The cable car crossing where I’d changed cars itself mentioned in the chant, “at the meeting of the lines.”

Having explored the immediate area around the cathedral, my next stop was the holy grail itself, the Barbary Steps. Since Barbary Lane is fictitious, the steps which feature in the television productions were inevitably “borrowed”. It’s a little lane by the name of Macondray which lends itself to this particular dramatic role.

Since Macondray Lane terminates at Taylor, though much further along than Grace Cathedral, I followed it north from Nob to Russian Hill. As I crossed Broadway, I was quite stunned by the extreme slope of the street; It’s so steep that parking is only permitted at ninety degrees to the slope to avoid runaways and steps are cut into the pedestrian pathways. The images below attest well to this extremity.

Beyond Broadway, I inched my way up Taylor toward the summit of Russian Hill. I had no option but to take it very slowly since the incline made it impossible to walk normally and every step was taken with care. At the top of the hill, I paused for a while in Ina Coolbrith Park and took in the stunning views before embarking on an equally treacherous downhill journey since the Macondray steps were still a block and a half away.

I think my awe at actually visiting the steps is best described by the twenty-odd images I snapped of them, including a couple where I held the camera above my head attempting to get a pic of my own ugly mug in the same frame as the exalted steps. Unfortunately because of my concentration on both taking the photo and including myself and the steps in frame, all of these images had one thing in common: The expression on my face suggested I was performing a particularly difficult bowel movement! Enough said.

By this point and after all that climbing and descending of hills and on top of all that wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf, I was stuffed, so I called it a day. However talking with my expatriate San Franciscan/Brazillian friend Lee online shortly thereafter, he presented me with an absolute treasure: The URL to a self guided Tales walking tour of Russian and Telegraph Hills, taking in the highlights of Armistead’s San Franciscan world, written by Armistead's partner, Terry Anderson.

So after returning to the city from Vancouver, before flying out to Auckland, I set out with camera in hand.

Starting at the northern end of Hyde, just near the Hyde Cable Car turnaround, the first stop was the Buena Vista where we meet Mary Ann at the start of Tales, throwing off Cleveland in favour of San Francisco.

Taking the cable car back up Hyde, we pause at Lombard Street (famed crookedest street) and then alight at Filbert. Here I wander down one of those “stepped sidewalks”, spotting a couple of houses which match Armistead’s description of Anna Madrigal’s house, 28 Barbary Lane: "It was a well-weathered, three-story structure made of brown shingles. It made Mary Ann think of an old bear with bits of foliage caught in its fur. She liked it instantly."

Then, east one block and south a half-block, we’re back once again at Macondray, but this time I arrive at the western, Leavenworth end, walk its beautiful leafy secluded length and appreciate for the first time Armistead’s inspiration. In fact, it’s so leafy and secluded that a lot of the images I take are too blurred to use because of the long exposure time in the dim light. Halfway along, I cross Jones before continuing on to the steps, taking Taylor south to Green where the tour identifies Brian and Mary Ann’s cold clinical home at The Summit, a half-block away.

At this point I decide to cheat and I take a cab up Telegraph Hill. Hey, when you have ninety minutes until you have to check out of your hotel and you still need to shower, not particularly wanting to be all sweaty for a trans-Pacific flight, of course you’re gonna cheat!

Arriving at Coit Tower, the tour tells me to look closely at the WPA murals inside and I immediately spy the disapproving Librarian depicted removing Bosie’s volume from between two Wilde books. The murals are absolutely glorious but unfortunately my quick visit doesn’t allow me time to fully appreciate them.

From the south-east corner of the tower plaza, I take the Filbert steps down towards the Embaracadero. At Montgomery, I divert to admire the stunning art deco edifice that apparently served not only as Armistead’s inspiration for Dede and Beauchamp’s apartment in the books, but also featured in the movie “Dark Passage”.

At Montgomery and Union I spy a source of great comfort (for a number of reasons!) to Dede during her marriage to Beauchamp, Jiffy’s Market, or by its real name, Speedy’s. At 60 Alma, there’s the house where Armistead composed the Tales universe.

Finally, I descend the extreme slope that necessitates the Filbert steps, stopping to admire the plaque commemorating the work of the inspirational gardener who planted these slopes. At the Embaracadero, running late of course, I board the F-train which takes me back to my hotel.

I’d like to particularly thank Lee for directing me to this walking tour of which I’d previously had no idea.

You may have noticed that this is my forty-ninth postcard. Watch out for number fifty for which I’m planning something very special.

Cheers, Rob ;)

Grace Cathedral from the footpath on California

Grace Cathedral from Taylor

The Rose Window

...and from Huntington Park

A frieze that caught my attention...

The Masons building, across California from Grace Cathedral.  The Masons were referred to as 'a cult' in More Tales

The Pacific Union Club: 'On the mountain of the flood...'

Kim Novak, Dede and Beauchamp all 'lived' at 1000 Mason

Broadway...  not only broad, but rather steep too!

Broadway...  not only broad, but rather steep too!

Buena Vista...  where it all began...

From the steps of Buena Vista looking across to the cable car turn and the Hyde Street Pier

An old brown bear...

Where Macondray begins...  at Leavenworth

The cross slope at Jones, halfway along Macondray Lane

Macondray tree fern

Lush Macondray

Macondray window box

Cobbled Macondray

The Macondray/Barbary Steps

The Macondray/Barbary Steps

The Summit, Mary Ann and Brian's home through the later books

A muralised librarian disapproves of Bosie's place between Oscar's 'cheeks'

Coit Tower Exterior

Armistead's inspiration for Dede & Beauchamp's penthouse

Armistead's inspiration for Dede & Beauchamp's penthouse

Armistead's inspiration for Dede & Beauchamp's penthouse

Armistead's inspiration for Dede & Beauchamp's penthouse

60 Alma Street, home to Armistead while he wrote Tales

The leafy oasis of the Filbert Steps.

Any ideas what this image is?


© Rob Morgan 2006