You Can Say You Knew Me When opens with the funeral of Teddy Garner, then follows his estranged, gay son, Jamie, as Jamie determines to uncover information about the period Teddy spent in San Francisco forty years before. As a San Franciscan himself, Jamie is fascinated to learn that his conservative, homophobic father once dabbled in the life of the city’s counterculture--that he moved to the city under the spell of Jack Kerouac, and even aspired to turn himself into a writer in the mold of the Beat Generation.
Jamie’s search leads him to Ray (Rachel) Gladwell, a painter who was once Teddy’s lover. In 1960, Ray was living in the suburbs in an abusive marriage. During her frequent visits to the city, she first took up painting, had multiple affairs, and steadfastly reinvented herself away from the watchful eye of her husband.
Ray gives Jamie a cache of Teddy’s letters, written to her during their brief affair. Jamie reads them with fascination: this is the first window that’s opened into his father’s secret past. Over the course of the narrative, it won’t be the last.
Although most of the novel is told in Jamie’s first person voice, Teddy’s letters, diaries and other writing are presented as “found” documents; the “errors” are the character’s, if you will, and not the author’s.
October 24, 1960
I woke up this morning and the first thought of the day was lonely because without you. Our hours yesterday came back like a fresh vision for me. Oh how I wish I could have woken up and seen your hair on my pillow. Forgive me for starting with heart on sleeve, but I tell you only because you’ll appreciate how this moment passed very quick, and I took your sagely advice of “do not stay sad long because life is short.” Because my eyes (my “painter’s eyes,” as you told me to cultivate) spied something very nice at the edge of my new orange window curtains, which was the brilliant blue of the sky. It’s a Pacific blue purer than the hazy factorysmoke blue over the Hudson.
When Don brought me those orange curtains I told him he’d make my bedroom look like a whore’s room. Mrs. Casey would look up from her backyard sweeping and wonder what kind of a tenant brings such a color to a respectable Irish house. And would I tell her what Don told me that day? “Bring some contrast into your life, that way you’ll see everything different.” I understand that I never saw the blue sky quite the same until it was up against the orange.
I think Ray maybe you put a spell on me and now the sights are all changed. Come back soon, if you can stand me gushing.
October 26, 1960
All my thoughts are about you this fine day, hotter in October than it was in the foggy summer. But before you think, Here he goes again, Teddy Garner the Sadsack, you’ll be happy to know that I’m not sitting still, longfaced with empty pockets. I’m doing something important.
Yesterday morning, first thing I heard was Mrs. Casey in the alley with her infernal broom, yelling about overdue rent and wanting to know who was it I had coming down the stairs after midnight? How could I tell her it’s been a week since the tool and die job and if it wasn’t for your groceries I’d be hungry and miserable instead of just miserable?
I walked toward the ocean hoping for an inspiring idea though I never made it to the dunes, because there’s Don outside the Hideaway but Don with some big news--“I fired The Cyclops.” Remember him? The big Neanderthal with eyes too close together, who flipped burgers like was playing scales on the piano but also siphoned off beer from the tap. Don finally had enough of his drunktempered antics. So I’m the Hideaway’s new shortorder cook! I work ten through two, then four-thirty until close. I can kiss factory work goodbye.
With my new job and my new curtains and my new you, I’m full of inspiration. I woke up today and guess what, I started painting. I set up for the first time the easel which we purchased together, got a shirt cardboard and painted a landscape of the curtains, the window frame, the sky behind them, and rooftops. A whole hour passed right by before I took any notice, just like you said happens. It’s probably no good, and the blue’s not right, but it’s a good first try I think.
Ray, you have blown in like an angel and kept me from harm during a time of aimless worry. Please write and say you’re coming back up here soon, my magic girl! Even a postcard is great.
November 10, 1960
High spirits at the Hideaway these days. We had a crowd on election night sitting around a television set which Don brought in for the occasion, all of us cheering on Kennedy. The lunch regulars are friendly and like to pick on me for my New York accent, but it’s all oldtimers so I can handle them. At nights the beat crowd spills out onto the sidewalk, one hamburger split for every two of them, and always the jugwine in a juice glass. I get the feeling they think I’m deaf or speak only a foreign tongue and can’t understand their intellectualism. Excuse me Mr. Bearded Artist while I wipe up your spill but I happen to be a painter too and for your information I have so read “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. One of them left behind a copy of “Tristessa” which I’m reading but it’s full of junktalk and nowhere as good as “Subterraneans.” The word from Don is that Kerouac is a drunkard and past his prime and the writing of this book might prove it.
I am sad your visit was delayed again, I guess it never sinks in for me the life you’re leading down there in the mysterious wilds. Here’s the phone number of the Hideaway where you can leave me a message, please: Judah 5-1124.
With you on my mind -- Teddy
November 15, 1960
Today I am lonesome remembering the shouts between us at the end of the night and worst of all the shove I gave you. I may be a meantempered jealous Irish fool but you know I’m crazy about you, so forgive me for that reason, which I swear is true.
After you left Don said to raise my spirits he’d take me out to a “mixed bar” which I figured meant white and Negro but when I got there it was full of fairies and Don knew them all. The name of the bar was “The Who Cares?” with a sign that says “Leave your Cares at the Door.” Don introduced me to the fruits, each of them giving me eyes up and down like cops with flashlights. One even had the nerve to call me handsome, so I said “Watch it!”, then Don said, “He gave you a compliment, say thank-you.” That’ll be the day!
My mind was full of confusing thoughts such as the $64,000 Question, “Is Don one, too?” And should I be his friend knowing now what I think I know? Do you pick your friends because they are the familiar type, someone regular like you? Or on the otherhand when something is new and different do you take a chance because that’s what makes life a kick? By which I’m trying to say, I figured I’d stick around instead of heading out the door. For the kicks. Plus where did I have to go anyway?
No secret I am shy with strangers (boy, were these strangers!) but Don bought got me soused enough to stop feeling so funny among a crowd of that kind. It was very peculiar knowing that some fellow regular enough in conversation is actually an invert who might be looking at you with unholy thoughts. In particular a brawny one a few barstools away staring at me with severe a look in his eye. He’s got his own flock of queens surrounding him because he’s the matinee idol of the bunch, a ringer for Rock Hudson, with possibly the largest chest muscles outside of Jack LaLane, I kid you not. On the way out, I passed directly alongside this big guy and I hear him call me “trade” which was explained to me by Don and is unsavory. I was furious and demanded of Don, What’s the big idea bringing me there? and him saying, It’s a fun place you never know what type of crowd you’ll find, and me saying, It was a fag crowd, and him saying, The beer’s the same as any other place. He had a furiating answer for everything.
I didn’t want to even take the ride back from him, but we were in a fringe neighborhood full of spades, somewhere on Haight Street. And in the car I asked him “Are you one of them?” and he just dragged on his Camel and kept his eyes on the road and said very sagely “I supposed I’ve just learned to live my life.” To which I asked, Dont you worry about a black mark on your soul? (him being from the seminary and so forth) and he said, “I worry about the cops arresting me. I worry about the newspaper printing my name the next day. I worry about the drunken sailor out looking for a fistfight because he didn’t find a whore who might relieve him of his suppressed tension” and so forth with concerns that are not about God but about Man. When he finished I said, “Well, Don I guess you’re all right by me.” Though I wonder if I can look at him the same.
That’s why to sort all this out I have come to the typewriter to you Ray because you are the one person who has been very straight with me and also you knew Don before I did. Even though I was a foulmouthed roughneck with you, I know you have a way of never holding a bad opinion about anyone. Sorry for the lengthy and lurid atmosphere of this letter, I hope it didn’t upset you.
From Frisco, Soaked in Ale, Teddy
[This next note was on a postcard with an image of the Sutro Baths. It was undated but seems to fall into sequence here.]
Your probably still laughing at that last letter of mine. Boy I sure do run at the mouth after a couple too many. Just forget about all that. Don and me are pals, and we have an understanding, he’s that way and I’m not, so what’s the worry? Today he drove me up the Highway past Playland to show me Sutro Museum. What a nuthouse! More wild junk than you’ve ever seen before, including every stitch of clothes ever worn by Tom Thumb the famous circus freak. Plus actual mummies and other curiosities. Ray, phone me up I miss your voice. Maybe you’ve tried but I don’t always get the message. T.
It’s been so long since I’ve heard from you, you must still be mad. Well I know your busy with family kids & the mean ogre husband but gosh Ray just a phone call is all I’m asking.
I thought of you on Thanksgiving, which Don used as a chance to close the Hideaway and cook a turkey for me and some other “orphans” as he called us, all a fine bunch. (Except for one clownish queen name of Benjamin but known to all as Betty. The worst of That Kind. A fineseeming fellow until he opens his mouth and then just a showering of womanly fussing and flirtation.) Best of the lot was Don’s old pal Chick, who like Don fled from the seminary, and talks now of Buddha. (He says, “Read Dharma Bums. It’s all in there, man.”) Chick’s lady is Mary, they’re a couple of beat poets moving out of the city for a cabin in the mountains to the south. Mary seems sad and remote but she lights up after some wine with a face that’s almost beautiful--don’t get jealous Ray she’s nothing compared to you! Chick and Mary told grand stories of San Francisco before Urban Renewal and they got a kick out of me listening to every word. Mary was at The Six Gallery the night of Ginsberg reading “Howl,” and she claims to have conversed with Kerouac, Cassady, McClure, everyone! Mary and Chick say the best of San Francisco is past, but I think of you and how you see everything as hopeful.
Mr. and Mrs. Casey are leaving to visit “the relations” so I will have place to myself two days, maybe you can sneak up to visit and I’ll show you my “masterpiece” which needs your advice as I’ve gotten stuck. Honestly Ray I can’t bear too many more nights with nothing but booze for company. Please call!
December 25, 1960, 3 o’clock in the morning
You stopping by was the best Christmas present anyone gave me, I’d given up hope I’d ever hold you tight and kiss you like that. I’m glad you still think of me and want me to write out the full flood of my thoughts.
Don cooked up a Christmas dinner of lamb stew tonight for the two of us plus Chick and his dark lady Mary, after which he made a presentation to me of a proper raincoat for this watery Frisco winter, and then surprised me by saying he’s going to midnight mass and why dont I come along? He took me up Nob Hill to Grace Cathedral which is unfinished but an eyeful just the same. These Protestants build them tall just to make you feel small. You look up into those pointy arches and then you think about your own puny life down here, and you just got to hope there’s someone up there keeping watch. I sat next to Don and prayed, “Dear God, I’m not in very good standing with you these days so I won’t ask you for anything, just please watch over these people,” mentioning you first and foremost, and then my family and my friend Danny, wherever he is these days hope he’s OK and hasn’t forgot about me. And thanks for Don taking good care of me and for Chick and Mary who gave me a bottle of Irish Whiskey for Christmas. Amen.
Don had his head bowed, on a prayer streak of his own. I wondered if he was asking God to put him normal. And it made me wonder truly why should Don, who is a decent fellow, be sitting here with his eyes squeezed tight enough to give himself a headache, asking God for anything? How about if God said to Don instead, “Sorry for making you a queer, Don, giving you all kinds of torment and then making it impossible for you to change.” The whole thing got me thinking and afterwards I sat on the steps outside and had a smoke and felt the big bafflement of it all..
So I’m here now dipping into my bottle of Christmas Cheer typing my fingers so hard they’re sore. Will I see you in the New Year? I don’t know what I’d do in Frisco if it wasn’t for you showing up now and then.
Copyright © 2005 by K. M. Soehnlein. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Kensington Publishing Corp.