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The M Train by Patti Smith

October 10, 2017


“It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” a cowboy writer tells Patti Smith in a dream. But she makes it seem easy, to write about whatever topic is at hand. And I will read it, even if she’s just describing the way the steam floats off her coffee on an overcast autumn day.

While Smith’s Just Kids, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Maplethorpe, has more focus, I love the whimsical meandering of this book. It’s not exactly a memoir, more just a collection of thoughts.

Smith shifts from hilarious observation to aching melancholy to beautiful description with ease, every random thought held together by her undeniable skill with the language and penchant for astute observation, her ability to conjure the meaningful from the mundane.

A woman is sitting next to her arguing on the phone about a tracking number for a lost FedEx package. Smith quips, “If this were an episode of Luther, she would be found face-up in the snow with the objects from her purse arranged about her, a bodily corona like Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

While traveling, she finds a bronze bust of Nikola Tesla, “the patron saint of alternating current.” Smith then notices a ConEd truck parked within eyesight. “’No respect,’ I thought.”

She displays the quirkiness of a lovable old aunt. She doesn’t wear seatbelt on plane, doesn’t like to use the automatic check-in.

She travels all over, visiting coffee shops and friends and hotels. She writes in coffee shops.

She bums around Mexico. Berlin. Greenwich. She does readings and performs. She still does interesting work of all kinds—she takes us with her on assignment to Iceland where she photographs a chess table where Fischer played Boris Spassky.

I loved reading about her reading, particularly when her book list overlapped with mine—Henning Mankel, Murakami, a fascination with Roberto Bolaño’s dark epic, 2666.

Smith’s house house survives Hurricane Sandy, but she sees her neighborhood strewn about. Her heart aches at the devastation.

But of all the fantastic passages, I found this one simple, lament about the change in her own life to be lovely and profound:

I have lived in my own book, one I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall into the sea, and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty—Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons, doves returning to nest on our balcony, our daughter Jessie standing before me stretching out her arms. “Oh mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.”

We want the things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children, hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me. Weeping from a bad dream. “Please, stay forever,” I say to things I know.  “Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

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