This huge, bright thing


Pretty soon I’ll be closing up this shop. Wrapping things in brown paper, throwing sheets over the furniture. This dusty old house will become a tiny dusty window: occasionally I’ll let you glimpse back inside. But mostly the door will be shut, the lights off, nobody home. Cafe’s closed.

This is happening because of Patti Smith. Sort of. I knew it was time to move on when I hadn’t written here in months, and then I started reading M Train and I really knew it was time to move on.

There’s a part in M Train where Patti is talking about reading Haruki Murakami. About how suddenly she could read nothing but Haruki Murakami.

In the weeks to come I would sit at my corner table reading nothing but Murakami. I’d come up for air just long enough to go to the bathroom or order another coffee. Dance Dance Dance and Kafka on the Shore swiftly followed Sheep Chase. And then, fatally, I began The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That was the one that did me in, setting in motion an unstoppable trajectory, like a meteor hurtling toward a barren and entirely innocent sector of earth. (Smith, pg. 94)

I have these tendencies, too: to fall so head over heels in love with something that it’s all you ever want to do or talk about and all you think you’ll ever want to do or talk about forever and a day. The thing that I recognized, though, in her obsession over Murakami was not just empathy, but an alarm bell, a reminder that in February of 2011 I had made the connection between the two of them even before she did:

This morning, as I exited the subway station, passing a homeless man curled up next to a copy of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle*, Patti Smith’s cover of The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star” came on. A song itself about imitation. I tripped out onto 57th street, saw the golden hues of the morning light hit the buildings and construction cranes, the traffic lights and traffic, pulled out my camera, and turned it on its side. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly to 57th street and back again.

* “Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things.” (Murakami, pg. 260)

Maybe death is becoming bigger and brighter and that’s why these filaments connecting different aspects of my life appear to be growing stronger. Maybe we’re just more aware of everything around us. Or maybe my timing is off and Patti got there first, and even though I didn’t know it at the time the homeless man reading Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the subway was an echo in my universe of what was already happening in hers. A fitting book for such strange coincidences: mysterious cats, portals, a blurred line between past and present.

I’m driving myself crazy thinking about all of these things, about how it’s all connected. In her book, Patti writes about being selected to become a member of the Continental Drift Club. Every member is given a number; she is given the number twenty-three, a number I’ve had history with, a number that haunts me at every turn and appears in strange and often significant moments. Towards the end of the book, on glimpsing a few odd but familiar words, I realized another strange coincidence that probably requires more explanation than it’s worth: I had unwittingly helped with the consultation on the pronunciation of some of the words for her audiobook, without being told it was hers. It felt almost too strange to believe. These are the types of connections that keep me up late at night on the verge of tears, overwhelmed by coincidence, overwhelmed by life and how strange it is.

It starts to sound creepy the more I say these things out loud. I don’t want to draw the lines too distinctly connecting me with anyone else in the world, especially someone I admire so much. That’s a false understanding of how life works. Sure, it’s possible we’re all already pieces of each other, part of the same matter, just waiting to discover the connections between our cells. But it’s important to acknowledge that even if we’re connected by all the world’s matter, we are not other people and never should even try to pretend to be other people. But: we are allowed to try to understand what it is in their life we relate to so much. Or even to wonder what it would be like to be someone else, as long as we remember who we are in the process. (It reminds me of a line I highlighted decades ago in a paperback copy of Ulysses and have frequently quoted since: If we were all suddenly somebody else.)

I learned how creepy the imitation game can be the other day: a few months ago, I gave up my old URL, and I recently discovered that someone else calling themselves Zan has started blogging there. Not me Zan, the one who started this thing in 2006 with a post about trying to capture the long shadows of experience, but a different Zan. One who might be pretending to be nostalgic like me, but not for the same reasons I am. I told friends how creepy it was, how it felt a little bit like a glimpse into what will happen when we die. Something will spring up in our place, made from our old cells, our old matter, a glimmer of the things we once were, something that could be very much like us but not really us at all.

Anxious for some permanency, I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is. (Smith, pg. 233)

This past weekend I went to a symposium on the life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe surrounding the 25th anniversary of his controversial retrospective visiting Cincinnati. I listened to panels and talks from curators and professors, lawyers and art promoters, as well as people who knew him or were influenced by him: photographers Judy Linn, and Catherine Opie, among others. (Another coincidence: I didn’t immediately recognize the name Catherine Opie from not spending enough time in the art world, but partway through her talk when she started showing her own photographs, I gasped: I’d seen her Guggenheim exhibition back in 2008, happened upon it by accident when visiting the museum with my mother. That day her large format landscapes took my breath away and stuck with me for years, still influencing the way I see both snow and sea. Making that connection was another notch in the weird cosmic adventure.) While Judy Linn spoke about her early times with Mapplethorpe, select portraits of Patti Smith flashed on the screen, her bold and willing poses meant to contrast Mapplethorpe’s unwillingness to be in front of Linn’s camera, as it meant he was no longer in control. This is the same museum where I met Patti Smith a few years ago, when she brought to town her exhibit The Coral Sea – itself a tribute to the memory of Mapplethorpe. It was all coming back to the same place. Or maybe I was just seeking out the same places to come back to over and over.

I took a break from the symposium in the middle of the day to walk around downtown Cincinnati. I stopped to take pictures of a few places: a player piano shop, a shop that sold custom-made rubber stamps, a restaurant called “ORIENT” with a beautiful assortment of house plants in the window. I went to a tobacconist south of 5th street to pick up tobacco for J; near the door they had stacks of empty cigar boxes.

“May I take a picture of your cigar boxes?”

“Sure. You can take some if you like. We have more than we know what to do with.”

I took a picture of the pile of boxes, then selected two: a brightly decorated yellow wooden box, and a lacquered brown humidor stamped with “ROBUSTO No. 2.” When I brought the boxes home and showed them to J, he pointed to the velvet-lined humidor and said “you can keep your rocks in there.” He meant the rocks I have a tendency to pick up around the globe and carry with me, the ones I keep as souvenirs instead of tourist tschotschkes. I laughed: I’d just read the part in M Train where Patti and Fred travel to French Guiana to collect rocks from a prison, rocks clumped with dirt that Patti places inside a large matchbox with the intention of delivering them to Jean Genet. I looked back at the humidor and thought about my smooth Latvian beach rocks in there, and then laughed again understanding that J knew best what kind of keepsakes I felt deserved such a coffin.

I didn’t seek to frame these moments. They passed without souvenir. (Smith, pg. 248)

I’m framing a moment with this post, but it’s a silly one. Probably the last moment on this blog. This is a long and elaborate and overly emotional way of saying goodbye, of burying the lede that I’ve become too cheap to continue to pay for website hosting every month for a site I hardly update. But it’s also a kind of intentional disappearance, a departure. I’ll leave you for now with this: a return to a post that’s as much about leaving as it is about staying alive. It’s a post about leaving New York, which feels like a lifetime ago, and about Patti Smith too, so there’s that. I wish I’d just written it now and then said goodbye: because it’s a perfect goodbye. Instead I copy and paste, imitating myself, inviting you to revisit my words from then and pretend they’re my words from now.

Because it’s the best thing I’ve got

* * *

The Voice Beyond The Wall (originally published in July, 2011)


I keep thinking I need to write it all down while I’m still here. Everything. Every last inch of curb and gutter stench. Every single person that passes me on the street.

And so I write this moment: the arrival of the storm, when the winds pick up and carry off a table full of sunhats. The winds usher in the rain, and the crowds huddle under the American Bible Museum, the great marble overhang of the Church of Latterday Saints, unaware of symbolism, only wanting to stay dry.

Every time the bus door opens it smells of rain. Heavy gushing summer rain. As if the whole earth is breathing once again.

I write them all down: Women carrying soggy newpapers over their heads. A man in a beard and a Chinese farmer’s hat who’s not at all Chinese. A woman pricking her finger opening an umbrella, sucking at the wound.

And then as the bus turns onto 72nd street past Verdi Square: I write sun.

Scribbling away furiously on the back of a post office receipt. While I’m still here.

We’re outside the walls of a castle at the southern tip of Manhattan, waiting for Patti Smith to perform. We can’t see a thing, but we’re hoping we’ll be able to hear her. There are people climbing trees, people peering through bars built to hold out the British, walls that can’t hold in Patti Smith. Like a flash of light she cracks open “Because the Night” and the man next to me reading a design catalogue begins to tap his feet and nod his head. A man on the other side says UGH I could DIE right now I’m so happy and collapses into his partner’s lap. A happy crescent of city folk reclining on park benches are we, serenaded by Patti Smith, the sun setting at our backs.

She asks if those on the outside can hear her. We cheer.

Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.

Outside the fortress wall there are women with gray hair dancing in gypsy shirts, Spanish tourists, forty-something model-types in rocker boots. A high school kid walking around sullenly with a composition book clutched to her chest (are you an observer too?), a giant man in a three-piece suit with money on his wrist pumping one fist in the air, women who dance with their arms around each other, eyes closed. The dancers and singers and fist-pumpers, closing our eyes to hear like attendees at a revival.

A full moon rises over the financial district. We’re nodding and pumping our fists to “Land” then with magical transition, suddenly, to “G-L-O-R-I-A…” I tilt my head up and watch planes fly overhead. She goes away, then comes back and plays “Perfect Day” and the outsiders start to sway. The fireflies peek out from the bushes, the planes overhead turn on their lights.

It’s night now and the night belongs to us.

The voice beyond the wall sends us away with a benediction: “Life is hard. Life will throw a lot of shit at you.” The voice cracks and then swells. “But it’s the best thing we’ve got.”

I’m writing it all down, while I’m still on this side of that wall. Because it’s the best thing we’ve got.




Bath, February 8th, 2011. First vertical shot taken with Polaroid 250 Land Camera.

This past Monday, while following a white rabbit down some wayward hole in the vast landscape of the internet, I found out that Patti Smith and I have the same camera. A Polaroid 250 Land Camera, compact until its bellows are released, instant as long as you have the patience to wait sixty seconds for development.

I stumbled across mine at the Valley Thrift in southwestern Ohio this past Thanksgiving, tucked away on a bottom shelf with the other discarded film cameras, a grease pencil marking $3.99 on an orange paper tag stapled to the strap of the camera bag. This was months before I knew that Patti Smith had this model, that she’d been photographing with it for years, that she’d had an exhibit of her Polaroids in Paris.

But now, suddenly, whenever I lift the camera to my eye, I think of Patti Smith’s photographs. Like this: slightly blurry, the camera turned on its side.

How can you tell the difference between emulation and imitation?

* * *

Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive.
– Patti Smith, in a recent interview in the Guardian

The “something of worth” in question is the new PJ Harvey album, an album Patti Smith has been listening to and has been inspired by. After reading the interview, I watched the video for “The Words That Maketh Murder” on YouTube. In it, Polly clutches an autoharp to her chest, singing in what I remember her once describing in an interview as her “church voice.” On the subway ride home, I played Patti Smith’s “Hymn” and heard an echo: Patti, autoharp, church voice. I dig deeper and start to see little hot copper wires of emulation suspended all over the place: Patti admits to once stealing Rimbaud’s Illuminations, admits to loving the gold hues found in Blake’s paintings. Patti/Polly and their autoharps and church voices. A photograph, slightly blurry, a camera turned on its side.

We give and we take. We cast things out and rein them back in, like the nets of fishermen gathering sustenance. A rhythm of influence circulating like currents. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly and back to Patti again.

Throw out the net and drag it back.

* * *

“You know who you remind me of? Patti Smith.” Someone said to me once. Once.

I am not Patti Smith. I look nothing like Patti Smith. Brown hair, sure. But the rest? She had edge. She stood out from the crowd. I blend in so hard I’m hardly there. Still, I swallowed that compliment whole and spat it out again to others: “I’ve been told Patti Smith…” (To which I invariably hear in response “No, not Patti Smith at all…” )

I am not Patti Smith. The Patti Smith who slept on park benches. Who worked at Brentano’s. Who cut her own hair. Who had a sandwich bought for her by Allen Ginsberg, and then she saw the best minds of her generation destroyed by madness and AIDS. Patti was there, back then, in her time, and I am here in mine.

I am not Patti Smith. None of us is Patti Smith but Patti Smith.

And yet: I raise my camera to my eye and try to see the world the way she sees it. Borrowing her eyes for the fraction of a second it takes to release the shutter.

Is this imitation or emulation? Is it simply curiosity? Is there worth in what I do? Am I happy to be alive?

* * *

It’s easy to drive yourself crazy thinking about these things: about what came before, about what comes next. I’m looking for solace in turbulent waters.

* * *

Je suis un inventeur bien autrement méritant que tous ceux qui m’ont précédé ; un musicien même, qui ai trouvé quelque chose comme la clef de l’amour.*
– Rimbaud

Where would we be without emulation? Without all those who came before us? Why is there ever shame in acknowledging that something was created out of an attempt to aspire to be like something else? Especially when that new something is of worth to this world? Aren’t we all just different versions of each other?

I’m getting too good at asking all the questions. The answers are the tricky part.

This morning, as I exited the subway station, passing a homeless man curled up next to a copy of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle**, Patti Smith’s cover of The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star” came on. A song itself about imitation. I tripped out onto 57th street, saw the golden hues of the morning light hit the buildings and construction cranes, the traffic lights and traffic, pulled out my camera, and turned it on its side. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly to 57th street and back again.

We give and we take. We cast out nets. We emulate, and occasionally imitate, trying to see the world the way someone else sees it. Most of us, in the end, are trying our best to come close to something of worth, because it just makes us happy to be alive.

* “I am an inventor far more deserving than all those who came before me; a musician, even, who has discovered something like the key of love.” Yes I pretentiously left this quote in French. I feel it lends to the mystery.
** “Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things.” (pg. 260)


It is the Artist’s desire to permeate existence
He does so by the power of his presence
And by will alone he breathes a work into art.
As pumping air into a balloon, that when let go,
permeates the sky.  – Patti Smith

How does one dress for an art opening? I threw on blousey rayon pants, a men’s linen vest over a tank top, and — an afterthought — my Land Camera, and started to head out the door. I looked in the mirror, and put my hair into a ponytail. “So I don’t look like a Patti Smith impersonator,” I said to J.

The Coral Sea exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center was sparse, but appropriate. More than twenty years ago, this same museum was taken to court over indecency charges for its Mapplethorpe exhibit. In The Coral Sea, there was nothing hinting at what some might call lewd, more at what they’d recognize as saintly: religious artifacts of Patti’s remembrances of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life. It was a strong message: THIS is how I remember him. We all can remember everyone in different ways: here was my saint. Two hospital beds with drab blankets; a photograph of an angel statue with a note from Patti to Robert inscribed on it. He was her angel. A display case of Mapplethorpe artifacts, including the Jean Genet book of poetry she read to him before bed: Le Condamné à mort, A Man Sentenced To Death.

On one wall, framed pages of drafts of her poem for Robert. I walked along and read each one, jotting down, for some reason, the words crossed out on each page: “and considered lying down for awhile,” “upon a raft,” “he was drawn,” “who had he,” “spirit,” “remembering,” “swinging arms,” “motioning organ,” “perfectly,” “suddenly,” “and blood pumping madly.” I liked the idea of picking up Patti Smith’s discarded words somehow. Old scraps that might make up a quilt. The thoughts she dropped along the way.

On the other end of the gallery was a curtained space; inside, two screens showing black and white film images of a restless sea, over which Patti read the text of her poem. There were too many people chatting to hear it properly; I sat for only a moment before deciding it would be better to come back another day to hear it properly.

I had told two friends who were volunteering that I’d meet them inside when they were done strapping wristbands to people’s wrists, and so headed back downstairs to meet them. I could tell by the buzz in the room that Patti had returned from dinner (as Kate had promised when I arrived). I came down the staircase, but didn’t want to go too close; she was being swarmed. I hate swarms. Then suddenly the room shifted, and she was headed in my direction.

She stood next to me surrounded by a posse of people; everyone else stared at her with goofy smiles. I was suddenly dry-mouthed and nervous; I turned my head and ordered a glass of red wine from the bartender. She got into the elevator with her posse, along with a few bold stragglers, and ascended.

I was content with that: just to be in the same room as Patti Smith.

* * *

Why does this weird thing happen with people who do great things? Why do we get all nervous and dumb around them, or why do we feel the need to have the experience of their physical presence? What did being in the same room as Patti Smith give me? I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “celebrity” lately. How ridiculous it is to get worked up over someone because their picture is in magazines, their image moving across a television set. Even just those who deign themselves too important to reply to someone who starts a conversation on Twitter (yes, I’ve been burned by this once or twice before, which I realize is ridiculous, but still weird). I’ve decided that I want to use the word “celeb” for those I want to celebrate: not just artists, but people doing good things, people being people.

* * *

My friends appeared and we sat near the entrance, people watching. I noted how much I enjoy the art of fashion, how some people really have a feel for expressing themselves through their clothes. I noted how here, people dance at art museums, even when no one else was on the floor. I don’t know that I ever saw that in New York. I told them everything I’d wanted to say to Patti if I had the chance to speak to her, my millions of gratitudes I carried inside. “But I guess this is not the time or the place.” Millions were there with their millions of gratitudes. What made mine any more needed to be heard?

My friends were headed to Northside; I decided to stay behind for a bit and sober up before driving, and chose to go back up to the exhibit for one last look. When I reached the floor, I saw Patti standing there, her daughter and another posse member at her side, just looking around, not talking.

I straightened my vest and took a deep breath and walked straight up to her and said HI.

And then I spilled my millions of gratitudes.

I started by saying she was the reason I’m here in Cincinnati, her whole thing about getting out of New York and finding a different place for creative output. I told her that her show at Castle Clinton in the Battery was the perfect goodbye to New York. I asked if she was still there, and she said yeah, and talked about how there are some great things still there, but that it’s lost its grit. She said it’s like a big shopping mall now. I said yes: like a walled city for the rich. She nodded and asked my name, I said “Zan” and she said “that’s a cool name.” I realized at this point that we were having a conversation, that we’d moved beyond the part where I explode my thoughts at her and run away. I had expected to say my piece and be on my way, but here we were talking. She asked how it was working out here in Cincinnati, and I told her it was the best decision I ever made. That I was so happy. She said this place has a lot of great things going for it, and that she’s sure I’ll do great things here. I was suddenly self-conscious of the camera slung over my shoulder, and noted her glancing at it as we talked, so pushed it further behind my back lest she think I was a sad imitator. Though I don’t even think she would judge me for that. I thanked her for bringing the exhibit to our city, told her it was beautiful, and thanked her for helping bring ME to the city. “I’m sure you would have ended up here anyway.” “You’re probably right.”

And then I walked away with legs like jelly, kneecaps like canastas. I took to my phone, suddenly grateful for the giggly circle of gal friends and guy friends on Twitter who were cheering me on.

It was a brief encounter, but it was enough to learn that Patti Smith is my ideal celeb. She is an artist I admire and respect, and yet she is still people being people. Later on when I was relating the story to a friend, she told me she’d met her once at some schmancy event and that she was the most down-to-earth person in the room: Just Patti. She lives on earth, while her art lives in the sky, permeates all around. She felt the same way about Robert: “I don’t need another artist of my life. I have Robert. The belief that we had in each other is a belief that goes on after death. I’ve always felt it, and I feel it every day.”

I want to celebrate that.

After my encounter, I wandered up to the sixth floor of the museum, to an area called the Unmuseum. The room contains interactive pieces: a wavy carpeted floor that forces you to walk stumblingly across it, aware of your body’s pitch, a camping trailer you can sit in and rock back and forth. There were small groups of stragglers up there, rocking trailers, scaling the carpeted waves, exhibit visitors who had had wine and danced and needed a break from the party below. In the back corner of the space, I found solace in a little house with dark rooms, a table and a chair, an empty, tiny doll house for adult-sized people. I wandered inside, into the quiet, then around the back, where there was a half-storey window that overlooked the city. There was a ballgame on the giant screen looming over Fountain Square. A few houses scaling the hillside of Mt. Adams were lit up in the damp night, over the river spreading out south and west, the Carew Tower solid in the middle, permeating the sky. The puddles of the earlier rains gathered in dips of the museum roof, reflecting the lights and the towers and the ballgame on the television screen. It took my breath away. And I was happy to celebrate that.

I’m sure I would have ended up here anyway.


© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.