Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Reading Armistead Maupin as a Teenager in Rural Virginia

By: Jessica McCaughey

book reader

BJ’s Books was the kind of dusty, well-stocked used bookstore you’d expect to find on a quaint city street, urban but with a clean sidewalk and trees. Perhaps the shop would sit just down a half-flight of steps, underneath a café, small wrought-iron tables and chairs out front. But instead, BJ’s was in a strip mall next to Joe’s Pizza and just down the way from Brown’s Wood Stuff. Warrenton, Virginia, was the biggest town in the county, but it was not big. You could walk easily from the post office to the Horse Show Grounds. It was not uncommon—it is still not uncommon—to see rusted pickup trucks with Dixie stickers or even the occasional Confederate flag waving from an antenna. BJ’s didn’t quite belong, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books, taking up half of a dusty shelf in the back, belonged even less.

After school, in the hour before I had to clock in at the Video Depot, I’d park my ’87 Nissan Sentra, its turquoise pin stripe dated even then in 1996, and step into the shop. It smelled the same way every used bookstore smells, which is to say, extremely pleasant to a certain kind of person, moldy and off-putting for another. I’d squeeze past the unsteady towers of newly acquired books at the front—usually a mix of busty-covered romances and multiple copies of each volume in the Left Behind series—and make my way back to the Literature section. I did not come from a family of readers, and yet I wanted desperately to be a Well Read Person. At 50 cents a pop for classics and with relatively few friends in this new place my parents had moved me, this was not difficult. I chose mostly books I had heard of, but hadn’t encountered in school—books I thought I should be reading. I ploughed through reprints with ripped covers of Edith Wharton novels and The Grapes of Wrath and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

And so I don’t know what drew me to the Maupin books that first time. I hadn’t heard of them, and they didn’t strike me as “classic” or even necessarily important, but something made them appealing. I took the first one home on one of those winter nights in my junior year of high school when it was dark before six p.m. It was More Tales of the City, and so I began the series out of order, on book number two, but that only made the books more intriguing, that I was able to go back in time, view what felt then like a flashback of Mouse, younger and healthier, once I found the original novel, Tales of the City, a week later.

I read between classes in the red and white hallways of Fauquier High School, and I read when the video store emptied out in the late evenings, but mostly I read in my bed late at night, stretched out across ivy-printed sheets beneath a poster of Andre Agassi, Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls playing softly from an enormous boom box on floor in the corner. I imagined myself as Mary Ann Singleton, and I looked forward the day that I might take a vacation and realize, in a flutter, that my then-adult life was my own, and that I could decide over Irish coffees to simply stay in some brand new place, change everything for myself. I’d moved to Fauquier County at 14 from New Jersey, and I was lonely. I made friends after a year or two (weird ones, friends Maupin would have likely approved of), but the feeling—the hope—that I was somehow different from this town where I felt so stuck plagued me. But here was a whole book series about people who were different, and in desirable ways. I coveted Mona Ramsey’s bohemian clothes, and Anna Madrigal, the transgender landlady of Barbary Lane, became a strange kind of imaginary godmother. When she encouraged Mary Ann, I felt encouraged myself.

And of course, like almost all of Maupin’s readers, I also began to feel differently about gay people. The depiction was so dissimilar from what I saw on TV or heard at my friend’s evangelical church, her father bellowing about sin and the destruction of family from the pulpit. I would, of course, like most people of my generation who ventured into one city or another, make gay friends as an adult, but in rural Virginia in the mid-1990s I knew no out gay people, although I did attend my senior prom with the most likely candidate. (He came out of me a few years into college.) We generally accept now that people tend to change their views once they meet or know someone in a marginalized or stereotyped group—the previously homophobic mother who begins campaigning for gay rights after her son comes out, or even the coworker who comes to believe in gay marriage because he “works with an awfully nice guy.” And while of course the characters in these books, Michael Tolliver and Jon Fielding and Mona Ramsey, were not real, they read as real, and they offered me that connection to a world and a perspective that wasn’t accessible in that small town without them.

But, it was, of course, more than reading “about gay people.” It was reading about interesting people, people who didn’t fit the extremely narrow view of “acceptable” that’s so often the only one presented in a small town. The women in these novels were not, as far as I could tell, former high school soccer players with shiny hair cascading down their red jerseys. They were probably the kids in high school who had only a few weird friends. I saw the adult lives of the characters of Barbary Lane—and the apartments themselves, cramped but colorful—as aspirational in a way that I hadn’t quite been able to articulate before reading the Tales of the City books. Whenever I found myself sipping a can of Steel Reserve in the pool hall parking lot, I began to imagine, instead, that I was at the Royal Exchange with Mona and Mary Ann. Winding my way through dusty field parties, I pretended I was walking Russian Hill streets. The small, stifling town began to feel temporary.

In my early-twenties, I went to San Francisco for the first time, wheezing my way up the steep streets around Nob Hill and later to Macondray Lane in Russian Hill, the street on which Barbary Lane is based. I drank Irish coffee at the Buena Vista, where Mary Ann Singleton decided to leave Cleveland permanently, and I drug my travel companion past the rose window of Grace Cathedral that gave Michael Burke his traumatic flashbacks. I was growing into an adult who could go anywhere she liked, and make friends with whomever seemed particularly funny or interesting.

Since then, my own life has continued to improve, and I began to write—no doubt inspired by Maupin and the time I spent reading and rereading his work. And while Maupin continues to extend the stories from Tales of the City (most recently in 2014 with The Days of Anna Madrigal), over the years I’ve heard little about him or his work in the media—until lately. There is a renewed interest in Maupin, as both his memoir and a documentary about his life, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin debut this fall, and there’s even word that Netflix will revive the Tales of the Cityminiseries. (Laura Linney will come back as Mary Ann!) I’m delighted by the fact that Maupin has come back into the public eye, and I hope that these new explorations into his life and his work will allow young people to access this writer more easily. Of course, I’d rather think that a high school student in Warrenton, Virginia, needs Maupin slightly less today; one might argue that he made his own work less crucial in the ways that he broke ground for the gay community. And yet it was only three years ago that a town-wide debate broke out over the suggested removal of a “gay book” from my high school library. Maupin’s work remains just as crucial, particularly in communities like this one.

And so I worry about students finding the series. BJ’s Books closed just last year, and as sad as I was to hear it, I marveled that they’d been able to make it as long as they did, through the development of the county, the money that had moved in over the past twenty years since I’d graduated from high school and moved away. I worry for the oddballs of Fauquier High School, that without BJ’s Books—and, therefore, potentially without running across Tales of the City and other important works like it on a low shelf—they will struggle even more to imagine a life beyond field parties and the Horse Show Grounds.

Such stories are crucial—the stories we live and the ones we read about. Maupin once said that he’d always enjoyed storytelling, even as a child in North Carolina, not far from that Virginia town where I read his work. But later, he said, it went further than that: “I realized I could fix things by writing. I could tell the story of something painful and give it harmony and purpose.” In the twenty years since I left that small town where I was so unhappy, I have surprised myself by writing about it—the town, the people in it, the cow-dotted hills—continually, and I think in some way I’m trying to do the same thing as Maupin, the same thing maybe all writers are doing: Fix things by writing. Give our histories harmony and purpose.

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