AMID CHARMINGLY WEIRD anecdotes and references to procedural-show detectives and French symbolist poets, Patti Smith's new memoir left me with one new, immutable impression about everyone's #1 literary/punk/aging-without-apology hero: PATTI SMITH LOVES COFFEE. Indiscriminately. In massive quantities. All day. Everywhere. A sampling of Smith's haunts: a trendy café in Chicago, a Detroit 7-Eleven, Korean delis and a now-shuttered café in New York, and a Berlin coffee shop that also serves vodka and caviar.
Smith's consumption comes with a cultural context: She's a writer whose studio takes the form of a globe-spanning archipelago of coffee shops, and her artistic heroes' own lives were heavily structured around café culture. As such, M Train serves as a glimpse into Smith's daily wanderings, and a list of her influences, from high culture to low. That's partly what makes Patti Smith so loveable—other than, you know, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"—her championing of art in all of its forms. Yes, she loves Rimbaud and Baudelaire, she extols Roberto Bolaño and Sylvia Plath, but she also dedicates pages of M Train to detective Sarah Linden, on the TV show The Killing. She recounts extending a layover in the UK just so she can hole up in a hotel and watch British detective stories. In other words, Patti Smith does whatever the fuck she wants, and it's a beautiful thing to witness.
And she does it all while highly caffeinated.
Consider yourself warned: If you loved Smith's first memoir, Just Kids, you may not love M Train. It's not narrative driven, it's sometimes frustratingly diaristic in its accounts of writer's block and plot details from Smith's favorite books, and her cats figure into it heavily. Just Kids is an account of youthful romance; M Train is a portrait of the artist as an older single woman: Smith's husband, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, died in 1994. Her two children are adults. The result is a self-portrait as a witchy coffee-swilling flâneuse, who takes solo adventures to foreign countries, joins secret societies, and mulls over her most sacred non-sacred texts in her 60s, which sounds like a delightful, aspirational way to be old.
On the occasion of her 66th birthday, Smith recounts sitting on her front stoop, coffee in hand, considering the premature departures of a series of beloveds from her life, and her own mortality, inching closer. "I'm still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees, thanks be to God," she writes. "Shivering, I got up; time to turn in. The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that's for sure."
Before she goes to sleep, Smith pulls a card from her tarot deck: the Ace of Swords, "mental force and fortitude." It is this, more than anything, it seems, that has carried her so far.