Dear Patti Smith,
I am a stranger to you as you are to me no matter that I have devoured your images in black and white and your prosetry that flows in books I read while nesting my egg of a little boy last year in a rocking chair waking where night and morning met in the quiet of 3am, when I couldn’t sleep for anticipating the birthing. Not so long ago, I walked the same streets as you, on the Bowery at the end of the CBGB days, when yellow cabs had dents and needed a fresh coat of paint and smelled like cigarettes and semen. Where drunks slumped in alleys with paper bag-hidden cans of Colt 45 and called out for quarters or subway tokens, when there were still tokens that landed in slots with a clink to ride a train from the 2nd Avenue stop to Brooklyn or to 42nd Street, where the spiderweb met in the middle and I’d change from the N/R to walk up the stairs and down the hall, passing the sleeping men on flat cardboard beds near the blind flutist playing Ravel with a Choc Full-Nuts coffeecan full of coins to go up and then down the stairs again to catch the red line, the 1 and 9 the uptown line to 66th or 72nd or 96th where I lived just south of Columbia south of the Hungarian Pastry Shop where I lingered for hours drinking latte and writing sophomore poetry in a leather bound journal not knowing where I was going or where I’d been before. I walked the lower East side streets that were the Soho of my time, the lofts and the fire escape iron staircases perched just above where single pots of Rosemary grew on windowsills and we’d stoop with cigarettes in the narrow grating to catch a breeze on July nights when the city would spill to the ocean without us as we had no money to go to the Rockaways, so we’d wander the empty Lower East Side and drink tequila shots at Motor City on Ludlow with the juke box full of Lou Reed and Television and the smoke piss stink from the subway grates would always smell like home to me at a certain damp 5am time just as the party was ending on the way to the all night diner for coffee before we’d fall asleep in a stranger’s arms too drunk to fuck and too tired to get back to wherever it was we called home.
I bought a $24 men’s wool coat, brown flecked greygreen, at some thrift shop on Rivington, 3 sizes too big for me and I’d throw a worn leather mail bag around my shoulders full of journals and Sam Shephard plays and whatever book I’d bought at The Strand sidewalk bins that day, and I’d walk from 11thand A up 1stAvenue to eat spaghetti Bolognese at a small 6 table restaurant that served red wine in juice glasses feeling like a poor sophisticate. I’d eat breakfast at The Sidewalk Café on 6thStreet with poets and actors before their waitress shifts, scrambled eggs and a bagel toasted with light cream cheese with a salted tomato slice. And then I’d wander down St. Mark’s Place to Café Nine where a tall pale boy with a Buddhist name who wrote poetry would smile and bring me coffee as I stared out another full-paned window hoping for an idea, for inspiration, for a vision, hoping to fill the blank space with importance.
In the days of the Lower East Side, I was searching for my voice, bouncing from flat to flat, from bed to bed, from bar to bar until I found a guitar and tried out the sound of melody on it. I couldn’t hear you yet as I didn’t understand the beauty of the raw, I was looking for something easier then, something that wasn’t so sharp and guttural, something that didn’t scare me but made me feel safe. I didn’t find it at all, I just kept trying to pose for a nice picture with a pretty dress on until I was spinning around in that dress to keep it from touching the dirty downtown street.
I once laid in the square grass of a sidewalk tree, too dizzy from tequila, and hugged that zoo creature birch until I threw up all, hugging the bark. My crowd laughed with me and we all sang our way onto the next bar.
I would wear that woolen coat in September over shorts and worn cowboy boots long before I found my way south to Nashville and I’d stomp through puddles on MacDougal with a boy with lion green eyes, a stolen night upside down that felt like the promise of Paris in the 20’s, a heaven I’d never have found staying in Pennsylvania like the others.
No. I wanted Bohemia. I didn’t know what else I wanted but I wanted to taste a cinema life. I didn’t know what I’d do when I got there but I wanted to taste the city of the poets who’d drunk themselves to death in bars along Abington Square, in Chumley’s Speakeasy on Barrow with white dogs that roamed the wooden floors layered with peanut shells, a fire roaring throughout the winter. I wanted to walk by the Cherry Lane Theater in the morning, around the corner from my apartment I shared with someone who’s name now I have forgotten. I wanted to expand into something more than was expected of me.
I wanted darkness and danger and light and joy and explosions of art and color. I wanted the spotlight of theater borne in the Bowery and folk singers in corner clubs and endless glasses of red wine to soothe the restless fear that fluttered constantly in my chest that told me I was better than all of this. That told me I was fooling myself by even being here.
I found you later, Patti Smith. Much later. Your voice a brave howl of a thing, ugly and unglamourous, unwomanly, unmanly, genderless — just animal growl. Yet your writing feminine like a heavy-footed goddess and I knew you were the mother I needed to become. I brought you into my dreams, my meditations, the beautiful non-chalantness of your straight hair down in grey braids, the pale lined skin, your kind soft eyes that matched the harp of your spoken voice, a polite question, an apology. I found you just in time for the end of my youth, the crest of the 5thdecade’s wave crashing over me as I was about to give birth. As I was about to surrender to the complete unknown, maybe give up everything, throw the dream out with the baby in the bathwater, to choose the baby in the bathwater over the dream that would always just slip through my fingers as I could taste the salt from the oceans it promised, falsely, falsely like the mirage of Prospero wielding his triton arms.
Dear Patti. There are not many of you that can show me how to age how to art how to grieve how to mother how to create how to dress how to be brave. Happy birthday dear Patti Smith who I have not met who I may never meet.
So, today, happy birthday to my muse my spirit animal my goddess of poetry and song and freeflung creativity and taking time off the hamster wheel to choose love and motherfulness and coming back unmadeup unpretentious joyfully vulnerable who dances through my meditations as my older self draped in a men’s overcoat found in a Salvation Army bin in Detroit with long grey braids and looks over her shoulder as she walks me out of the grove of the cedars as if to say, ‘follow me…there is nothing out here beyond youth that is terrible if you walk directly into the sunlight of the crone’.
December 30, 2018
One thought on “Dear Patti Smith”
Beautiful stream of consciousness and poetry, Amy. I just love this -for oh, so many reasons. First, because I share that howling admiration for the great, Patti Smith. Second, because this morning, of all mornings, I chose to finally open my signed copy of “The New Jerusalem” which I picked up at Three Lives Booksellers on West 10th, where I often think of her sitting at a small table writing in a cafe nearby, sipping black coffee and eating toast with olive oil. And third, because I had no idea today (the 30th) was her birthday! So you have indeed, connected the dots here Amy. What a beautiful synchronicity to stumble into. Thank you! And here’s to you, Patti Smith. Thank you for your penetrable voice and vision of art as life.