The M train is a quirky, defining feature of living in New York City. I live pretty close to the M train in Brooklyn. It’s both fascinating and infuriating. I don’t think I’ve lived here long enough, or used it enough, to get the hang of it. Its route - at face value - is awesome; it takes me across the water into Manhattan, into the Village, and even up through the island without making me switch trains! (This is a big deal) However, the M is a fickle mistress. It doesn’t run on the weekends...except sometimes. It will run like a dream some nights, and on others it won’t show up for an hour.
M Train is also the name of Patti Smith’s latest manifesto. Smith, a Chicago-born legendary poet, musician, and artist, eventually made her way to the Big Apple and became an intrinsic part of its broad, star-studded tapestry. And while she’s a bona fide member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, M Train is hardly glamorous, loud, or pulsing. Smith is a different kind of rebel.
The book starts as whimsical wandering - she tells us about this or that trip, her daily writing nook, her cats, her endless cups of coffee. At first it was hard to invest or care too much about her stories and fluid thoughts - I didn’t really know this woman. I haven’t been listening to her music or reading her poetry for decades, as many have. I didn’t find the opening chapters particularly gripping or memorable, although her prose is lovely.
But there’s something touching about the way she describes her smallest moments, most fleeting thoughts, softest inclinations and ideas. They are like little feathers fluttering across the universe, and I got to glimpse them as they brushed past me in whispers.
Then slowly, artfully, Smith works in small moments and anecdotes that touch the heart. Like when she had scarlet fever as a child. Her secret missions to lay mementos on the graves of famous authors. Traveling out to the Rockaways to get a cup of coffee from her favorite barista’s new storefront. Lurking in the bathroom of her daily café until her corner opens up and the oblivious stranger leaves her seat. My personal favorite chapter, “Clock with No Hands” is just a few pages about her marriage, and how time and space can be a funny thing when you have love, dreams, quiet adventures and a teammate.
The book becomes about time, the weathering of slow years and sudden tragedy. About her husband, Fred, who passed away before she was even 50 years old. I can’t even imagine the pain, the loneliness. About Hurricane Sandy, a huge storm that twisted north and devastated the shores of NYC. It’s about rebuilding, and hope, and life even from ashes.
Smith’s quiet journey has heartache, but smiles and private triumphs too.
A little like the M train.