Sunday, October 4, 2015

15 SECONDS WITH ANDY WARHOL by Peter Nolan Smith

When I was a kid, Campbell’s Tomato Soup tasted home-made, especially if milk was added as suggested by the directions. Everyone ate it in 1964; the rich, the poor, the in-between, and twelve year-old boys like me, so I was pleased to read in LIFE Magazine that a New York artist had painted large portraits of the popular soup can. My mother thought that Andy Warhol’s works were funny. My father wasn’t as appreciative of his reproductions.

“I bet you could do better with your crayons.” My father had said the same about Hollywood movies without ever letting me touch his Bell & Howell movie camera, but adults have a funny way of never remembering anything bad that they tell their children.

That next weekend my father bet our next-door neighbor that I could replicate Warhol’s painting with my crayons.

“$5 says he can’t.” Mr. Manzi shook his head with bemused conviction.

“$5 says he can.” My father looked at me for assurance. The priests had awarded my entry to Boston Parochial Art Contest with an honorable mention and the sisters of our Lady of the Foothills had given me an A grade in Art.

“I think I can.” The LIFE article stated that Warhol’s big soup can paintings cost $1500 and an autographed can of the real soup was priced at $6.

“Think isn’t good enough.” $5 was a tank of gas for his Delta 88.

“I can do it.” I had $2 saved from my paper route. "I'll bet $5 too."

Winning $5 from this bet had me thinking that I could afford my very own Warhol. The supermarket at the South Shore Plaza had to sell them. The Stop and Shop offered all kinds of weird foods in the specialty aisle.

“Good boy.” My father was gambling that my nascent skill could translate into money.

"He has to complete the drawing in one hour." Mr. Manzi put ten dollars on the kitchen table.

"More than enough time." My father handed me a soup can from the pantry and sat with Mr. Manzi to watch the Red Sox game. "Go get your art stuff."

I went upstairs to my bedroom to fetch my crayons, several sheets of white paper, a ruler, and a compass, then hurried back to the living room.

"Two minutes are gone already." Mr. Manzi tapped his watch.

"I know." I pulled apart the curtains. Sunlight swarmed through the windows and I took out my crayons. I examined the soup can for several minutes and then sketched its outline onto a clean sheet of paper.

Andy Warhol had used five colors to copy the soup cans; red, black, white, silver, and gold. Getting the curve of the top and bottom right required the aid of the compass. Coloring the bottom half was simplified since it was the same color as the paper. The font of the lettering was tricky and the gold fleur de lis required a glib hand, yet I copied the symbol of the Bourbon Monarchy with guillotine precision.

“Only five more minutes.” My father yelled from the kitchen.

"I'm almost done." I rushed through the gold medallion.

Rendition in hand I reached in the kitchen with 20 seconds to spare. I showed my father the image. I was certain that my effort would pass their inspection.

My father shook his head and gave Mr. Manzi $5.

“Close, but not close enough.” My father was an honorable man.

“I don’t know.” Mr. Manzi reached for the paper. “Let me be the judge.”

“What for? No son of mine is going to be an artist.” My father had much more austere goals set for his second son and threw the paper into the trash.

“My son the artist.” He was pushing me to be a doctor. My mother was praying for a priest. “You owe Mr. Manzi $5."

"I only have $2."

"Then give him those."

"Yes, sir."

“This wasn’t so bad.” My mother rescued the drawing from the garbage. Her father had worked as a trolleyman out of the Forest Hills yards. She had a great singing voice and art meant more to her than my father.

“Maybe someday this will hang in a museum.”

I hugged her and retreated upstairs to my bedroom, where I tore the picture into pieces. Art wasn’t as easy as my father said. It took skills to be a Warhol, although many magazines vilified his paintings as copies of reality. He laughed at this criticism and said, "Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes."

His fame lasted longer and The Factory was the rage in the mid-60s. His bohemian entourage shot movies about nothing. Sometimes the girls were naked. Other times the men. One long-haired poet wielded a whip, while dancing to electronic music. None of their films appeared at the South Shore Drive-In and I conspired to join his circus, as did many of other Catholic school students, for teenagers were rejecting the ethics of church-work-family-heaven.

It didn’t matter to us that tough kids called Andy Warhol ‘queer’. He was something else. None of us were sure what, but I knew Andy could use me for his movies. There was only one problem and it wasn’t that I was only 13.

The sad truth was that Andy Warhol was never coming to the South Shore. His kingdom was in Manhattan, which was more than 200 miles to the south.

Boston remained off Warhol's beaten track throughout 1965, 1966, or 1967, but in May 1968 the Velvet Underground were booked to perform at the Boston Tea Party. Warhol was filming his protégés’ concert and I planned getting my share of fame.

“Let’s go see the Underground,” I suggested to my girlfriend, Kyla Rolla. She was probably the prettiest girl in my hometown.

“I’d like to go but the Doors are playing at the Uptown Bus.” Kyla was in love with the lead singer.

“Yeah, but I really like the Velvet Underground.” My ambition to be a star without any reason for fame was a secret, which I had never confessed to Kyla.

“Jim Morrison’s sexy, but if you want to see the Velvets, then I can go see the Doors with my girlfriends.” Kyla unbuttoned her shirt. She was well-developed beyond her age. The boys in town were enough competition without opening up the field to hippies in Boston and I said, “I’ll go with you.”

That night the Doors performed to about 40 girls and me. Everyone else was at the Boston Tea Party, although Warhol never showed up to film the set.

Less than a month later Valerie Solanas tried to assassinate Warhol and the Factory disbanded for security reasons.

Kyla and I broke up in 1969.

I became an anti-war college student with long hair. Beer replaced pot. I graduated sin laude from university and taught at South Boston High School during the Busing Riots of 1975. The students fought daily, despite the presence of the State Troopers in every classroom. The purgatory of the present was mirrored by the limbo of my future, then on a trip to New York I fell in love with a young painter from Brooklyn. Our love was destined to forever.

I quit my job and drove to New York in a stolen car. Ro and I made love three times that night. The next day she left to study art in Paris.

My heart was shattered to shards, but not enough to force me back to Boston. I moved into a SRO hotel on West 11th Street and found a busboy job at Serendipity 3 on East 60th Street. The restaurant was decorated with Tiffany lamps and the menu offered frozen chocolate ice cream sodas. Mr. Bruce, the owner, took one look at my semi-Neanderthal features and said, “Our clientele likes rough trade.”

Rough trade was not really a compliment, then again Mr. Bruce wasn’t Bruce Lee. His mustache curled upward like scimitars and his lisp hissed like an over-boiled tea pot. He was looking south of my waist.

“I’m not gay.”

“No, neither are all the boys on 53rd Street.” The block was famous for hustlers.

“I’m not that type.”

“Too bad.” Mr. Bruce sighed as if he was used to playing a waiting game with young men. He was barely 40. “You have trouble with famous people?”


“We were the first people to show his work in the 50s." Mr. Bruce blushed at the thought of revealing his age. "Warhol comes here from time to time. He likes our double chocolate frappes."

“Warhol?” My misery was erased by the momentary hope for fame.

“Yes, but you’re not his type. He likes prep school boys, but you never know. When can you start?”

Ten minutes later I was in a white shirt, black tie, and black pants. All the waiters and busboys had female nicknames. Mine was Pebbles. I kept making for Warhol to show at the ice cream parlor. He would make me famous as Joe Dallesandro, who played a street hustler in FLESH. I just needed one chance.

One afternoon Mr. Bruce caught me checking the reservation book.

"Why are you looking in the book?" Everyone had their place at Serendipity 3 and mine was not where I was at the moment.

"I was curious. Someone said that Warhol was coming today." It was a hope-filled lie.

Mr. Bruce shut the book.

“Andy doesn’t need a reservation, Pebbles. Why you looking anyway? I told you before that Andy like preppy boys. They wear blue oxford shirts, navy blue blazer, khakis, and penny loafers. But I like black leather.”

Mr. Bruce was a sucker for punks in leather and I refused his offer to visit the back room.

“You want to be a bus boy the rest of your life?”

“It’s a living.” Busboy wages barely paid the weekly nut for my room, but life was cheap in the Village.

After work the pastry chef and I went to CBGBs and Max’s. Klaus Nomi wasn’t Andy Warhol’s type either.

The thin German singer and I wore black leather and torn jeans to the wild bars of the West Village. Unlike Candy from the Velvet Underground’s WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, Klaus was far too perverse to be anyone’s darling.

One night some gay-bashers tried to attack some queers on West Street. I stopped their assault with a broken beer bottle. A nightclub owner heard about the incident and asked if I wanted to work the door at Hurrah’s, a punk disco. The pay for a bouncer was $100/night and all I could drink. Opening night featured the Ramones and the Police.

I gave my notice at Serendipity and told the boys to come visit me. They liked straight boys just like Andy Warhol. Hurrahs owner found out that Klaus sang rock like castrati and promised him a gig.

“I have to think about it.”

Hurrahs was not Studio 54, but big names from rock and cinema came on big nights.

I was too common to catch the eye of anyone powerful enough to rescue me from being a doorman.

Klaus on the other hand attracted attention from photographers, fashion designers, record execs, and talent agents. Each contemplated on how to make money from a Josef Goebbels lookalike with a voice of Maris Callas. Few were smart enough to see the obvious.

Klaus was offered the opening act for Divine at Hurrah. His repertoire was two songs; Lou Chrystie’s LIGHTNING DOESN’T STRIKE TWICE and a classic aria from Mozart. He showed up wearing in a pink suit with stark make-up on his face.

“Here’s my list.” Andy Warhol’s name was at the top.

“You really think he’ll show.”

“Divine said he would.” Divine was the most famous transvestite in America. She was fat too, but funnier in John Waters films than the Flintstones or anything on TV.

“I’ll make sure he knows you personally put him on it.”

“Viele Danke.” His Nazi salute was very discreet.

Andy Warhol had never visited Hurrah, however Divine and Klaus were his kind of people and I scrounged through the cloakroom to change my leather jacket for a Jaeger blazer forgotten by some preppie the week before. It was a tight fit, but as close as I could get to Warhol’s ideal. Everyone working at the club was surprised by my wardrobe and asked if I was going to court.

“No,” I lied hoping to score a position at Warhol’s monthly, INTERVIEW. I wrote poetry.

Klaus laughed at my changed appearance.

“You clean up real good. Why the change?”

I couldn’t tell him about my aspirations. This was his night and I wished him luck. My anxiety rose, as it appeared like Andy Warhol wasn’t going to show up at the club. Studio had a big party. Maybe Klaus and Divine weren’t enough of a draw.

I helped Klaus to the stage and returned to the door with a beer. Drunkenness was my favorite cure for disappointment, but as I lifted the Heineken to my lips a Lincoln Town Car stopped at the curb. Three blonde boys got out of the back. They looked like Groton seniors on holiday. Andy emerged after the Waspish trio. His wig shone as white as a full moon on a smoky sky. People stopped on the sidewalk to gawk in awe. Cars braked on 62nd Street and I broke out of my star-struck paralysis to put down my beer.

Everyone in the foyer opened a path for the White Mole of Union Square. No one said a word. Andy ignored everyone, but the three boys. His eyes fell on me and he said, “I’m on the list.”

“Plus three.” I opened the velvet ropes. “Klaus put you on it.”

“Thanks.” He walked inside. The three boys followed him.

The entire incident lasted 10 seconds.

After the show Klaus exited with Andy, the three boys, and Divine. Everyone at the entrance exuded raw jealousy. Andy Warhol saw none of them. I was the only person with something to say.

“Mr. Warhol, I painted your soup can as a kid. It wasn’t easy.

“Really.” He regarded me with a plastic lock of hair blocking one eye, then left the club.

Total time with Andy.

15 seconds and I remained a nobody, but I was good at being a nobody too and that skill has lasted more than 15 seconds. I still like Campbell’s Tomato Soup too. Without Andy Warhol’s autograph it’s less than a dollar and I can always afford that price.

Andy Warhol quote: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

Oh Andy, when you're right you are so right.

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