Patti Smith: The Perfect Way to Watch a Sunset

1. Patti Smith was introduced as “a beacon to us all,” including the boats in the harbor. 2. Nathan Mondragon and Rachel Fletcher, of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy. “We’ve never had to turn anyone away before,” Rachel said of the event’s maximum attendance.

Had you found yourself loose on the mild Hudson waters on Monday, in that spare but significant portion that forces Brooklyn’s gaze on Manhattan, you could not have missed the coliseum crowd among the trees of Brooklyn Bridge Park, gathered for “Books Beneath the Bridge,” a summertime reading series from the park’s conservancy; and on this night, featuring Patti Smith (and sponsored by Park Slope’s Community Bookstore). About a dozen boats passed by during the 90 minutes reading, which included some of Smith’s old poetry, and excerpts from Just Kids and Woolgathering, her newest book from New Directions. More than once she turned around to say hello to the river traffic, breaking the hush that buoyed her words, her long hair and arms waving gallantly.

1. Aforementioned maximum attendance. 2. Frederick Pow, a teacher, Truman A. Smith, a poet, and Georgette, a traveler who played hard-to-get with me. The truth is that they are professional Patti-Smith-reading-goers, and at the top of their games.

From my spot in the crowd, her dark outline in the falling pink sky conjured scraps of a great and powerful something. Maybe I looked at her in Ossian proportions, because I’m completely green on the particulars of the literary and musical tradition she was raised by, and helped raise. The same tradition she writes about in her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, the tradition she transcends, the tradition that gets few hundred people crouching on concrete pews, just to hear a story.

1. The beacon, herself. 2. Tracy Elzy, who does floral design and events, Crystal Hernandez, a fabric merchandiser, Lisa McLymont, multimedia sculptor, and Cat Sheridan, arts administrator, were recording the reading for their friends in Ohio, which was fittingly nice.

But New York City was a different place in the 70s. We’ve heard that before. And Patti said it again, when asked that favorite question about young artists starting out in the city: “Now you have credit cards, so even if you have no money, you can, theoretically, buy a sandwich.” The economy has changed; the city too. There are other options, including your parent’s garage. Multiple jobs. A nine-to-five. Then, a pause. “What the fuck do I know?”

1. The best way to be in line for anything. 2. Reviewing her style for the evening: “Old Dungaree’s or something,” and boots from Jimmy Choo.

The great and powerful parts of Patti’s reading, besides her off-hand interludes, were in her abilities to sink a person. Her mysticism scrapes the base of reality, and that’s how it stings. She raged and drummed. She tapped and stomped the rhythm of the lines, and her voice traveled fast and fierce like that first train you hear in the middle of the night, when you’re new to the city and are too excited to sleep and too terrified to work. From her open-air pulpit, her back facing the most recognizable section of Manhattan’s skyline, she was the punk priestess, the people’s poet, all the things I know of her from the little that I do. She might have been the best sunset of the summer.

***

— Karina Briski is a writer, online and in person. She currently lives here, and in Brooklyn.

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