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Paris, 1970
Photo by Elliott Erwitt

Maybe it happens to you like this: unexpected events and encounters often come in multiples. It’s as if random events are actually traveling through our lives in a wad. How many times has someone come to mind who I haven’t seen in years and then they suddenly appear at a party or on the street? Many.

That rhythm of random repetition showed up for me again this last week. I just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir about New York City in the 1970s as seen from the high velocity, celebrity-studded perspective of both Smith and her lover/friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. I lived in New York City at the same time and remember Smith’s extraordinary performances at CBGB that catapulted her into fame. The world she describes, centered around the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, was very far from my ragtag circle of friends living in unwieldy lofts on the Lower East Side. I wasn’t running into the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso on my rides on the F train or walks through Chinatown. But reading her words brought those days back to mind, back to a Manhattan and a me that are long gone. Woody Allen’s somewhat superficial but irresistably enjoyable film, Midnight in Paris, was a paean to our private variations of the moveable feast.

Manhattan in the 1970s was one of my moveable feasts, but so was the year I spent in France when I was 18 years old. And those halcyon days came flooding back when I recently visited my art teacher from that year I lived abroad. He is the reason I changed my life path and decided to spend it making art, and now he lives in the hills above Salt Lake City. His secluded Italianate villa is filled with artifacts ranging from Renaissance paintings to dinosaur bones. Stepping into his cloistered Miss Havisham world is already an invitation to leave life as we know it, but even more so when I discovered he had unearthed the photos from that long ago time in France—black and whites that capture a me and a France that, like Manhattan in the 70s, no longer exists.

Who I was back then is as elusive as a dream image, and it is just as hard to share it meaningfully with anyone else. But reconnecting with these two periods in my life, in close succession, has brought all sorts of forgotten energies to the surface. Asking those old selves to unveil their forgotten secrets is not as easy as a car that comes round for you at midnight on a Paris street, but I’ll take these trips back however they come.

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The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation. I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of our handmade world, saying, I choose Earth.

—Patti Smith, from Just Kids

I came of age in New York City about the time Patti Smith was catapulted into notoriety and fame in the 1970s. A skinny young woman whose proto-grunge, anti-glam stance was the perfect compliment to her deeply personal, unvarnished music, Smith’s music and presence was a straight hit to my heart. She was a frequent downtown presence back then, but she never seemed to be tainted by the disabling toxicity of celebritism. She has been a special kind of hero for me all these years.

I finally found the time to begin reading her much lauded book (winner of the National Book Award last year) when I fell upon the perfect blog post to accompany my read. Luke Storms, one of my favorite online cohorts, writes the site Intense City. His thinking is eclectic, unexpected, honest, thoughtfully structured, well informed and yet humble (a quality I admire more than most.) So if Smith’s memoir is just one of many interests for you, stop in and spend some time. WWTR—well worth the read.

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