Chroniques de San Francisco : le tour des lieux

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Real life city locales that are mentioned in the Tales novels or miniseries.

At this stage of the Tales Tour the focus is on Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill and North Beach. These neighborhoods are home of 28 Barbary Lane and the center of the Tales Universe.Other locations will follow.

By no means is this the only route you can follow to these sights and it might be a real workout if you try the whole thing in one day, so take a couple. If you prefer to take a map and hit the streets, you should not be afraid. There are much worse things than getting lost in San Francisco. You may think you want to drive to these landmarks, but the best way to see these locales is on foot, in fact the best of San Francisco is accessible only on foot - and parking in the city is a bitch.

Fisherman's Wharf

THE BUENA VISTA (2765 Hyde Street)

"On the fifth night she drank three Irish Coffees at The Buena Vista, realized her mood ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland."

The BV is at the beginning of the Hyde Street Cable Car line, so hop on and ride. Your next destination is Filbert Street.

Along the way you'll pass The World's Crookedest Street, the 1000 block of Lombard. Hop off here and take a picture if you must, but for godssake don't show the photo to anyone when you get home - if you decide to return to ______________. (Fill in the blank)

Tip: If you want to set yourself apart from the other tourists you'll not wear shorts and you'll bring a jacket or sweatshirt. A day that starts off warm and sunny can suddenly turn cold and windy due to the damp fog that is the trademark of the city.


Two blocks past Lombard hop off at Filbert and head East one block to Leavenworth. Turn right on Leavenworth and go one half block. This, according to the book, is where Barbary Lane is located: The house was on Barbary Lane, a narrow, wooded walkway off Leavenworth between Union and Filbert.

"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."

This is actually Haven's. While there's only one way in and out of Haven's, its worth the short walk. The gardens will win you over any time of the year. But as you've come to expect, nothing is what it seems in Maupin's Universe. Trickster that he is, Armistead uses a bit of authorial legerdemain in the novels.

"Barbary Lane was inspired by a place called Macondray Lane, which is a little wooded byway on Russian Hill, with cottages and ballast stones forming the path, and there's a wonderful kind of rickety stairway that goes down to the street. I was completely charmed by it when I first discovered it, and then realized that there were lots of such places all over the city. It represents this wonderful mix of urban sophistication and village life that we find in San Francisco."

When you return to Leavenworth, turn right. In the middle of the next block turn left into the ivy-covered entrance of the magical Macondray Lane. This instantly you'll understand why it inspired Armistead. With it's magical blend of lush gardens and beautiful homes, Macondray is a uniquely San Franciscian "street" that can only be tread by foot. It is two blocks long and ends at the wooden Macondray Lane Stairs located at 1801 Taylor Street. This is the stairway used in the miniseries. There is no number 28 and Mrs. Madrigal's house doesn't exist except in the imaginal world. The house in the miniseries was conceived by Alastair Reed, the director of the first show, and created by set designer Victoria Paul. It was built on a sound stage in Hollywood.

Mary Ann & Brian's Apartment

THE SUMMIT (999 Green Street)

At the foot of the stairs turn right on Taylor and follow it up to Green. There you'll find The Summit, the upscale, un-Barbary Lane, high-rise apartments where Mary Ann & Brian live in Significant Others & Sure of You.

"He lifted his gaze from the courtyard and surveyed their vista, a boundless sweep of city, bay and sky stretching from Mount Diablo to Angel Island and beyond.

There were no chimney pots or eucalyptus branches blocking their vision, no unsightly back stairwells or rocky rises framing some half-assed little chunk of water. What they had at The Summit was a goddamn view — as slick and unblemished as a photomural.

And just about as real...

Should he tell people he lived at The Summit, in The Summit or on The Summit? Usually, when pressed, he admitted to 999 Green and left it at that.

If he was embarrassed, he had every right to be. He'd lived in the shadow of this concrete leviathan for nearly eight years, cursing it continually. Now, at his wife's insistence - and using his wife's money - he'd joined the enemy in a big way.

They had done it for Shawna. And for security. And because they needed a tax shelter. They had also done it because Mary Ann wanted a glossier setting for her ‘lifestyle’ (God help her, she had actually used that word) than could ever be provided by the funky old bear of a building at 28 Barbary Lane."

From Green Street turn right on Jones and then left on Vallejo. Just on the right is Russian Hill Place, a small park with spectacular views in all directions. Continue on Vallejo to Mason Street. You can either catch the Powell-Mason cable car line, or walk down into North Beach

Anna's Haunts


North Beach is one of the city's oldest neighborhoods and is the epicenter of the Tales Universe. This is where Mrs. Madrigal's bookshop was and where she does her shopping. With some of the city's best restaurants and loads of cafes, North Beach is simply some of the best hangin' in town.

Washington Square Park (Columbus & Union)

"He headed away from Jackson Square, up Columbus into the frantic heart of North Beach. Carol Doda's electric nipples winked at him cruelly, flaunting a revolution in which he had never even been an insurgent.

In front of The Garden of Eden, a walleyed derelict bellowed: 'It's all over. It's time to make peace with the Lord. It's time to get right with Jesus!'

He needed a place to clear his head.

And time to do it. Precious time.

He sat down on a bench in Washington Square. Next to him was a woman who was roughly his age. She was wearing wool slacks and a paisley smock. She was reading the Bhagavad Gita.

She smiled.

"Is that the answer?" asked Edgar, nodding at the book.

"What's the question?" asked the woman.

Edgar grinned. "Gertrude Stein."

"I don't think she said it, do you? No one's that clever on a deathbed."

There it was again.

He felt a surge of recklessness. "What would you say?"

"About what?"

"The end. Your last words. If you could choose."

The woman studied his face for a moment. Then she said: "How about. . . 'Oh, shit!'"

His laughter was cathartic, an animal yelp that brought tears to his eyes. The woman watched him benignly, detached yet somehow gentle.

It was almost as if she knew.

"Would you like a sandwich?" she asked when he stopped laughing. "It's made from focaccia bread."

Edgar said yes, delighting in her charity. It was nice to have someone taking care of him for once. "I'm Edgar Halcyon," he said.

"That's nice," she said. "I'm Anna Madrigal."

Washington Square Park at Columbus & Union is not actually a square because it has five sides. But then North Beach isn't a beach and the statue in the middle of the park is Ben Franklin not George Washington. That's San Francisco. And we know that no one in Tales is who they appear to be and that Armistead is way too much of a Hitchcock fan.

This is where Anna & Edgar met. At the base of Ben's statue in the middle of the park is a time capsule which contains a copy of Tales of the City which is to be exhumed in 2079

North Beach Joints

Here are some of the favorite haunts of the Barbary Lane gang that still exist:

WASHINGTON SQUARE BAR & GRILL where Anna has her first date with Edgar.

MOLINARI'S ITALIAN DELI at 373 Columbus Ave, at Vallejo is the real thing. Anna does her shopping here.

CAFFE ROMA 526 Columbus @ Green

MAMA'S on Washington Square 1701 Stockton @ Grant

FUGAZI HALL at 678 Green St, between Columbus and Powell is home to Beach Blanket Babylon San Francisco's longest running show. In its earliest days Armistead wrote some jokes for the revue.

"Warmed by a pitcher of sangria, the two women unwound amid the rococo funk of Club Fugazi. When the revue was over, Mrs. Madrigal stayed seated, chatting easily with the wine-flushed strangers around her. "Oh, Mona... I feel... immortal right now. I'm very happy to be here with you."

Sentiment shot from the hip embarrassed Mona. 'It's a wonderful show,' she said, burying her face in a wineglass.

Mrs. Madrigal let a smile bloom slowly on her angular face. "You'd be so much happier if you could see yourself the way I see you."

"Nobody's happy. What's happy? Happiness is over when the lights come on."

The older woman poured herself some more sangria. 'Screw' she said quietly.


"Screw that. Wash your mouth out. Who taught you that existential drivel?"

"I don't see why it should matter to you."

'No. I suppose you don't.'

Mona was puzzled by the hurt look in her companion's eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm a bitch tonight. Look... let's go somewhere for coffee OK?"

The sight of the Caffe Sport gave Mona an instant shiver of nostalgia.

Mrs. Madrigal had planned it that way.

"God," said Mona, grinning at the restaurant's bric-a-brac. "I'd almost forgotten what a trip this place is!"

They took a small table in the back, next to a dusty "Roman Ruin" bas-relief which a loving, but practical, artist had protected with chicken wire. A tango was playing on the jukebox.

Mrs. Madrigal ordered a bottle of Verdicchio.

When the wine came, she lifted her glass to Mona. "To three more," she said merrily.

"Three more whats?"

"Years. It's our anniversary."


"You've been my tenant for three years. Tonight."

"How in God's name would you ever remember a thing like that?"

"I'm an elephant, Mona. Old and battered... but happy."

Mona smiled affectionately, raising her glass. "Well here's to elephants. I'm glad I chose Barbary Lane."

Anna shook her head. "Wrong, dear."


"You didn't choose Barbary Lane. It chose you."

"What does that mean?"

Mrs. Madrigal winked. "Finish your wine first."

CAFFE SPORT (574 Green Street between Grant & Columbus)

SAVOY-TIVOLI (1434 Grant Avenue) Where Anna "bumped into Mona"

CAFFE TRIESTE (601 Vallejo St at Grant)

From Washington Square climb up Filbert Street to Telegraph Hill Boulevard.

Armistead's Homestead


With its panoramic view of the city, carefully tended gardens & boarded walkways, Telegraph Hill was also inspirational in the creation of Barbary Lane. Perhaps because Armistead lived there when he started writing Tales and because it is a another uniquely San Franciscan locale. No cars are allowed and the houses are located on city street-steps.

At the top of Telegraph Hill Boulevard is Coit Tower. Named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit who died in 1929 this phallic landmark is said to be a tribute to the city firefighters. City planners, of course, denied this but Lillie had a thing for fireman. Chances are she wanted to be one! She wore men's clothes, smoked cigars, and could put away some bourbon. She became, in effect, one of the guys - she even had her own fireman's uniform and helmet. Probably more of a transvestite than lesbian, she did marry once, briefly, but they separated shortly thereafter and she had a string of male lovers. Don't miss the WPA mural inside the tower. Look for the indignant librarian removing a book by Lord Alfred Douglas which is suggestively placed between two books by Oscar Wilde.

From Coit Tower there are two main stairways leading down Telegraph Hill to the Embarcadero. Leave Coit Tower, turn right, and cross the road to the light pole; here you'll find the head of Greenwich Steps. They are pretty but the Filbert Steps just a bit further down Telegraph Blvd are the charmers. Due to the efforts of the late Grace Marchant, the resident gardener of the hill who took it upon herself to clean, plant and tend to the hillside gardens surrounding the steps from 1949 until her death in 1982 at age 92. Some think Grace was the inspiration for Anna Madrigal while that's not true she certainly was a character. She was once a Hollywood stuntwoman, a wardrobe mistress for RKO Studios and a dockyard worker before she "retired" on the hill. The hill was saved from development a few years ago due to the efforts of the Trust For Public Land

At Alta turn right and walk the short street to see where Armistead's old apartment where he lived from ?? to ??:

"I was living at the Duck House at 60 Alta Street overlooking the Filbert Steps. Eleanor Roosevelt had lived there with a lady "friend" of hers during the Second World War. I used to fantasize about all that celebrity pussy-muffing that was going on in my bedroom."

Halcyon-Day Penthouse

Dede & Beauchamp's Penthouse

(1360 Montgomery Street)

Making your way down Filbert to Montgomery where you'll see Art Deco Building where DeDe and Beauchamp lived in the penthouse in the first two novels. (In the miniseries we used a building on Nob Hill, but more on that later.) The Malloch Apartments. Built in 1936 is an Art Deco masterpiece with its nautical-inspired, silver sgraffito panels. It was also Lauren Bacall's home in the Bogart movie Dark Passage.

As you descend the stairs you cross another of the inspirations for Barbary Lane, Napier Lane short boardwalk. Its well worth the short walk there's nothing else like it in the city.

"DeDe was ticked. It was already midafternoon Sunday and Beauchamp wasn't home from his Guardsmen weekend on Mount Tam.

She slammed around the penthouse in search of something occupy her mind. She had already read Town and County, watered the ficas, walked the corgi, and chatted with Michael Vincent about the twig furniture for the living room.

There was nothing left but bills.

She sat down at her escritoire and began to disembowel window envelopes. The latest tally from Wilkes Bashford was $1,748. Dad would be livid. She had already got three advances on her allowance that month.

Screw it. Beauchamp could sweat out the bills for once. She was sick to death of it.

Angrily, she rose and went to the window, confronting a panorama of almost ludicrous exoticism: the sylvan slope of Telegraph Hill, rude grandeur of a Norwegian freighter, the bold blue sweep of bay...

And then... a sudden slash of electric green as a flock - no, the flock - of wild parrots headed north to the eucalyptus trees above Julius Castle.

The birds were a legend on the hill. Once upon a time they had longed to human beings. Then, somehow, they had fled their separate cages to band together in this raucous platoon of freedom fighters. According to most accounts, they divided their time daily between Telegraph Hill and Potrero Hill. Their screeching en route was regarded by many locals as a hymn to the liberated souls.

But not by DeDe.

In her opinion, the parrots were annoyingly arrogant. You could buy the most beautiful one in town, she observed, but that wouldn't make it love you. You could feed it, care for it and exclaim over its loveliness, but there was nothing to guarantee that it would stay home with you.

There had to be a lesson there somewhere."

Grab a soda at Speedy's Market at the corner of Montgomery and Union. In the books it's called Jiffy's Market; it's where the twins' dad was employed.

Continue down the Filbert Steps. To Levi Plaza and the Embarcadero and the end of our tour - for now...