She had on a pair of worn, faded jeans, black boots, and a white t-shirt with maybe the name of a band on it. I couldn’t see it clearly because she also, despite the warmth of an early October day in Washington, wore an oversized calf-length burgundy pea coat, the pockets of which were bulging with objects: a glasses case, wadded up napkins scratched with handwriting, a small plastic bottle of water, and other trinkets that formed a towering pile when she emptied her pockets onto the table before changing into a smaller black jacket for the interview that had brought her to the library.
A few minutes earlier, waiting for her to arrive, I’d wondered to myself: do I say it’s a privilege to meet you? An honor? I’m so pleased? How nice? How do you convey the utmost respect, sheer thrill, and awe in a salutation? My colleague Beth and I escorted her and her publisher’s rep across the lobby toward the elevators. I love that you requested to be interviewed in a library, I said. I joined your fan club when I was thirteen, Beth added. Oh! Patti brightened. Then you must have received a letter from my mother.
A man I recognized but did not know got on the elevator with us, and as we rode up to the 7th floor he nudged me gently with his elbow and mouthed, is that who I think it is? I nodded professionally, the glimmer in my eyes giving it all away. As we stepped out of the elevator he turned to her and said, I have been a fan and followed your work since the ‘70s. I’m sure she hears this all the time, but she turned to him and said, quietly, thank you so much for telling me that. He turned to walk through a nearby doorway and Patti called to him. Wait, she said, what’s your name? Bill, he said. She held out her hand for him to shake and said, Bill, thanks for saying that. It means so much. She was so generous – with her time, with strangers walking up to her, with me having asked my friend the Communications Director (who set all this up in the first place) to nonchalantly intercept us so that she could (I had begged) take our picture!
Can I get a quick photo before we go in? Robin asked.
Once inside, Patti quickly discovered that it was to be a television interview and not one, I suppose, for radio or print. She was not dressed for television, she said, so I left them to escort the publisher’s assistant back downstairs so that she could retrieve Patti’s suitcase from her waiting car.
Later I implored Beth to tell me: what did y’all talk about while I was gone? Beth, far from recovered, replied: I have no idea! Photo evidence of those fifteen or so minutes suggests that Beth asked Patti if she would like to look at some of the rare books they had brought out for her visit: beautiful, well preserved copies of Louisa May Alcott, Our Lady of the Flowers, others. I’m only guessing at what they were, but Patti paged through each one and had something to say about them all. She signed some of Beth’s personal Patti Smith Fan Club memorabilia, photographs and letters and zines. When we returned with her suitcase she threw on the black jacket and the interview began.
At the conclusion of the interview, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes later, she looked at Jeffrey Brown and said, I love talking to you. I love talking to you, too, he said. And there were so many things I wanted to ask you about. Bobby Fischer, for instance, to which she immediately replied: all true! Roll the tape! Brown cried. And they filmed another six or seven minute segment in which she told the story of meeting Fischer in the dead of night in Reykjavik.
When they called it a wrap Beth and I escorted Patti back downstairs. I could listen to you talk about books and reading all day, I told her, as we descended out of what felt like, to me, the clouds. When you go to Paris will you play the Olympia? I asked her as the doors opened and we stepped out of the elevator. She said she would. My partner and I saw you play the Olympia several years ago. What an incredible night! she said. I mean, not that I was incredible, but the whole evening. I agreed. You ended the night, I told her, by saying Paris! You fucking wore me out. Je t’aime! She laughed and said, I’m afraid Paris is going to wear me out again.
That’s when it happened. Afterward I went upstairs and said to a colleague, Patti Smith just said the most incredible thing to me. Did she tell you she loved you? Tracy asked. Better! I cried. She turned to me just before she walked out the door and gently reached out and grabbed my sleeve, ran the fabric slowly between her fingers, looked me in the eye and said, I love that jacket.
I found it several years ago in a thrift shop in Paris and had worn it in her honor. I wish I had told her that, but she was gone. And besides, would that have been one step too far? Would that have been the moment I morphed from quiet handler into creepy stalker? I didn’t have to tell her about the jacket; she knew. And she reached out and gave it her own benediction.
The whole day had been like that, quiet moments of humility, observance, and gratitude. I had to speak that morning at a conference on teaching, so I awoke nervous and somber. Nervous because I’d been working on my remarks for several days and now it was time to give them, and somber because my grandmother had been slowly dying over the course of the previous two weeks. I went through all the familiar motions – I caught the bus downtown, declined coffee (nervous stomach), found my colleagues and prepped for our panel, posed for a quick photo and then, suddenly, we were done. It was during a workshop later that morning that my phone exploded. Missed call and voicemail from my brother. Missed call and voicemail from my father (who never calls me). Missed call and voicemail from my mother. Despite the fact that I was sitting a thousand miles away in a sterile conference room listening to someone speak about active engagement, the message was clear: my grandmother had died.
I slipped out the back of the room, called my mom, and then went over to the library to meet my colleague who was coordinating Patti Smith’s visit later that afternoon. I told her my grandmother was dead, and I sat with her and two other colleagues as they finished their lunch. I asked her to cheer me up: tell me the details for this afternoon’s interview with PBS, I said. I had been invited to be a fly on the wall during the interview. Robin explained how things would go: Patti will arrive around 2:30 (she’s a rock star, Robin said, so she’ll probably be late); she will be escorted upstairs to the special collections reading room where she will be interviewed for half an hour, and then she will leave. Who is meeting her when she arrives? I asked. Robin’s expression told me what I needed to know.
Do you think you can handle it? She asked. I had confessed to her my previous inability to remain sane in front of celebrities I admired, but this was the gift that my grandmother had given me: the lingering perspective of loss, which balanced any innate proclivity I might have had to freak the fuck out. As we waited for her to arrive, I said to Beth: I’m not sharing this widely, but I wanted you to know that my grandmother died this morning. I wanted Beth, the person who was alongside me for this incredible encounter, to know what I was bringing to it. And in some ways by saying it out loud, in that moment, it elevated my grandmother’s passing to something more than a going away, to something more than flesh and finitude, to a transcendence of things: time, loss, experience. When Patti Smith climbed the steps moments later and stepped through the revolving doorway into our presence, I felt like I could greet her not as a goddess of music and the word, but as a person walking through a door. A person who happens, like me, to love books.
That morning as I rode the bus downtown, I didn’t feel like listening to the radio, to any of the shows I normally listen to: Morning Edition, podcasts of Fresh Air or the Diane Rehm Show. I turned on my music instead, and began shuffling through the songs. After a while I stopped on the Ten Thousand Maniacs performing “Because the Night” off their 1993 MTV Unplugged album. Just like I’d picked my jacket for Patti, I listened to that song for her as well. It was the starting of a day that would turn out to be filled with sorrow and magic in so many ways. So it felt like a holy bookend when she concluded her reading that night, some thirteen hours later, by performing an a capella version of “Because the Night.” It seemed right, she said, because it had been her gift to Fred long ago, and because she’d just been talking about her wedding ring.
And so she sang, standing in the light at the edge of the stage, her voice rising through the dark auditorium. Then, at her invitation, right where we were, those of us in the audience, craving her energy, her melody, her every word, joined in and sang along with her.