Grieving on the (M) Train

Back in October, I read M Train by Patti Smith. I picked it up in the airport. I just moved to New York in May, and I commute an hour and a half to work in Brooklyn now. I thought no one could teach me how to be a writer in the city better then Patti Smith. I didn’t understand the book was about grief.

I know it now.

Waking up the day after the American presidential election this week, my mind traveled to one particular chapter of M-Train. I reread it immediately. Here’s the beginning of that chapter, titled “Her Name Was Sandy”:

There were pumpkins on sale outside the Korean deli. Halloween. I got some coffee and stood looking at the sky. A distant storm was brewing; I could feel it in my bones. The light was already low and silvery and I had a sudden impulse to go to Rockaway to take some pictures of my house.

The house is Smith’s haven, a beaten-down bungalow she’s acquired at Rockaway Beach. Smith imagines it as a retreat: spare, outfitted with little more than a small bed and a writer’s desk. Purchasing this property on a whim — the kind of impulse artists tend to follow — is her first act after a period of extended melancholy. For much of the book, she’s drifted. Smith is alive but without purpose or place, brilliant but passive, lost in the tides of memory, the daily obligations of life.

Accompanied by her photographer friend, Jem, Smith makes her way down to the beach.

The cold light over the sea was swiftly fading. I went by the water’s edge and stood with some gulls who seemed undaunted by my presence. Jem had set up a tripod and was hunched over, filming. I took his picture and several of the empty boardwalk, then sat on a bench as Jem packed up. Halfway back I realized that I’d left my camera on the bench, but I still had the pictures as I’d slid them into my pocket. It wasn’t my only camera, but it was my favorite, for it had blue bellows, and had served me well. It was unsettling to imagine it alone on the bench without film, unable to record its own passage into the hands of a stranger. Jem and I said our good-byes as the train pulled into his stop. There’s a storm coming, he said, and the doors closed.

As you know, Hurricane Sandy wreaks havoc. New York City is swallowed into chaos and darkness. The storm destroys Rockaway Beach, ripping the boardwalk from the sand and tossing it into the sea. Patti Smith listens from her Greenwich Village apartment as winds rage overhead.

At heart, M Train is about making a home inside chaos — enduring forces we can’t control. Prior to her writing the book, Smith’s husband, and then her brother, passed away. She has children, but remains unwilling to co-opt their lives to make space for herself within them. She is alone.

A glimmer, then more darkness: Sandy, as it turns out, has not destroyed the Rockaway Beach house. Smith finds the structure miraculously upright, its floors and walls molded, but its foundation still solid. Still, and perhaps most bitterly, what has been destroyed is the infrastructure surrounding it: the physical, social world of Rockaway Beach itself. The distant hum of a happy humanity Smith imagined being alone at the center of.

And so Smith settles in to wait. She was born in 1946, so she’s old enough, I think, to know how to do that.

Reading M Train in October on my red-eye back to LAX, I wanted to give Smith back her house, to remake Rockaway Beach. Younger, the product of a different era than Smith, I slept fitfully on the plane. I wished I had been there with her. I have capable hands; my hard-earned facility with tools. I have my people, my media platform. Power that women like Smith, women in my mother’s generation, could not even imagine.

This week my sleep has been fitful too. I’ve been watching the women I commute with on the train to New York City, and I can’t stop thinking of them. They are black-clad, ambitious in a practical way, carry coffee, a packed lunch, maybe a backup pair of flat-soled shoes. Like me, they live in a Westchester County town only a short drive from Hillary Clinton’s home in Chappaqua. These women look out the window of the Metro-North Train, over the Hudson River.

Their body language reminds me of Patti Smith’s, in her photo on the cover of M Train (the same photo is at the top of this article). They are alive and intelligent, maybe a little tired, but upright nonetheless. And their grief is visible not because this storm was entirely unexpected, or because they were unprepared to endure it; but because they seem to be asking why — as anyone, even Patti Smith, would, and as we all have now been forced to —why, why did it have to come?

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