“Mad, Stark Mad”

Thirty-five years after “defecting” to the Barbary Coast, the bestselling novelist still loves his city by the bay

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A recent episode of "South Park," the animated show on Comedy Central, was devoted to the notion that hybrid-driving liberals in San Francisco had caused a toxic "cloud of smug" to form over the city, threatening the entire nation.

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That's closer to the truth than I'd like to admit.

We San Franciscans can be a little smug sometimes, a little too patriotic about our beloved city-state. But, frankly, it's hard not to feel that way when you've lived here for any time at all. This place is special—a patchwork of villages huddled on seven hills above the bluest of bays. We've got wild parrots in our trees and mom-and-pop stores on the corner and world-class olive oil down at the Ferry Building. These days we've got an elegant new museum in the park and a tree-lined boulevard where an ugly freeway offramp used to be. We've got that strapping young mayor too—who became even more irresistible to the ladies when he married some gay folks down at City Hall. Hell, we've even got the woman who is leading the House of Representatives now—the first woman to do so—and though she's cleverly disguised as a Catholic grandmother at a country club, she's our kind of gal.

And we've been right about things. Sorry, but it has to be said: we've been right about things for a very long time. Wacky, godless, treasonous San Francisco, standing alone in its madness, spoke out about global warming and the war in Iraq and George W. Bush long before the rest of America finally woke up to the truth. So those dreaded "San Francisco values"—tolerance, compassion and peace—aren't sounding quite so flaky in a country disillusioned by Abu Ghraib and Hurricane Katrina.

Don't get me wrong. We're no wiser than the rest of America—just a lot freer. We can think our foolish thoughts and chase our foolish schemes without hindrance from church or state or the neighbors down the block. We are free to transgress—politically, artistically, sexually and spiritually—and we believe that a great deal of good has emerged from that. That's why, in the end, we don't really care what the rest of America thinks of us. We've been immune to those taunts since 1849, when the New York Post described the citizens of San Francisco as "mad, stark mad."

There was justification, mind you. The crazed fortune hunters who created this place left their ships to rot in the harbor on their way to the gold in the hills. That's how certain they were that they would never return to their homes in the East. Their ships, what's more, were dragged out of the water and into the muddy streets, where they found brash new lives as hotels and jailhouses—weird Dr. Seussian hybrids of vessel and building that stood for years as proof there was No Going Back. The past, having outlived its usefulness, had been carpentered into the future.

A century and a half later—despite earthquakes, epidemics and dot-com disasters—people still chase their dreams to San Francisco. They don't so much move to the city as defect to it, warmed by the glow of their burning bridges. Like the heroine of my Tales of the City novels, newcomers have been known to take this leap overnight, enduring high rents, low pay and joblessness in the hope of becoming someone else.

It's not that we don't revere tradition: we do, deeply. But ours is a tradition of eccentricity and earthly pleasures and a healthy disrespect for the powers that be. And most of us, I've found, love reciting the lore of our rebellious history. When visitors arrive from elsewhere, I myself can be every bit as garrulous as a docent in an antebellum mansion in Georgia. Here, for instance, are some of the things I enjoy telling them:

  • That Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who settled here after the Civil War, secured the right of black people to ride the trolleys in San Francisco almost a century before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of that bus in Alabama.
  • That Mark Twain, while steaming in a Turkish bath on the site of the current Transamerica Pyramid, struck up a friendship with a local fireman whose homespun-sounding name—Tom Sawyer—would later prove useful to the storyteller.
  • That Billie Holiday was busted for drugs in a room at the Mark Twain Hotel.
  • That the ashes of gunfighter Wyatt Earp were buried in a Jewish cemetery south of San Francisco so that his beloved widow could later be interred with him.
  • That Jack Kerouac wandered away from Neal Cassady's cottage on Russian Hill to stumble upon Joan Crawford, larger than life in pumps and a fur, shooting Sudden Fear in the fog.
  • That the Twin Peaks bar at Castro and Market was the first gay bar in America to have windows on the street, making the patrons visible to the general public.
  • That Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, like Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell, were married at San Francisco City Hall.
  • That Jeanne Bonnet, a swashbuckling lass who frequented the brothels of the Barbary Coast dressed as a man, later convinced some of the prostitutes to flee their pimps and join her own all-girl band of pickpockets.
  • That the Lusty Lady, a modern-day Barbary Coast establishment on Kearny Street, struck its own blow against the exploitation of women when, in 2003, it became the first worker-owned peep show in the nation.
  • That in 1927 a fresh-faced young Mormon named Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the world's first television image in a laboratory at the foot of Telegraph Hill.
  • That the brain of Ishi, the last "wild" Native American and a one-time San Francisco celebrity, was returned to California in 2000 after spending almost a century in a Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Maryland.
  • That among the words San Francisco has given the dictionary are beatnik, yuppie, hippie, hoodlum and shanghaied.

I was none of those things when I arrived in San Francisco in 1972 to work for the Associated Press. Fresh out of the South and a tour of duty in Vietnam, I was seriously conservative and frightened to death of almost everything, especially my own homosexuality. (It was, after all, still officially a mental illness, not to mention a crime.) But when I worked up the nerve to confess my "condition" to a new friend—a young married woman with children—she stared at me soulfully, took both my hands in hers and murmured a dewy-eyed "big f------ deal." I could hardly believe my ears. Like the city itself, she was telling me to lighten up and get on with the business of my life.

That proved to be my born-again moment, the watershed from which I date my transformation. In San Francisco I found love the way I'd always wanted it. I found friends of every imaginable variety. I found my creativity and a generous audience and a seemingly endless supply of stories to tell. After too many years of searching, I found, in other words, the age-old American promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So I dragged my ship out of the harbor and made it my home for good.

Armistead Maupin's novel Michael Tolliver Lives was published in June.

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