As Patti Smith notes quite aptly in the first sentence of her latest book, M Train, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” And yet, she manages to do just that with all the poeticism and grace of a gentleman or socialite. Her scattered upbringing in Chicago, Philadelphia and, finally, Woodbury, New Jersey is perhaps what set the tone for her nomadic existence as an adult–both in New York City alone (everyone who isn’t rich is prone to transience there) and throughout Europe. While her life is certainly not one would associate with being characterized by nothingness, Smith does tend to highlight the more monotonous portions of her everyday existence in her follow-up to the highly acclaimed 2011 book, Just Kids.
Where she leaves off there (around the time of her and Robert Mapplethorpe’s ascension to fame) she picks up again in M Train, focusing on her marriage to Fred “Sonic” Smith–yes, having the same last name might have helped with the attraction–of MC5 and her current existence in New York peppered with random and abrupt travels. But, no matter how many times she departs from New York, there seems to be no truer home to her than Cafe ‘Ino on Bedford Street in the West Village. It is there that she curls up into her usual corner on a daily basis and writes whatever stream of consciousness comes to her, often meeting that wall known as writer’s block, but still content to turn to the comfort of coffee and toast with olive oil. This combination is, indeed, one she mentions quite frequently throughout the book, casually and even unwittingly inserting it into her prose as follows: “Cafe ‘Ino looked empty. There were tiny ice formations dripping along the edge of the orange awning. I sat at my table and had my brown toast with olive oil, and opened Camus’s The First Man,” and, elsewhere, “I was looking forward to sitting at my corner table and receiving my black coffee, brown toast, and olive oil without asking for it.”
Her profuse outpouring of ardor and devotion to this West Village haunt makes it clear that M Train is a love letter to the meaning we can imbue a place with, particularly one so enmeshed in our artistic routine. Moreover, Smith’s day to day reminiscences of the most seemingly basic acts, including reading and binge watching TV shows, are made poetic by the way she views them and therefore describes them.
Smith’s rebellion against authority (which, as always, stems from a religious upbringing) has only augmented since her punk rock Horses and Radio Ethiopia days, as indicated by her description of flying to Mexico City to give a speech on Frida Kahlo, during which she states, “We were about to take off. I was reprimanded for not buckling my seat belt. I forgot to hide the fact by throwing my coat over my lap. I hate being confined, especially when it’s for my own good.” But then, the curse of being a world traveler is being subjected to the mercy of flight attendants. Smith’s far-reaching voyages delineated in M Train span from Germany to Japan to England and many places in between, capturing the restlessness of an artistic spirit driven by the need for discovery and to visit the graves of dead authors, Sylvia Plath, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Osamu Dazai included. The latter two fiction writers represent an especial trip for Smith, who ponders the correlative connection between them, noting, “Both writers took their own lives. Akutagawa, fearing he had inherited his mother’s madness, ingested a fatal dose of Veronal and then curled up in his mat next to his wife and son as they slept. The younger Dazai, a devoted acolyte, seemed to take on the hair shirt of the master, failing at multiple suicide attempts before drowning himself…”
Smith’s familiarity and affinity with great writers is often what drives her romantic nature, as was the case with her purchase of a ramshackle home in Rockaway Beach just months before Hurricane Sandy hit. Her motive in buying the property emerged from a desire to write in seclusion, drinking free coffee to her heart’s content from the coffee shop she invested in nearby. Calling the house “my Alamo,” the edifice lived up to its epithet by withstanding the brutal blows of the storm. Nonetheless, this moment in New York history appeared to signal a shift not only in the city’s history, but Smith’s as well. Shortly after, Cafe ‘Ino closed, and with it, infinite fond memories spent there. The owner, Jason Denton, recognized Smith’s melancholy over the loss and offered to bring her favorite table and chair to her apartment before leaving. Another regular at the cafe snapped Smith’s photograph on the last day, an image that would become the cover for her book.
As for the name M Train, it isn’t quite inspired by the MTA subway line–though it does pass through Smith’s West Village neighborhood–so much as a conjured image in the mind’s eye of the author as she states, “The bartender refilled my glass. The tequila was light, like flower juice. I closed my eyes and saw a green train with an M in a circle; a faded green like the back of a praying mantis.”
From the tequila reveries of Mexico City to the awkward speeches made in Berlin to honor Alfred Wegener for the Continental Drift Club, Smith’s global wanderings always lead her back to the town she came to all those years ago in 1967, and prompts her to draw a certain undeniable conclusion about her profession: “All writers are bums.” And even though it’s hard to be a bum in the modern era, Smith’s M Train teaches us all how it’s eloquently and masterfully done.