M Train

Patti Smith has conversations with inanimate objects.

She has a daily routine of going to Café ‘Ino—a regular spot in her Greenwich Village neighborhood—where she sits at the same table and orders a proletariat breakfast of brown toast, a small dish of olive oil, and black coffee. Smith writes of this after waking from dreams of a laconic cowpoke—an imaginary muse I picture in the likeness of her long-time friend, Sam Shepard—who tells her it’s not so easy to write about nothing.

Smith is a poetic tour guide in New York City, stopping to chat with a bust of Nicola Tesla that loiters like a lone sentinel outside the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. She’s having trouble writing, off balance, moving back and forth from lethargy to agitation. Tesla, a statuary catalyst that coaxes rumination into words, tells her she’s “misplaced joy and without joy we are as dead.”

The café in New York is home base but she’s not always bound there. Her memories take her to French Guiana and the ruins of the Saint-Laurent prison—which she photographs with a Polaroid camera—and to Hermann Hesse’s house in Montagnola, Switzerland, and wherever else she wishes.

Her rambling memoir contains Polaroid photographs she’s taken over the years during her travels: Snapshots of Frida Kahlo’s crutches leaning against a wall in Casa Azul; the Arcade Bar in Detroit, Michigan; an incense burner resting atop the gravestone of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa in Japan. And always there are stories that go along with the photographs.

One of my favorite tales tells of a time she is sent on a clandestine midnight mission to Reykjavík to meet with the elusive Grand Master of chess, Bobby Fischer—who greets her with paranoid conspiracy rants that morph into a duet of singing Buddy Holly songs.

M Train is just the sort of book I like to savor slowly…while dipping biscotti in coffee and taking periodic breaks to delve into my own journal in my own favorite café.

Martians Unprepared For Trump Mars Mission

When American President Donald Trump of Earth signed a bill in March of 2017 authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA he announced plans for a Mars mission during his first term. Some citizens of our nearby planetary neighbor expressed skepticism and alarm.

“We weren’t expecting Earthers to visit for at least fifteen years,” Dr. Kelvin Klaatu—a Martian professor of human anthropology currently orbiting Earth in a flying saucer with two grad students—tells me in an interplanetary Skype chat.

“We’re not ready,” he says. “We’re still trying to figure out how to protect ourselves from human viruses and microorganisms. Plus, our minister of human affairs hasn’t received the funds promised for the construction of Trump’s hotel and golf course in our capital city. And frankly, we feel that Earth people are presently too xenophobic for a successful first contact.”

I ask Dr. Klaatu if he had been monitoring the conversation between President Trump and astronaut Peggy Whitson, while she was aboard the International Space Station.

“Actually, we heard about Trump’s plan while listening to NPR over the radio,” Klaatu says.

His grad students, Barada and Nickto, appear next to him on screen and perform what can be best described as a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch.

“Tell me, Mars…” Barada says in a perfect imitation of Trump’s voice. “What do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?”

“You already approved a timeline for the mission to launch in 2033 when you funded NASA, you ridiculous human meat-suit,” Nickto replies in Whitson’s voice.

“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term,” Barada says. “So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

“Yeah, well, you better cancel the construction of your golf course on the sun,” Nickto sneers.

“But I already borrowed the money,” says Barada.

The two grad students high-six each other and laugh hysterically.

Charlie Chaplin Crashes My Interview With Pola Negri

I’m at the café with Pola Negri, the femme fatale from the Kingdom of Poland who appeared in German films such as Die Augen der Mumie (1918) and Mad Love (1921) before she made her first Hollywood film in 1922. Charlie Chaplin joins us at the table.

“I met Charlie at the Palais Heinroth,” Pola tells me.

I know the place well as it’s the swankiest hot spot in Berlin. Pola says that Charlie entered unrecognized, conspicuously underdressed among all the swells in evening dress.

Charlie remembers it like this:

“I was guided by the Palais Heinroth manager to a table located at the most obscure part of the room and I’m surprised by a slap on the back and a voice calling out my name.”

It’s Al Kaufman of the Lansky Corporation.

“Come over to our table,” says the manager of the Famous Players studio in Berlin. “Pola Negri wants to meet you.”

Negri laughs at the memory.

“A little man with a sad sensitive face fought his way up to our table. Were it not for his odd appearance, so dapper and so pathetic. He had such a strange physiognomy, with tiny feet and an enormous head that made him seem top-heavy. The only physically attractive thing about him were his hands, which were never without a cigarette.”

“Pola was so beautiful,” Charlie remembers. “Beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth and wonderful coloring. She was the centre of attraction.”

The silent screen star blushes.

“What a voice she has,” he says, traveling back in time to the moment. “Her mouth speaks so prettily the German language. Her voice has a soft, mellow quality, with charming inflections. Offered a drink, she clinks my glass and offers her only English words, ‘Jazz boy, Charlie.’”

On Christmas Eve of 1922, Charlie gave Pola a large diamond that he intended to set within an engagement ring. However, in March, he announced to the papers he was too poor to marry her and she ended their engagement.

Stan Laurel Crashes My Interview With Charlie Chaplin

I’m in a pub with Charlie Chaplin and he’s regaling me with one version of his history. He says he was born into poverty amid the squalor of South London on 16 April 1889—the same year that the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris. Charlie’s birth took place in a gypsy caravan as it was traveling through Birmingham. His mother, Hannah, would never tell Charlie who his father was or if she even knew.

The funny thing about this interview is that Chaplin’s lips are moving but no sound is coming out. Of course, he’s a silent movie star, I should have expected a dumb show. Fortunately, there are subtitles in my mind.

Chaplin started as a music hall performer among comics and mimes and magicians and mesmerists, performing before booze soaked audiences that watched the acts through a haze of tobacco smoke. At eighteen, he joined Fred Karno’s burlesque of mimes and acrobats. Karno, a theater impresario and comedian, was known as the father of the custard-pie-in-the-face gag—and Charlie was still with Fred Karno’s Army in the autumn of 1910 when the touring company left Southampton aboard the SS Cairnrona and crossed the Atlantic bound for Canada.

Not surprisingly, a piano crashes through the ceiling above and crushes our table, depositing an unkempt Stan Laurel at our feet. I’m reminded of Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb at the end of Doctor Strangelove.

Stan dusts the ceiling plaster from his suit and says, “I was Charlie’s understudy and room-mate for the tour. When we reached the shores of Quebec, we were all on the deck of the [converted cattle boat], sitting, watching the land in the mist.”

Suddenly, Charlie ran to the railing, took off his hat, waved it and shouted:

“America, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips—Charles Spencer Chaplin!”

“We all booed him affectionately and he bowed to us very formally and sat down again.”