What do you do when you meet one of your heroes? Well, if you're me, you gush, nervously giggle, say something you shouldn't, then ask for a favor.
Yeah, I'm totally cool.
But you have to forgive me; it was Armistead Maupin, for chrissake. Armistead Maupin, who authored the landmark Tales of the City books (which were made into a celebrated mini-series and a musical), who was the first writer to bravely include a tragic AIDS storyline in a novel at a time when few were even acknowledging the epidemic, and who has been an advocate for LGBT people since he first came out in the '70s. Hero is too small a word. Idol is better.
I read my first book by Maupin in my early 20s. It was 1991 (I think), and I was insecure, not yet out to my family, and not quite yet sure how to navigate the world as a gay man. While performing in a play in Cincinnati, one of my fellow actors lent me Sure of You, the sixth book in the Tales of the City series. What I loved about the book was not only its humor and soap operatic storyline, but also how the diverse characters all belonged in this community. Gay, straight, naïve, or worldly, different races and ages, all had a place and a role in this San Francisco version of Peyton Place.
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After the play closed and I returned home to New York, I started at the beginning of the series. I devoured the books, getting lost in the charming, surprising, and sometimes titillating storylines. Experiencing the books felt less like reading and more like gossiping with a friend over cocktails.
The final book in the series came out in 2014, and I relished it like Godiva chocolate: gobbling the deliciousness too fast and wanting there to be more. I'd grown up with his characters, and I felt like I knew them. Through them, Maupin taught me a lot. He taught me that I could come out to my biological family with my head held high. He taught me that I could have a tribe of kooks all my own: my chosen family, my own "logical family." He taught me that AIDS is scary, but people with AIDS are not. And he taught me that getting older can be done with humor and style.
Last summer, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the Kaleidoscope Film Festival, an annual festival that celebrates the diversity of the LGBT community and filmmakers. My web show, Merce the Series, was an Official Selection in the short film category, and I was there to bask in the glory. The documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin was featured at the festival, and Maupin was honored with the inaugural Kaleidoscope Career Achievement in Literature Award. The festival was also hosting a "Dinner and Conversation with Armistead Maupin," and I was given a couple of tickets as a perk of my web series being in the festival.
Here it was, my opportunity to see this great author, and it included a southern barbeque meal to boot! I knew it could be my only chance, so I made it my goal of the night to meet him.
I took my friend Cassie with me for moral support. The evening was lovely, and after the pulled pork and corn bread, Maupin got up on stage and talked to the sold-out audience about his life, his writing, the documentary, and his (then) soon-to-be released memoir, Logical Family. Both the documentary and his book explain all about his upbringing and his evolution as a writer, and they include his personal life, including his checkered love-life, his not-so-erotic encounter and friendship with Hollywood hunk Rock Hudson, and his husband Christopher Turner. Maupin touched on all these things in his talk, but my favorite was when he intimated about his family, especially the irony of his conservative Trump-supporting brother being related to, as he put it, "the most famous faggot in the world!" Maupin then gave the crowd an opportunity for questions, but I was too nervous to put up my hand.
After the talk, there were books for sale and an autograph table set up. With Cassie's encouragement and fortified by a Diet Coke, I was third in line. As I perused Maupin's books, I realized that I'd read every one of them -- not only the nine in his Tales series, but also his novels Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener. I decided to purchase a new copy of Sure of You for him to sign since that was the first book of his I'd read.
I walked up to the table where he was sitting in a comfy chair, pen poised.
"Hi," he said to me. I introduced myself and tittered out, "I'm a writer just like you!" As if.
"And I'm a person living with HIV," I continued, "I really appreciate everything you've done for our community!"
He smiled, said thank you, and started to sign my book. Then, I got cheeky.
"Oh," I said, "and I met your ex last year, at the U.S. Conference on AIDS."
Maupin stopped writing and slowly looked up at me with a Miranda Priestly glare. "Oh?" he said.
"Uh, yes. Uh…." My armpits went into overdrive. I tried to backpedal. "I thought you guys were still friendly."
"Well," he sneered, "we're civil to each other."
I did a little panic dance and put a finger-gun to my head.
"Oh, gosh," I said. "I'm such an idiot! I'm so sorry."
He smiled and, with almost a giggle, said, "It's fine."
Then, I sheepishly squeaked out: "Would you mind? I mean, can I get a picture with you?"
"Of course!" he bellowed. "You're funny! Come over here."
I saddled down next to him, and Cassie snapped the photo. I was thrilled. He handed me my autographed book and said goodbye. "Pleased t' meetcha," I muttered.
Cassie and I walked away, and for about ten minutes, I stared at the photo in my phone.