|peter nolan smith and klaus nomi by anthony scibelli|
by Peter Nolan Smith
When I was a kid, Campbell’s Tomato Soup tasted almost homemade, 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 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 evening 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 the Boston Parochial Art Contest with an honorable mention and the sisters of our Lady of the Foothills had given me an A 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. Winning $5 from this bet had me thinking I could afford my very own Warhol. The supermarket at the South Shore Plaza had to sell them. The Stop and Shop had all kinds of foods in the specialty aisle.
“Good boy.” My father was gambling that my A in Art could translate into money.
Mr. Manzi limited the contest to an hour. He sat with my father at the kitchen table to watch the Red Sox game.
My mother handed me a soup can from the pantry and I went upstairs to my bedroom with several sheets of white paper, a ruler, and a compass. I pulled apart the curtains. Sunlight swarmed through the windows and I took out my crayons. I examined the 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 a 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-like precision.
“Only five more minutes,” my father yelled from the kitchen.
The clock was ticking away in my head as I hurried through the gold medallion. My rendition in hand I reached the kitchen with 20 seconds to spare. I showed my father my attempt. I was sure 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 wanted me to be a doctor.
“You should have taken more time,” he said.
“I only had an hour.”
Warhol had friends helping him. They were members of his Factory.
“It wasn’t so bad.”
My mother rescued the drawing from the garbage. Her father had worked as a trolley man out of the Forest Hills yards. She had a great singing voice. Art meant more to her than to 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. The Andy Warhol soup can at the South Shore Plaza was safe. Art wasn’t as easy as my father said. It took skills to be a Warhol, although many magazines vilified his paintings. Once a reporter had asked the Pop artist what he thought of Art.
“It’s a good name for a man.”
Even my father found his response funny.
His Factory was the rage in the mid-60s. The bohemian entourage shot movies about nothing. Sometimes the girls were naked. Other times the men. One long-haired poet wielded a whip while he danced to electronic music.
None of their films appeared at the South Shore drive-in and I conspired to join his circus, as did many 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 a “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 200 miles to the south.
Boston remained off Warhol’s beaten track throughout 1965, 1966, and 1967, but in May 1968 the Velvet Underground were booked to perform at the Boston Tea Party. Warhol was filming his protégés’ concert. According to the artist everyone deserved 15 seconds of fame, and I planned on getting my share.
“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 slowly 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 sine laude from university and taught at South Boston High School during the Busing Riots of 1975. The students fought daily, despite the presence of 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 last 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 an SRO hotel 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 moustache curled upward like a pair of scimitars and his lisp hissed like an over-boiled teapot. He was looking south of my waist.
“I’m not gay.”
“No, neither are all the boys on 42nd Street.”
The block was famous for hustlers.
“I’m not that type.”
Mr. Bruce sighed as if he was used to playing the waiting game with young men. He was barely 40. “You have trouble with famous people?”
“Warhol comes here. He likes the double chocolate frappes.”
My misery was erased by the momentary hope for fame.
“Yes, but you’re not really 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 never saw Andy Warhol.
One afternoon Mr. Bruce caught me checking the reservation book.
“Andy doesn’t need a reservation, Pebbles. Why you looking anyway. I told you before that Andy like preppy boys. Blue oxford shirts, navy blue blazers, khakis, and penny loafers. Not really your style. But I like black leather.”
Mr. Bruce was a sucker for punks in leather, but Serendipity 3 wasn’t 53rd and 3rd, the infamous hustlers’ block on the Upper East Side and I refused his offer to visit the back room.
“You want to be a busboy the rest of your life?”
“It’s a living.”
Busboy wages barely paid the weekly nut for my room on West 11th Street, but life was cheap in the Village.
After work, the pastry chef and I would go to CBGB’s and Max’s. Klaus Nomi wasn’t Andy Warhol’s type either. We wore black leather and torn jeans. I accompanied Klaus to the back rooms 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 gaybashers tried to attack some queers on West Street. I stopped their assault with a broken beer bottle. A nightclub owner on West 62nd Street 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. Hurrah’s owner found out Klaus sang rock like a castrato and promised him a gig.
“I have to think about it,” said Klaus.
Hurrah’s 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 how to make money from the Josef Goebbels look-alike with the voice of Maria Callas. Few were smart enough to see the obvious.
Klaus was offered the opening act for Divine at Hurrah’s. His repertoire was two songs: Lou Chrystie’s LIGHTNING DOESN’T STRIKE TWICE, and a classic aria from Mozart. He showed up 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.”
His Nazi salute was very discreet.
Andy Warhol had never visited Hurrah’s. Studio 54 was his nightly haunt, however Divine and Klaus were his kind of people and I scrounged through the cloakroom to change my leather jacket for a Jaeger blazer some preppie forgot 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 trial.
“No,” I lied hoping to score a position at Warhol’s monthly, INTERVIEW. I wrote poetry sometimes.
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 seemed 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 treatment 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. Andy emerged after them. His wig shone as white as a full moon in a smoky sky. People stopped on the sidewalk in awe. Cars braked on 62nd Street. Time was coming to a stop 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 eye fell on me and he said, “I’m on the list.”
“Plus three.” I opened the velvet ropes. “Klaus put you on it.”
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.”
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 once said: “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. (PNS)