Category Archives: Memoirs

Narrow Road to the Interior – Matsuo Basho

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Basho is a favorite poet of mine and, apparently, of Sam Hamill, too. Nearly 325 years ago, Basho yielded to his wanderlust and left his home by the plaintain tree to walk across Japan’s interior. He kept a record of his adventures, mostly events of spiritual insight and pilgrimage but some harsh rains, perilous mountain paths and encounters with kindness. The jewel-like book to survive Basho’s walkabout is called Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Hamill as Narrow Road to the Interior

Hamill reveals that Basho’s account of his travails is not wholly reliable. The old poet was famous and welcomed by wealthy patrons into their homes along his journey. But the odd night or so of roughing it gave him plenty of inspiration for the spare, arduous tale he published. Basho’s words are as unadorned as his haiku–and the tiny travelogue is sprinkled with haiku.

All night long

listening to autumn winds

wandering in the mountains


Intense hot red sun

and this autumn wind


Solitary journeys like Basho’s (he was accompanied for most of his trip by one friend) were dangerous in 17th-century Japan. Basho was in poor health and in his forties when he set out and he wasn’t sure he would ever return. That seems to have heightened the exquisite clarity of the adventure for him–how much more intense to live in each moment when it might be your last? But he did return and he organized his notes and calligraphy and left an evocative record of one man’s search for something larger than himself.

Sam Hamill’s translation respects Oku-no-hosomichi’s simplicity. Basho’s personal quest has an honored place in the Japanese canon. Narrow Road to the Interior makes its graceful insights and encounters accessible to us. It reads like a really great trip.

Narrow Road to the Interior (Shambhala Centaur Editions)   Basho | Shambhala   1991

Tibet Through the Red Box – Peter Sis

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Peter Sis creates a spellbinding tale of magic and terror, the memories of a small boy filtered through the journal of his father during a remarkable experience. Tibet Through the Red Box tells the story of the invasion of Tibet as witnessed by a filmmaker and revealed in the book locked away in the red box. When Sis was very young his father was hired by the Chinese government to teach documentary filmmaking to students in Beijing. He left his wife and two young children in post-war Prague, a city in  a country occupied  by the Soviet Union.

It was the mid-1950s–many things observed could not be spoken aloud.  Sis’s father did not return home that Christmas, or the next Christmas. Nothing at all was heard from him. He disappeared. And then, when the boy was drifting in and out of consciousness after a serious accident, his father was suddenly at his bedside, bringing him back to health, telling him endless stories to explain his absence. The stories were connected to the mysterious red box that no one opened.  

Many years later, Sis gets a letter from his father telling him the box is now his. He returns to Czechoslovakia, to his father’s room, and opens the box with a rusty key. Inside he finds a book–a cross between a field journal and a diary, with entries in pen and specimens of flowers and butterflies pressed between the pages. His father spent the missing time in Tibet, in the tense period of the Chinese invasion, lost in the mountains, trying to reach Potala and tell the boy-God-king about the threat to his kingdom, magicked by all manner of apparitions and legends.

Tibet Through the Red Box is an oversize book filled with exquisite art and a kind of poetry. There are beautiful mandalas and terrible Tibetan dieties and pages of cursive on parchment and the boy’s memories of the gentle stories his father told him to help him heal. In those times, events the father lived through could not be discussed, so he turned his adventures into fables. The art is Tibetan-inspired, the musings on colors, deities, enchanted characters and a confusing and sometimes frightening world seen through the eyes of a small boy, are dreamlike and reflective.

This isn’t a children’s book although you could easily explore it with a child who is curious and–well, intelligent, open to the unexpected,  maybe a bit of an old soul. It’s a book full of lessons and information but it is first an experience–of words, colors, textures, dreams and sorrows. Very, very beautiful and intriguing–impressions of a lost place and time. The Dalai Lama is there and not there in the pages of the book. But it called him vividly to mind and made me wish I could see him again and hear him laugh.

Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book)   Peter Sis | Farrar, Straus and Girous  1998

Every Day in Tuscany – Frances Mayes

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A staycation is the summer option this year and I decided to spend part of mine in Tuscany. Frances Mayes obligingly produced a book of daily reminiscences and daytrips that chronicles the seasons in Cortona. Her celebrated Bramacole, the restored house in Cortona that was the setting for two previous books, is the center of this story but she also restores a thirteenth-century stone cottage up on a mountain overlooking Cortona. The old place is a tumble-down ruin that becomes a retreat in a wilder part of the countryside. That doesn’t stop her from building a hive-shaped pizza oven in the yard and entertaining hordes of friends in the open, hospitable Tuscan style.

Mayes writes poetically and rapturously about food, wine–lots of wine, flowers, day and night skies, her gardens and the piazzas of the towns she lives in and visits.  Her excursions take her to churches and museums in search of paintings by a “local” Renaissance artist, Luca Signorelli, and to picture-postcard Italian tourist icons like Portofino where she and her husband stay in an apartment owned by a friend.

A terrorist warning–a real grenade (not live it turns out) with an ugly note left on her property–shakes her faith in her Tuscan idyll and has her thinking about selling out. But, conversely, the incident and its aftermath reveal deeper layers of the life of Cortona and act as a sort of baptism, annointing her as an insider, after seventeen years. Life in Tuscany is never so sweet as when it is bittersweet.

It is tempting to see all this travel and wine-tasting and strolls in the hills as the trappings of privilege, unappealing in an era which is so hard on dreams and so relentlessly serving up hardship. But Mayes isn’t the least smug about her lovely life. The roof leaks and should really be redone. The screens flap. An owl invades the attic and spiders scuttle across the kitchen. The neighborhood is much noisier than one might expect, or want. Mayes is frank about some uncharming aspects of her life as well as unfailingly appreciative of the small and large moments that delight her.

This Tuscany isn’t at all neat but it’s very civilized, nonetheless. Life is slower, deeper, richer. People are more connected and caring in the intimacy of a small place where families have lived for half a millenniun.  Mayes knows how to drop out, savor a brodetto, a grappa, an uninterrupted dive into a good book, a meal with two dozen friends. It’s very personal travel writing. She describes both meticulously and imaginatively and makes no secret of her love affair with all (most) things Tuscan. A peaceful, hassle-free armchair excursion–pity I can’t hop on a plane, restore a ruin or two and lift a glass of prosecco myself.

Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life   Frances Mayes | Braodway Books 2010

Woolgathering – Patti Smith

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Woolgathering is a curious little book. Patti Smith wrote it, on demand, for the publisher of Hanuman Books who was a friend. The books were as small as chapbooks so she wrote something more like runes or fragments of poems than a continuous story.

Parts of it read like a nervous breakdown set to words.

Some of it is poetry.

Most is reminiscence and reflection but some seems made up.

The language is oddly mannered, European and old-fashioned, sprinkled with jarring words like ‘kink’ and ‘hairy’ and discordant images like ‘razor blades’ and ‘walkie-talkie.’

She circles back again and again to rubies and blood. She tells a heartbreaking story of the death of her childhood dog. She moves in some mystical fog and dreams about dancing on clouds.

Reading Woolgathering, I was alternately irritated and fascinated. Is this book a spell or a self-indulgence?  I couldn’t tell. But a few bits about India I recognized. And cattail punks and minnows from the creek of my own childhood I remembered.

I decided it was an artifact, a thing mind-made or handmade in a slow time out of time. It holds blurry photographs from family albums. The focus is off, just slightly, a metaphor for another way to see.

Woolgathering   Patti Smith | New Directions Books   2011

Secrets of the Talking Jaguar – Martin Prechtel

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The Mayan culture has a rich tradition of shamanism that is as wild and wily as any indigenous spiritual way. In Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, Martin Prechtel, a Puebla Indian who hitchhiked to Guatemala and landed in Santiago de Atitlan, relates his own initiation into Tzutujil shamanism by an irascible ninety-year-old wise man nicknamed Chiv. Nicolas Chiviliu Tacaxoy was a famous shaman in the Tzutujil tradition and he believed Martin had been sent to him to train.

It’s really quite a good story—Chiv, the initiating shaman was a respected elder in the village, a powerful healer and sage. Prechtel was a mess, an Indian kid disenfranchised by the simultaneous marginalization and forced assimilation of his tribal culture, set adrift by the early death of his mother, penniless, open to adventure and drifting below the border in Oaxaca and then in the Mayan Highlands. But his visionary justification for all the rough adventures that befell him served him well enough. He had the gift of seeing what happened as portents and milestones on a pilgrimage, his own journey to discover who he was.

Daily life in the colorful village is brutally hard and beautifully symbolic. Ritual is shot through with grace, miracles abound, the gods and the people live in an intimate alliance that must be renewed continually with celebrations, ceremony, contributions and veneration. Prechtel learns deep qualities of attentiveness and mental toughness. He undergoes difficult trials to prepare him to hold the teachings and the power of a sacred lineage. He drinks a lot of local moonshine and learns to listen for the true voices of the rain, the spirits and the wind.

I knew Santiago for some of the time Prechtel studied with his master and lived there as a respected shaman although I had no knowledge of him. I was an outsider without the curiosity or courage to penetrate the closed traditional society and there was no ancient shaman to invite me in. I saw—and feared–the army post at the edge of town, the unease at the assassination of the mission’s Catholic priest and the anticipated reprisals, and the unsmiling faces and breathtaking embroidery of the women in the market. I could sense much of what Prechtel laments about the destruction of the villagers’ culture and vivid spiritual life but he fills in the facts.

The world he stepped into in the 1970s as a guitar-toting vagabond no longer exists. The beliefs he was entrusted with, the skills he was carefully taught, the sacred Village Heart, the medicine bundle of objects that would help him to invoke the power of the gods, all accompanied him into exile—back home to New Mexico. But before he was forced to leave, he trained with a wickedly funny trickster and gave his own heart to the place and its people. As a traveler, I could only glimpse the outside edges of what was forfeit to a modern, uncomprehending world. Martin Prechtel captures the old truths in the pages of a book, keeping them safe for the day when they might emerge into the light of the Highlands once again.    

Secrets of the Talking Jaguar   Martin Prechtel | Penguin Putnam

The Toughest Show on Earth – Joseph Volpe

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Joe Volpe was the volatile, rags-to-riches general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. In the Met’s rarified Upper East Side social environs, an apprentice carpenter who rises through the ranks to take over the whole shop is an oddity—never happened before and not likely to happen again. So, The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera is Joe Volpe’s Cinderella story, although Cinderella he is not.

The story is as self-serving as any news-name memoir usually is. Volpe casts himself as the hero in the drama with flawless recall of the one-line zingers he delivered to those unwise enough to cross swords—or words—with him. He served as general manager for sixteen years, working at the Met from 1964 until becoming the top dog in 1990 and then retiring in 2006. His is a story of mastery and ambition—Volpe seems to have always envisioned himself as destined for Valhalla—the Met’s version anyway. And he was good at what he did—from building a set to reorganizing how opera’s massive sets are struck in order to streamline the work, to negotiating with the intractable musicians’ union when a last-minute walk-out threatened to scuttle the whole season.

Many chapters are devoted to the larger-than-life personalities who strut and fret and deliver high C’s on the Met’s stage. Sopranos and tenors get the lion’s share of the ink as they tend to be the biggest divas and pitch the most histrionic fits. Volpe was legendary for not taking crap from trantrumming performers and their insistent managers. He spends time twice justifying his firing of the troubled (and troublesome) Kathleen Battle—a move that generated international headlines and fatally damaged Battle’s career. To be fair, she seemed to be doing an excellent job of damaging her own career without any help from Volpe and that is the reason we are given for her dismissal. Pavarotti and Domingo, the two legendary tenors in lifelong contention for top billing, had some less-than-public issues about that competition that Volpe details at length. The failures and foibles of leading ladies, villains and heroes–weight, sex appeal, musicality, professionalism–all end up under the magnifying glass. The dishy stuff is fun.

Opera directors—the designers and shapers of the multimillion-dollar new productions that are the flash and dazzle of the opera world—can’t hide behind the scenery when Volpe is telling tales. I have been fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on the production) to observe several new productions from pre-rehearsal to opening night, critical reviews and run of the debut season at the Met and the drama is crazy, the results not always predictable. Some directors create enduring dreams that deliver on first performance and fill the house season after season. Quite a few fail to measure up. A number of the successes are trotted out year after year until they are dusty, shabby and tired but audiences still clamor for them. Horses, donkeys, dogs and other fauna ensure that chorus members step lively to avoid stepping in anything. Occasionally, scenery fails to perform as expected and can even be dangerous. Predictably, artists have love-hate relationships with directors and those may be carefully smoothed over or end badly with ugly headlines and empty seats.

I won’t grant Volpe the evaluation that the Met is the toughest show on earth. It’s a complex, risky and exhausting venture, with too many capricious constituents and perilous finances at the best of times. But opera is story and music and, while you can really mess that up, you never start from square one with an opera. The art form has its perennial devotees and new presentations thrust it into a continual limelight of discovery. It takes heroic effort to land a solid hit or even a mediocre performance. But a Verdi chorus or a Mozart flute trumps any single player, general manager or prima donna. Volpe’s epic run at the Met gave him a lot of gray hairs and a lot of great stories. Quite a few of them surface in this engaging book. Not precisely a 3-ring circus but a little something for everyone, including a few high-wire acts, daredevils and snarling beasts.

The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera   Joseph Volpe | Alfred A. Knopf   2006

Charlotte au Chocolat – Charlotte Silver

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Charlotte au Chocolat is a memoir—part foodie journal/part chronicle of a childhood spent in a well-known restaurant in Harvard Square. Charlotte Silver was named for the dessert and her parents served several versions of it in Upstairs at the Pudding, the third-floor dining establishment at the Hasty Pudding Club. But the chocolate recipe was so popular that it was always on the menu. So were other favorites—all unapologetically rich, hand-crafted dishes that made the elaborate restaurant avant-garde in a wasteland of Boston baked beans and student fast-food specials.

Charlotte recounts a menu of memories, incidents laced with marbled beef, roasted pheasant, Chantilly cream and the ubiquitous Shirley Temples, served with a flourish to a little girl ordering her nightly meal at the staff table in the corner. She was taught to greet customers and staff by name and dressed every night in an appropriately fancy costume—dress-up for the glittery dining room and its upscale guests. She wore black patent leather Mary Janes instead of sneakers and took naps under the linen covered bar until she got too big for the crawl space.

It was an elevated life for a not-at-all-wealthy family—nightly fine dining in the midst of affluent Bostonians and Harvard visitors, serenades at Sunday brunch by the Krokodiloes—a campy Harvard singing group, brioche stuffed with fried oysters, never macaroni and cheese. Julia Child lived in the neighborhood and stopped in occasionally. Celebrated actors and actresses were feted at the annual Woman and Man of the Year Awards. It was pure theater, a magical world for a child. And a lonely one. But the fairytale setting and access to an intense adult business compensated for the odd upbringing.

Charlotte au Chocolat is interesting—light as a meringue in most spots, serious as Beef Wellington here and there. It reminded me occasionally of Collette’s memoir of her mother, although these memories are far less complex and vividly drawn. Charlotte’s mother was a force to be reckoned with, a woman perfectly attuned to elegance and stage settings who worked like a stevedore in the kitchen and always dabbed a little Joy in her cleavage before the evening seatings. “Never cry in the restaurant,” was one of her strict rules and she didn’t, not even on the night that the Pudding served its last meal and closed, a victim of the greedy real estate gobble that transfigured Harvard Square and peopled it with chain stores and big box emporiums.

Charlotte Silver didn’t take her finely calibrated tastes to Harvard. She studied writing at Bennington in Vermont, on scholarship—the restaurant never made much money and the fridge in the family’s rented apartments was usually untended and mostly empty. Her mother went on to open another, less ambitious restaurant while Charlotte followed somewhat in her father’s footsteps. After a divorce, he gave up working as head chef and began a new career as an art photographer, happy to be out of the kitchen for good. But the Pudding imprinted itself so strongly on a child who grew up there that her mother’s world is the one that defines her. Pink is the predominant color and recollections of elaborate meals, transient staff friendships, endless Shirley Temples and desserts worthy of a court table flavor Silver’s tea party of a book.

 Charlotte Au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood   Charlotte Silver | Riverhead Books   2012

My Mother’s House & Sido — Colette

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Colette wrote lyrical vignettes that describe her unconventional country childhood and her beloved mother, the Sido of the title of My Mother’s House & Sido.  It is a collection rich in sensuous detail, mirroring the delight in nature and the keen observance Colette inherited from her mother. She writes of endless flowers in a much-cultivated garden and of Sido’s reluctance to cut them as ornaments for a neighbor’s funeral. She recounts meals, tastes and textures so faithfully a reader longs for the simple, natural breads, creams and country dishes of a past era.

Her eye captures the shimmer and hue of every fabric and her quick mind conjures the private motivations of neighbors, big brothers and the mysterious and indulgent parents who allowed her to grow up unfettered and a little wild, secure in her own choices and observations. It was an ideal childhood for a writer and Colette adds to the fairytale quality by idealizing what may have been very pedestrian events and the deprivations of a family out of fortune. She felt rich, her mother was certain of their abundance and the child exulted in her experience. Apparently, she never forgot a thing.

The second section of the book, Sido, deals in more depth with Colette’s father, a war veteran who adored his wife but was frustrated in his business dealings. After his death, the children discovered that a shelf of carefully matched volumes in his library was meant to hold his own books, all named on their spines, but was filled with beautiful blank pages instead. The Colette siblings—Colette was the family name of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette—were a headstrong and quirky lot. One brother became a doctor, another was a prodigiously gifted musician who preferred his solitude and silence to a career, an older sister kept her distance from the rest and married badly. Colette was the younger of the two children from her mother’s second marriage, and the baby, so she had Sido’s complete attention and the benefit of her considerable country wisdom.

Colette is such a wonderful writer that these bits are compelling and entertaining, even though they don’t follow a story arc and appear to be random musings. My Mother’s House & Sido evokes a lost world that seeped into the consciousness of a prolific writer, along with the scents, sights and sounds associated with an idyllic childhood and the woman at the center of Colette’s early memories.

My Mother’s House and Sido   Colette | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   1995

The Man Within My Head – Pico Iyer

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When I saw that Pico Iyer had written a self-examination of his long fascination with and links to Graham Greene, I knew I’d have to read it. Iyer’s work evokes Greene for me sometimes—the outsider’s adventures in extreme and theatrical cultures are the stuff of movie swashbuckling or gritty documentaries. But the exploits cast another kind of filter over the events that I knew as well. There is a sharp and bitter loneliness in not belonging. There are shadows, a knife-edge of introspection, a heightened awareness of what is—and what you are not. It’s easy to become someone else when you travel beyond your own social boundaries but, paradoxically, it’s impossible to avoid yourself.

The Man Within My Head covers territory not often encountered in travel writing. Iyer digs into his bifurcated childhood as an Indian boy in a British boarding school with regular trips home to Santa Barbara where his parents’ academic lives were immersed in the culture of the 60s and 70s. Pico Iyer’s boyhood public school experiences were similar to those of Greene—and his subsequent wandering around the globe duplicated patterns of Greene’s journeys as well.  Greene became for him a kind of surrogate father, a fictional counterpart to the real father, a distinguished Gandhi scholar, who regaled college students with his brilliant syntheses of East and West, classical and contemporary.

The book is not a linear narrative. Scenes emerge, fade, veer off, double back like hairpin-turn mountain roads—the kind with single lanes, sheer drops and white crosses marking fatalities. Trips to Ethiopia and Bolivia seem foolhardy with explicit danger. In Sri Lanka, an explosion of violence makes leaving the relative safety of a hotel room unappealing. In Cuba, the trips are research for an eventual novel, Cuba and the Night, that is very thinly fictional. Our Man in Havana places Greene in eerily similar circumstances. In fact, Greene’s books ghost through Iyer’s travels from Indo-China to the Caribbean. Greene’s spiritual dilemmas engage Iyer in an enduring argument, even as Iyer turns his back on his world and upbringing, searching for some spare truth in his own peregrinations.

A surprise in the recounting of the life of a writer I have always sought out (Iyer, although I could claim the same thing about Greene), Pico Iyer is a good friend of Bernie Diederich. I knew Bernie and worked with him in Miami—he is the grand old dean of Latin American and Caribbean coverage and has written brilliant books on many of the region’s legendary dictators—but, in all the time I knew him, I never suspected he was close to Iyer. A small world just got much smaller. Made me nostalgic for the days when any bag I carried contained a passport, a reporter’s notebook, a pair of Raybans and some cash for the currency exchange.

Iyer’s trek inside his own mind isn’t an extended essay and it isn’t a memoir—more like the puzzling of a Zen koan or a long meditation on a literary and personal influence. Graham Greene was, and remains, a strong presence for him. The Man Within My Head examines the convergence of their lives and work, pulls out pieces of Iyer’s life and holds them up to the light, reveals as much about the author as it does about the real and fictional fathers who haunt him.

The Man Within My Head   Pico Iyer | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Related post:  Cuba and the Night

Just Kids – Patti Smith

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Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, is many things. It is a primer on how to follow an inchoate longing and become an artist out of nothing and nowhere. It is a testament to a bond so unbreakable it survived gut-wrenching poverty, sexual ambivalence, homelessness, hunger, and an assemblage of male lovers—some his, some hers.

The two kids who swanned around Greenwich Village, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel in their thrift store costumes fed each other, supported each other, used each other in their art, moved apart and came together from their earliest days in New York City to Mapplethorpe’s death at 43 from AIDS in 1989. Along the journey, Smith discovered how to merge her poetry with rock and roll and Mapplethorpe turned away from his Catholic boyhood into a fascination with hustling, S&M and a singular vision of photography. Her first album, Horses, with an iconic cover photo shot by Mapplethorpe, exploded into public consciousness. His evocative and disturbing photos, collages and drawings established him as a polarizing rebel who inspired love and hate in equal measure.

Smith writes description in poetic riffs that transform memory into dream. She has clear recall of telling moments with the pantheon of musical, literary and artistic greats who hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Horn & Hardart’s. Allen Ginsburg once supplied the missing dime that allowed a starving Smith to snag a cafeteria sandwich then, ever on the prowl, asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Smith once cut her long hair in the style of Keith Richards and earned instant acceptance from some hard-sell members of Warhol’s crowd. Mapplethorpe saved Smith from a dinner date gone wrong by pretending to be her boyfriend—and then he became her boyfriend. They were silly, naïve, intensely serious about becoming artists, worked on their art day and night, shared a single hot dog, a single museum ticket, a single room with a hotplate, a single vision that filled their empty bellies and warmed their unheated digs.

Just Kids is the “this happened” and “then that happened” and then “this is who was there” formula of celebrity memoirs that capture a rich period in time. But it’s much more. It’s the story of a connection that seems almost mystical to Smith. Mapplethorpe embraced his homosexuality but turned to Smith as his permanent muse. Patti Smith went on to marry and have two children. The last photograph Robert Mapplethorpe took of her includes her infant daughter, reaching out to him from her mother’s arms. When they were young, hungry and just starting out, a tourist urged her husband to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe at Washington Square Arch in the Village, a hangout for colorful types all dressed like impoverished artists. The husband surveyed the two of them, real artists deep in anonymity and still searching to define their art, and said “Nah. They’re just kids.” They were. But he missed a great shot.

Just Kids   Patti Smith | HarperCollins   2010