I finally read it.

Ever since I heard Patti Smith on Fresh Air two years ago, talking about the book, I thought: “I must read that.”  And then I put it off and I put it off, until I finally gave it to myself as a Christmas present in December.

The set-up: Patti’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the East Village, circa late ’60s through early ’70s.  “Relationship” isn’t even an apt way to describe it: More like a cosmic kindred spirit artist bond.  They live broke, they live in Queens, they live as lovers, they live in the Chelsea Hotel, they live with other lovers, they live in bookstores, they live among Andy Warhol and his kind, they live quietly, they live loudly, they live as though art is their one true compass, they live watching the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City, they live in pain, they live in splendor, they live as though they are a part of a singular, magical, 1970’s New York scene, because they are.

I thought about my friend Lauren’s post on her blog, Hipstercrite, while reading this book, and particularly her first few lines: “Lying in bed with tears rolling down into my neck, I had so many thoughts racing through my head.”

Lauren, I felt  just the same way.  Like I needed to marinate in Patti’s story for a while.  Was it real?  Could one person’s life really be like that?  Reading your poetry for a living?  Then becoming a rockstar?  It seemed like a 1970’s punk rock fairytale.

But it also made me think about words in general, and the weight words carry at different points in history.

I love the Internet, but I often get wistful for times when a poem – a poem! – could be so threatening, it could land you in court.  Here I am referring to Howl, written by Patti’s good friend Allen Ginsberg.  The owner of City Lights bookstore was arrested for selling it, on charges of disseminating obscene literature.  Can you imagine?  I’m pretty sure I heard 17 obscenities, give or take, driving around in my car today.  Nobody got arrested.

I think about this all the time: the role of poets and storytellers in our modern society.  What good is it to be a wordsmith?  What are words worth anymore?  These are big questions.

But the best thing about Patti, and perhaps that whole 1970’s crowd – the starving artists, mind you, not the trustafarians of their day – is that they don’t answer those questions with money.  What good is it to be an artist?  Why, to simply live a rich life.  Rich not in cash, but in ideas and interesting experiences.  I’m pretty sure Patti and Robert weren’t worried about their Roth IRA’s like me.  And yet, things kinda worked out.  They got by.  Little by little, and with lots of help from very supportive friends, they were able to support themselves on art.

My mom and dad went to school for jobs that would support them and give them, and me, a comfortable life.  Not wealthy, but comfortable.  But I’ve always known that my parents are a little more hippie than their grownup jobs suggest, and here’s the proof:

1982, lamaze class.  I’m in my mom’s belly.  The teacher asks each couple to go around the room and share what they do for a living.  My parents, giggling and conspiratorial, decide to lie.

“Artist,” my mom announces proudly.

“Writer,” my dad follows.

I always chuckle whenever I think of that.  My dad would eventually become an attorney, and my mom a pharmaceutical sales rep.  But I know better.  Artists’ hearts beat inside those suits.

I thought about Mom and Dad reading Just Kids.  Because I know so many people like them, those snickering kids in the lamaze class. The ones who long to paint and write, but dutifully get up each morning and go to work.  Is that just Austin, or are those just my friends?   It’s so easy to call artists indulgent / impractical / blah blah blah, but maybe there’s a reason we’re all sick of Wall Street right now.  Maybe we’re ready for more artists.