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 work.
“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 discouraging their children from pursuing the arts.
That next weekend I was mowing the lawn. My father was conversing with our next-door neighbor. He shouted to me and I shut off the mower. When I reached them, my father said, "I told Leo that you could replicate Warhol’s painting, can you?"
My father looked at me for assurance.
My entry to Boston Parochial Art Contest had been awarded with an honorable mention.
"Probably isn't 100%"
"I can only do my best." The sisters of our Lady of the Foothills had given me an A grade in Art.
"Yes, sir." I never called my father 'dad in front of other people.
“$5 says he can’t.” Mr. Manzi shook his head with bemused conviction.
"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. $10 was two pairs of Levis at Sawyers on Boylston Street.
“Can I bet too." I had $12 saved from my paper route. Winning $5 from this bet had me thinking that I could afford my very own Warhol. The supermarket had to sell them. The Stop and Shop at the South Shore Plaza offered all kinds of weird foods in the specialty aisle. They have to an Andy Warhol can for sale.
My father looked over his shoulder.
My mother wasn't home.
"I won't say anything to Mom."
"Show mr. Manzi your money." I took out a fiver.
Then we're on, but he has to complete the drawing in one hour.” Mr. Manzi pulled out ten dollars and we walked inside the house.
“More than enough time.” My father handed me a soup can from the pantry and sat in the den 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 kitchen.
“Two minutes are gone already.” Mr. Manzi shouted from the den.
“I know.” I pulled apart the curtains. Sunlight swarmed through the windows and I examined the soup can for several minutes and then sketched its outline onto a clean sheet of paper before taking out my crayons.
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 TV room.
“I’m almost done.” I rushed through the gold medallion.
Rendition in hand I descended to the den with 20 seconds to spare. I showed my father the image, 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. He was pushing me to be a doctor. My mother was praying for a priest. “You owe Mr. Manzi $5.”
“Yes, sir.” I handed over the finnif.
“This wasn’t so bad.” Mr. Manzi rescued the drawing from the garbage. “I'll pay you $10 for it."
"But I lost the bet."
"Yes, but I'm buying your Warhol. Maybe someday this will hang in a museum."
I thanked him and my father sternly ordered me to return to cutting the lawn. Following the mower was easy work, but it took skills to draw a Warhol, although many magazines vilified his paintings as copies of reality. Andy Warhol had laughed at this criticism and said, “Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”
His fame lasted longer and The Factory raged through the mid-60s. His bohemian entourage shot movies about nothing. Sometimes naked girls lounged around the loft. 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 life of church-work-family-heaven.
Tough kids called Andy Warhol ‘queer’. He was queer and strange too strange too, but I knew Andy could use me for his movies. There was only one problem and it wasn’t that I was only 13.
His kingdom was in Manhattan, which was more than 200 miles to the south.
The sad truth was that Andy Warhol was never coming to the South Shore and 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 finding my share of fame.
“Let’s go see the Underground,” I suggested to my girlfriend, Kyla Rolla, who was inarguably my hometown's prettiest girl.
“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.” I had never confessed to Kyla my ambition to be a star..
“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 flow off to Paris to study art.
My heart was shattered to shards, but not enough to force me back to Boston, so I moved into a SRO hotel on West 11th Street and applied for work as as a busboy 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, examined my semi-Neanderthal features and said, “You hired. 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.” That block was famous for hustlers.
“I’m not that type.”
“Too bad,” Mr. Bruce sighed as if the forty year-old was used to playing a waiting game with young men. “You have trouble with famous people?”
“Famous? You mean like Andy Warhol famous?”
“Yes, we were the first to show his work in the 50s. Andy comes here from time to time. He likes our double chocolate frappes, but you’re not his type. He likes prep school boys, then again you never know. When can you start?”
"Now." I had rent to pay.
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.
Serendipity was a fun place to work.
All the waiters knew about my things with Warhol and joked that the pop artist would make me famous as Joe Dallesandro, who played a street hustler in FLESH
"You could be his double. Bus boy by day. Trader dick by night," said Lady Bird.
"That's what all the rent boys say."
"And nobody knows better than you,"countered Lorelei, the German pastry cook. The Weimar reincarnation's real name was Klaus and we had met at Max's Kansas City. He had a thing for me and said, "Lady Bird has to pay and pay."
"I don't pay them for sex. I pay them to go away, bitch."
The girls at Serendipity were catty to a fault.
I might not be Andy's type, but he wasn't mine either. I was after fame.
Only that and 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. Want to come in the backroom to check the pickles?"
“You want to be a bus boy the rest of your life?”
“It’s a living.” Busboy wages more than paid the weekly nut for my room.
After work the thin German singer and I would change into black leather and torn jeans to drink at 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 and he certainly wasn't Andy Warhol's type.
One night some gay-bashers tried to attack some queers on West Street. I stopped their assault with a broken beer bottle. An uptown nightclub owner heard about my intervention and came to Serendipity to offer me a doorman job 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 said yes.
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 might not be Studio 54, but big names from rock and cinema come on big nights. You'll be a hit."
"I guarantee it." I was only one of his many friends to tell him the same thing.
Everywhere Klaus went he attracted the attention of photographers, fashion designers, and talent agents. Each contemplated on how to make money from a Josef Goebbels lookalike with a voice of Maria Callas. Few were smart enough to see the obvious.
"I'll think about it."
Later that week Klaus agreed to open 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.
The night of the show I scrounged through the cloakroom for a blue blazer forgotten by some preppie the week before. It was a tight fit, but as close as I could get to Warhol’s ideal.
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 for the King of Pop.
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.
"Welcome to Hurrah."
Everyone on the sidewalk opened a path for the White Mole of Union Square. Andy ignored them. 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.
Another five seconds added up to fifteen seconds, yet I remained a nobody, but I was good at being a nobody too and that skill has lasted most of my life.
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.