I will forever remember the sticky summer of 2014 as the season I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. A vulnerably honest and painstaking account of New York’s transient art scene in the late sixties and early seventies. Great personalities touching and circling one another like atoms, charged electrons sparking, personalities fading, and the never-ending array of those who were “allowed” to sit at the main table at Max’s Kansas City. Artists, musicians, socialites, pornographic film stars, transvestites, all knights as proverbial as Arthur’s round table. Smith casually runs into Dali, Joplin, Ginsburg, Corso, and a whole slew of indelible characters.
I mostly read the book with deep visceral aching, like a yearning to time-travel, or a wish to be born in someone else’s circumstances, or body. However romanticized and naive that might be, truly, I am jealous of Patti Smith. Waxing poetic on Genet, Baudelaire and her inspirations, it seems Bohemian ennui spans generations.
And yet, being truthful to myself, and to reality (that cunning thing), the streets were mean. The young children were dreaming in lofts with no heat, the gonorrhea infected souls in homes with no showers, no medicine, pee in tupperware on the floor, coffee of the instant variety. Without great luxuries, but embodying opulence. Her childhood somewhat picturesque, and yet also devastated by teen pregnancy leading to a secret adoption, and the end of formal schooling.
Flea-ridden artists describing their struggles, and not just the spoils of success, are hard to find. Robert Mapplethorpe and Smith, in their years of homelessness, pennilessness and struggle tried anything to succeed – writing; drawing; photography; jewelry design; theatre; performance poetry; installations, escorting.
I lived on 21st Street and 7th avenue for three years. In the exact footsteps of her journey, tiptoeing on the same pavement, and yet her ghosts didn’t whistle. I passed the Chelsea Hotel with not so much as a nod sometimes, in all its majestic beauty and history. Her NYC might be gone, but her beautiful love story (more about relationships as connections of human spirit) is an allegory that can occur anywhere.