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Patti Smith Reveals Her Solitary Soul In 'M Train'

Patti Smith's memoir, <em>Just Kids,</em> won the National Book Award in 2010. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says her just-published new memoir, <em>M Train</em>, is a worthy — though altogether different — successor.
Kevin Winter
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Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, won the National Book Award in 2010. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says her just-published new memoir, M Train, is a worthy — though altogether different — successor.

In Patti Smith's new memoir, the "M Train" figures as a Magical Mystery line. She rides it far off into Memoryland, and her snaking Mental trains of thought carry her into reveries on subjects as wide-ranging as her passionate appetite for detective stories and her surprising membership in an elite scientific society devoted to the subject of continental drift.

Smith travels far afield geographically, too, in this memoir, making pilgrimages to the homes and graves of beloved writers and artists — among them, Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo and Jean Genet. But, ultimately, it's the local stops on M Train that make the most profound impressions here.

Smith's 2010 memoir, Just Kids, was a popular and critical success, entering that golden canon of classic New York stories about young people coming to the city to find out who they were meant to be. What made Just Kids especially affecting was the fact that Smith arrived in New York in the late 1960s, during one of the city's lowest moments. But, like her poetic mentors, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, the young Patti Smith recklessly flung herself onto the city and New York responded by lifting her up.


Smith, of course, is a "kid" no longer. She's now 68 and she's suffered a lot of losses, including the deaths of artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who was her partner in crime in the Just Kids years, and her husband, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith, who died suddenly in his 40s. "They are all stories now," says Smith, thinking of these and other deaths. Unlike Just Kids, whose linear plot was all about the thrill of "becoming," M Train is about enduring erosion. Its narrative, fittingly, is more allusive and incantatory, more like Smith's distinctive song lyrics. At bottom, though, both memoirs tell a haunting story about being sheltered and fed, in all senses, by New York City.

Smith lives in Greenwich Village and, as she describes her daily routine, her days begin and often end with the search for a good cup of coffee. Like other famous literary java hounds, Smith likes to write in cafes. She even once daydreamed about opening an ideal cafe of her own; but marriage, a long sojourn in Michigan and motherhood happily laid that plan to rest. In M Train, Smith presents herself these days as a solitary soul, one who indulges in emotional states that she characterizes at one point as: "A light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue."

But life surprises still await Patti Smith. Befriending a barista at her favorite cafe, she offers to help underwrite a coffee shop he's opening on the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach in Queens. Smith rides the subway out there one morning and while walking around, taking her trademark Polaroid photographs (some of which adorn this book), she stumbles on an old bungalow surrounded by a broken wooden stockade fence.

It's for sale, and Smith naturally falls in love with this wreck, just as, decades before, she fell in love with the seedy Chelsea Hotel, her first true New York home. The bank won't give her a mortgage because the place is in such decrepit condition, but Smith forges ahead and buys it anyway. The joy she feels upon taking possession of the moldy bungalow she calls "My Alamo" is so potent that it surely neutralizes all readerly skepticism. Smith says:

"I paid the sum that I had amassed and was given the key and the deed for an uninhabitable little house on a withered lot, steps away from the train to the right and the sea to the left.


"The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there."

Even Hurricane Sandy, which decimates much of Rockaway Beach days later, leaves Smith's sacred refuge alone. Smith, too, has weathered storms, but as she eloquently demonstrates in M Train, there's a spooky beauty in those ramshackle things and people that defy conventional wisdom and keep on standing.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: October 6, 2015 at 9:00 PM PDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly state that New York City's subway system has no M train.