When Hive spoke with novelist Jennifer Egan earlier this year, she shared a few notable stories about how the Notorious B.I.G. and oddly enough, Seminsonic came to influence her work. But while the discussion was mainly on her critically acclaimed book A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan’s younger days in San Francisco were spent discovering, among many things, life through Patti Smith. In this essay, Egan recalls this period in her life and what it meant to her.
There was a leader, of course. I’ll call her V: a scholarship student at our private high school. She’d moved to San Francisco recently from Alaska, and lived with her mother in a small downtown apartment. V’s mother was not like the mothers I’d grown up knowing: she was in her mid-30s, divorced, and worked full time.
One afternoon in the fall of our freshman year, I climbed with V to the roof of her apartment building and smoked my first joint in the cold punching mix of sun and fog that any San Franciscan knows in their bones. Then we went downstairs to V’s apartment, where she slept on a mattress and box-spring in the living room by a window overlooking the bay. We listened to Patti Smith. V and her mother had Horses and the new album, Radio Ethiopia. I had never heard anything like the crooning, menacing wildness of that voice.
By the time I took the bus home, I felt like I’d crashed through a false bottom into real life. It was something I’d been debating: was reality the inside of my stepfather’s Jaguar, where I sat with my little brother in the back seat during night rides home from downtown, Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night playing on the tape deck? Or was it what I saw outside my window as we drove towards the Broadway Tunnel: hookers, strip clubs, addled sunburned hippies, spidery young people with chopped hair and ghostly skin who were clearly in extremis – orbed with a glow of duress even when they were laughing?
This was 1976.
At 14, I began a secret life. It tunnelled underneath my old one, which looked the same to the untrained eye, but was revealed, now, to be the insubstantial thing I’d always guessed. The entry point was V’s apartment, where I went for weekend sleepovers, thus avoiding (for a while) the suspicions of my mother and stepfather. But brownie baking and late-night TV figured nowhere in these odysseys with V and L – another girl from our class who had joined us. I knew L from the girls’ school where I’d gone until that year; she played the violin. She told outrageous lies with a straight face.
Our nights began with the taking of various drugs – pot, acid, mushrooms, Quaaludes, all of which we bought on the street – followed by prolonged nocturnal wandering: to the fancy Nob Hill hotels near V’s apartment, whose halls and gilded bathrooms we haunted, then down a fall of hills to Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, where we bought ice cream and spied on tourists. When it got to be two or three in the morning, we unearthed our cans of spray paint and left hurried, cryptic scrawls over sidewalks and buildings. It felt important to leave our mark on the city. Once in a while, driving with my mother in daylight, I would see something V and L and I had written, and my stomach would do a little flip.
There was a soundtrack to all this: Patti Smith. After school, the three of us lay side by side on the greyish-white wall-to-wall carpeting in V’s living room, and listened to Patti sing. We knew every note, every phrase; we sang along, and in the course of our school day, we muttered lines to each other:
“He merged perfectly. With the mirror. In the hallway.”
“The boy looked at Johnny. Johnny wanted to run but the movie kept moving as planned…”
And so on, until Johnny is raped by the second boy, who may or may not be Johnny’s own reflection, and a throng of imaginary horses is unleashed. Patti heaved up these horses from somewhere in her chest. She panted them out. She was doing more than singing – she was showing us a way to be in the world: fragile but tough, beautiful and ugly, corrupt and innocent.
I stopped combing my hair, let it tangle and frizz into a ratty mane like Patti’s. I wore my stepfather’s old shirts loosely tucked, unbuttoned to my breastbone like Patti in the famous Mapplethorpe photo. Like V and L, I put pen to paper as I listened, stoned, to Patti sing, trying my best to capture the monumental swerving of my brain. V and L were better at this. They expected to be famous and believed it of each other. L would be an artist, V a writer. But really, they would be rock stars, like Patti. I made no such claims, and no one made them for me.
After the school year ended, I exchanged feverish letters with V from Chicago, where I’d gone for my annual visit to my father and his new family. I spent my days volunteering at the day camp where my young half-siblings went, wondering if a letter from V would be waiting for me when I got back to my father’s apartment. She wrote to me on construction paper, and enclosed shells and leaves and feathers. She’d lost her virginity to a man her mother brought home. She and L had briefly become lovers. I read with awe, with envy.
All this time, Patti Smith continued her ascent. We heard her on the radio and in stores and even in the Jaguar. In some mystical way, her rising popularity seemed to bode well for us, her girls, as if she could take us with her, lift us out of our lives into something better. And when it was announced she would come to San Francisco for a concert in the summer of 1978, we arranged to go together.
I don’t remember if she sang “Land”, our favorite song, with its stampede of imaginary horses. I want to think she didn’t – it seems impossible that I could have forgotten that.
Here’s what I do remember: we were close, almost directly in front of Patti, all three of us wearing hooded sweatshirts; we held hands and looked up; my gut disappointment at realizing Patti didn’t recognize us or even see us – that our years of devotion were lost on her; the miracle of her sheer proximity – seeing her alive, breathing, flicking sweat from her tangled hair – which finally washed away that initial disappointment; Patti wrapping herself in an American flag; becoming separated from V and L as the concert went on. At one point I noticed L holding a man from behind as she danced, her arms around his waist.
My thirst. It was something I barely noticed at first in the sweaty hall, but gradually it overpowered me, until my need for cold water crowded out everything else, even Patti Smith onstage, and made me wish for the concert to end. Would this be the last song? Would this? I prayed so. I fantasized about the feel of water in my mouth. That’s my strongest memory of my night with Patti Smith: how thirsty I was. I can’t remember ever being thirstier in my life.
L left with the man I’d seen her dancing with. The next day she would come to my house, trembling, and tell me she’d been gang raped. True or not? I wasn’t sure. Within another year, I would watch her shoot heroin with a room full of punk rockers she’d moved in with, all of them sharing a needle, then nod off against my shoulder for an hour.
V and I left together. In my memory, fog is spinning in the cloud of fluorescent light outside the late-night corner market where we sprint to buy a gallon of orange juice. V is as thirsty as I am, it turns out. We pass the carton back and forth, gulping the cold sweet juice until it runs from our chins and soaks our T-shirts. We drink the whole thing, panting and gasping.
V will graduate from high school a year early, as planned. For her thesis, she’ll write a book on Willa Cather, copying 200 pages by hand in a series of drafts. She and her mother will move back to Alaska, where V will get straight As through two years of college, six courses a semester, and then drop out. She’ll become addicted to cocaine and finally get clean. In our late 20s, we’ll lose track of each other.
But I don’t want us to go our separate ways yet. I want to stand outside the corner market a while longer with V, surrounded by fog, the two of us holding our empty juice carton and talking about how it felt to see Patti Smith, how beautiful she looked, how strong she is and how we want to be like that, too, strong and fierce, how we want to do big things in our lives, like Patti. How we can feel it – the rest of our lives – coming up underneath us like a huge, unknowable shape. But I’m making this up – I don’t remember what we said. I don’t remember if I drove V home in my mother’s boxy blue Fiat, or if we both took the bus. I don’t remember if I could drive yet. I should know these things – I should remember everything. But when I push against the feeling of standing there with V, the moment blows away like the fog that may or may not have been out that night.
Words originally appeared in The Guardian, March 6, 2011. Reprinted with permission.