When I was 14, thanks to an older sister who had just borrowed the complete set from a friend, I read and adored Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books, which documented the adventures of the residents of an apartment building in Barbary Lane, San Francisco.
I loved the characters, I loved the laid back yet outrageous ’70s San Francisco setting (though I was genuinely completely shocked – SHOCKED, I tell you! – by all the saunas and anonymous sexing and brothels and all that sort of thing) and I loved the preposterous yet compelling plots, with their wild coincidences and dramatic revelations. I also adored Mrs Madrigal, the kindly landlady of Barbary Lane, who welcomed all her new tenants by taping a joint to the door of their apartment.
Now, I don’t think I was a freakishly naive 14 year old, at least not by ’80s middle-class north-Dublin-suburban standards, but when I saw the word ‘joint’ I immediately thought of a joint of meat. And I couldn’t understand how Mrs Madrigal had managed to tape something so heavy to the apartment doors. Had she used gaffer tape? And why had she bothered at all? Surely it would have been much easier (and less messy) to just put it on a plate or a casserole dish or something?
This confusion lasted for a shamefully long while – I correctly thought I was missing something, but I thought San Franciscans just had a more creative attitude to joints of meat, as they seemed to have quite a creative attitude to lots of things. But finally I had to accept that what the characters were doing with these joints could not, under any circumstances, really be done with a side of beef, and so I asked my sister and discovered the truth. Many years later, I interviewed the charming Armistead Maupin himself, and couldn’t resist telling him about my teenage idiocy. I’ve never made an interviewee laugh so much before or since.
So what else did you just not quite get when you read it at an early age? Please tell me I was not alone in my youthful foolishness.
By the way, the Christmas that I was 17, a few years after I was confused by the joints of Barbary Lane, my older sister handed me an envelope from her then-boyfriend with the firm instruction not to open it in front of our parents. It contained a single large spliff. On the outside of the envelope, he had written “From the Mrs Madrigal of Dublin”. This time, I knew exactly what it was going to be.