I just finished reading Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, the story of her life with the artist and photographer Robert Maplethorpe, a life dedicated to art and to each other. Smith and Maplethorpe met in New York in the late 1960s, while they were in their early twenties and through most of their journey together they lived like stereotypical starving artists—homeless, jobless, hungry, and itching from various vermin.
Of all her talents—art, punk rock, poetry—I’d say Smith is best at writing, which she demonstrates in this beautifully crafted memoir that’s hard to put down. I’m always fascinated with how writers, particularly memoirists, pick and choose the details they include in their stories. Smith offers less a photographic view than an impressionistic view of their lives, weaving together some (mercifully not all) of the seemy side (she seems surprisingly unfazed at the possibility of contracting gonorrhea from Maplethorpe) with fascinating encounters with the artists of the day including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg.
The book offers not only a fascinating and tender look at their relationship but also a tour of the Manhattan in the last period of 20th-century artistic ferment. Many hot spots such as Max’s Kansas City are long gone, and gentrification has pushed the art scene into the Meatpacking District, Brooklyn and beyond. Yet, there are still places that carry on the bohemian tradition, though like most of the parts of the city, they’re cleaner, nicer and more expensive than in the 60s. The biggest change has been in the Times Square area, which now fills with crowds of tourists and Disney characters instead of hustlers, addicts and panhandlers.
Ditto for the iconic Washington Square Park, which was refurbished over the last couple
of years. Not to worry, there’s still enough questionable activity there to make it seem bohemian. Smith tells the story of a couple of tourists who saw her and Maplethorpe hanging out there. One asked the other if they were artists and hence people they should photograph. The other said no, they’re “just kids.”
You can still go to Coney Island as the pair did when they could only afford one hot dog at Nathan’s. And, if you’re particularly dedicated to experiencing the life at the Hotel Chelsea www.hotelchelsea.com where Smith and Maplethorpe lived for many years, you, too, can stay there. The rates are exponentially higher than in the early 70’s, but from what I can see from TripAdvisor reviews, you can have an authentic Chelsea Hotel experience—complete with the bugs, stains and loud music and with the same furniture and carpeting from Smith and Maplethorpe’s day. Better, perhaps, to fork out $40 for the occasional tour the Chelsea offers and actually sleep in another hotel.
The St. Mark’s Poetry Project where Smith performed is still going strong. To get another taste of the poetry scene, head to the Bowery Poetry Club and Café, especially on Tuesday nights for the Urbana Poetry Slam. If you get a chance, eat dinner at DBGB, across the street (by contrast, new and very trendy).
Looking for more of the history of Greenwich Village? Take a Big Onion Walking Tour, which travels into the tiniest and most charming streets of Manhattan, so unlike the concrete jungle beyond the Village borders. These are the haunts of William Faulker, Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac and his Beats buddies. Some of the buildings, which date back to colonial times, served as slave quarters and servants’ houses but are now the most expensive pieces of real estate in the city.
Top off your walking tour with a latte and a giant cookie at the cozy Grey Dog Coffee Shop on Carmine Street. I love that they serve my latte with the froth in the form of a dog’s paw print. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes to be a starving artist.