The year is 1964.
‘Andy, do you feel that the public has insulted your art?’
‘Uh, I hadn’t thought about it.’
‘It doesn’t bother you at all then?’
‘Do you think that they’ve shown a lack of appreciation for what pop art means?’
‘Andy, do you think that pop art has sort of reached the point where it’s becoming repetitious now?’
‘Do you think it could break away from being pop art?’
‘Are you just going to carry on?’
The interview comes to a close. Five out of the thirty people here stand up to leave the room but no one else gets up. All those twenty five people don’t know it’s over. But it’s over. But even Andy is still here. His thin mouth looks disinterested now, he’s the only person I know that can look disinterested with his mouth. Someone asks about the Nine Jackies but the interview is over and Andy comes over to me and tells me he wants to talk about The American Supermarket next time and we leave.
We drive for about fifteen minutes across town and the noise is incredible. I think my head will explode. It’s giving me a headache. I’m squashed in the back seat of a car next to Andy, his skinny legs pressed into mine while another two people are pressed on the other side of him. Driving is a woman, but I don’t know who she is. When we get inside a number of people fill the place up and I can smell them and I can smell the alcohol and paint and I can smell the chemical smell of amphetamines and the chemical smell of his artwork. We are at 231 East 47th Street, Midtown Manhatten. We are on the fifth floor. There are reporters here, there are always reporters here, they click and flash and call his name, ‘Andy,’ as if he’s a dog and he looks anyway and they tell him to smile but he doesn’t smile and they take it as some sort of smile anyway and their click-crack noises nauseate me, I feel nauseous, and so I go to the other room which has no reporters in but there are people in here and here I meet Baby Jane who has a huge build of hair like a giant bonnet and she is smoking next to a man wearing a striped jumper who looks a lot like Andy but then almost every man who is white and has white or blonde hair wants to look like Andy, and so Baby Jane waves to me and I sit next to her and she asks me my name and I tell her and she tells me she’s Baby Jane and but I know who she is already.
‘I was in Soap Opera,’ she says.
‘Which one?’ I say.
‘Not “which one.” There’s only one.’
‘Which one’s that?’
‘Obviously you don’t know.’
‘About the soap opera?’
‘Andy’s Soap Opera. It’s a movie. He made a movie and I was in it. It doesn’t matter.’ She turns away with the grace of a bird and the bonnet-shaped beehive on her head seems to carry too much weight and so she leans forward a bit, into the man in the striped jumper, and they either talk or kiss and Baby turns back to me and tells me there are reporters here who aren’t really reporters, they’re actually fake reporters who just want to see Andy. ‘There’s not even any film in their cameras,’ she says.
‘If they want to see him why not take a picture?’
‘They want to see him, not snap photos. I mean, come on, it’s Andy, what could you possibly do with a photo of Andy that Andy couldn’t do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Exactly you don’t know.’
A woman takes a man into another room, I’m told, to give him a blowjob for no reason, and the acidic smell of paint and ink is blanketed for a while by the man in the striped jumper who smokes a joint and he offers me some and I take it and Baby looks at me lovingly as I toke on it, as does the man, and I ask him his name and he tells me he’s Superman. So Superman crosses his legs over Baby’s legs and kisses her and he says, ‘So what is it you do here? For Andy, I mean.’
‘I’m just an assistant,’ I say. ‘A helper.’
‘A helper?’ Baby laughs. ‘Just.’
‘You’re not just something. You’re either something or you’re not something. So I guess you are Andy’s assistant.’
Superman kisses Baby and the woman and the man come back from the other room and some more people appear and Andy walks in talking to a woman who is writing something down and Superman tells me he’s gay and he kisses Baby while looking at me.
Andy announces that he has something to tell everyone. Then he doesn’t say anything. Two men rip their shirts off and smoke joints. Andy calls me over and we drink wine. Andy calls me darling. ‘Hand me that bottle, would you, darling?’ he says. I hand him the bottle of wine and I put out my glass so that he can fill it and I anticipate thanking him because he shouldn’t be the one to fill my glass, I should be filling his. But it doesn’t matter. He drops the bottle on the floor and it smashes and everyone looks over and they gasp as if no one’s ever heard a bottle smash before. It’s like Andy just invented the sound of smashed glass. The wine floods then thins and looks like blood and Andy, without smiling, although I know he is satisfied, says, ‘There. I call it … what do you call it?’
‘Smashed … smashed glass,’ a girl says.
‘Smashed glass … A Bum’s Nightcap,’ he says and everyone laughs.
‘What’s it about?’ a reporter says.
‘It’s about a man,’ Andy says. ‘A Bum. He wants to make it big in Hollywood but he can’t. He’s surrounded by all this neo-conservative propaganda and is pushed over the edge. And he drinks. And he just wants to make it big. To be an actor or an artist. But Hollywood eats him alive. Spits him out. He lives on Skidrow and can no longer push the boundaries but is still pushing them but he just doesn’t know.’
They applaud him and it sounds like rain and I expect there to be a rumble of thunder for some reason, as if they are all a storm and Andy is stood in the middle of it and he is laughing at the storm, and the tornado of television cameras recording and the hail of hand-held cameras snapping and clacking and eventually the sound fades and a silence builds and throbs from the guts of everyone in the room. Andy’s mouth, the main visible part of his face, doesn’t move. It looks like he’s dead. He might be dead. I’m his assistant and Andy Warhol might be dead. I get up a little too quickly in this personal panic and they all look at me. For a second. They look at Andy again and I feel forgotten. Aah, that feeling and aah, the other feeling as Andy turns and goes to talk to someone, the feeling of relief, and the sensation is slowly orgasmic as the sound of voices builds and washes over me. I’m sweating, I notice. I shouldn’t sweat here, these people don’t like nerves, they’re dogs, they sense something is wrong with you and they pounce on you, make art of you, and you become something for them. I breathe and walk to the window to cool off.
I don’t notice anything different over at the window, a lot of them are talking about the view for some reason but I just stand here cooling off in the small draught of chilly New York air which smells bad like car fumes. I hear a distant sound of car engines lulling us all into a cosmopolitan trance, no one seems to even hear the noise any more, they just let it all happen. Soon Baby Jane’s next to me, pressing her breasts against my shoulder blades, head resting on my shoulder, the sharp of her chin digs matrimonily into the triangular space of my clavicle.
She says, ‘Who or what are you looking at, Helper?’
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘And my name’s not Helper, it’s – ’
‘Please, tell me more about yourself, Helper, I’m very interested.’
‘Oh come on, you can’t expect to work with Andy and hope that people find you interesting.’
‘I didn’t expect that.’
‘Yes you did,’ she says, putting her hands on my shoulders, her breasts pressed into me, her body merged with mine, her stomach taking the shape of my backside. ‘You, I assume, took this job ecstatic that you could stand next to the infamous Andy Warhol, that other’s will look at you and say “Oh, who’s that handsome young man standing next to Andy?” But you’re very naïve, Helper.’
‘I don’t think so, Baby.’
‘It’s okay, we’re all naive at some point. We all grow out of it. I think being around Andy’s made us less self-centred. We care more about other people’s self-centredness. Isn’t that interesting? I find you interesting, Helper. How someone thinks they can work assisting someone. Not just anyone. Andy. Who gave you this job anyway?’
‘I found it.’
In this moment Superman enters the picture again and Baby moves her chin off my shoulder and I feel the air where her hands lets go of me and I realise, from her slow touch, she’s made me slightly aroused, and I’m trying not to think of her, but her voice is still close to my ear, erotic and young, and Superman tells her he’s taken LSD and he’s going to go sit down or else he might just leave and drive out to the countryside and find the nearest farm and talk to the animals. ‘I’ve done that before, you know. I spoke to the pigs up in Ithaca.’
‘How did you get so far?’
‘I just kept driving.’
‘Honey, go lie down before Andy has to go,’ she says to Superman who sleepily hobbles away to a couch where two girls are sitting, talking to two men, and he lays down on them and they yell out in surprise but he is asleep already and far too heavy for them to push and so, within seconds of hearing his voice behind me, Superman now sleeps in a drug-haze on top of two young girls who mother him blindly while talking to two other men on chairs who both have neatly cut and styled hair which, I believe, is very much five years too late.
‘We’re going out,’ Baby Jane says. ‘Come with us. It’ll be fun.’
‘I don’t know. I need to be with Andy.’
‘Oh he doesn’t care. He hasn’t even noticed you’ve been over here. Fuck, I bet he hasn’t noticed you’ve even been here. He’ll see you and say “Who the hell are you?” and kick you out. Haha. I bet. I bet no one’s noticed you, Helper Boy.’
‘I should stay, I’m working.’
‘We’re all working,’ she says. ‘We’re working on life.’
‘What does that mean?’ I say and I go to write it down but next to me a reporter writes it down before I get the chance.
He’s wearing a brown coat and a fedora and I think maybe he’s warm and he speaks quickly at Baby, not to her, at her, and he says, ‘Miss Holzer, do think you’re all artists if you say you’re all working?’
‘Working on life.’
‘To a degree. But Andy’s the real deal.’
I feel less aroused now that I’m not in her attention any more, but there’s something subdued that I sense a kind of sexual attraction lingering in the air and I want to get out. A number of people, I begin to assume, are reporters but I see a woman in her underwear walking with them. They are leaving. Andy. Where is Andy?
‘He’s left, honey,’ Baby says. ‘He went with Ultra Violet but I don’t know where they went. It doesn’t matter though. You’ll see him again soon.’
‘But I’m his assistant, I need to – ’
‘Hey, Helper, I told you he probably hasn’t even noticed you’re missing from the group. And besides, you’re with me. I’ll just tell him I was showing you around. Or you were showing me around. Whichever you prefer. I heard there’s this young model called Edie who wants to come here. When she does I’ll show her around too. I like to. It’s part of my job. See. You have your job, I have mine.’
‘I suppose,’ I say. I feel an uneasiness deep inside my chest from the thick smell of paint and wine and there is a drugs smell, a chemical smell mixed with the paint, and Superman sleeps, and beside the Bums’s Nightcap is a young woman in her underwear shooting heroin into her arm and she falls asleep sitting up with her legs open beneath Superman and near them another half-naked woman is painting. She has, it seems, begun on a canvas but has thrown paint on the floor and is mopping the colours with her hands and laughing hysterically and others look at her and smile but don’t get involved with her. The picture on the canvas is of a face. I believe JFK’s.
‘No suppose,’ Baby says. ‘Come with me.’ And we leave. She pulls me along by the hand as if I am her child, as if I am the baby not her, and I hear sex noises before we reach outside. It’s slightly cold but it’s bright. East 47th Street. I’m trapped like a bird in a cage by apartment buildings, criss-cross staircases weeping from windows, spikes, spires and Italian-smelling food, richly flavoured calzones making me hungry, my empty stomach talking to me now, telling me I haven’t eaten and every food-smell is so delicious and a hundred times more attractive to me, a million times probably tasty. ‘This way. I have a car.’ I get in her car. It’s a black Pontiac. It smells of leather and the now-familiar chemical drug smell and she says, ‘Wait here,’ and she slams the door and disappears.
Here it is finally quiet. I hear the buzz and honks of the traffic but nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, I’m glad to be able to breathe the fresh air. I’m glad to be cold and shivering almost. My armpits are damp and my palms are sweaty, they leave dark hand-prints on the dashboard and on my notepad. I fix my hair in the mirror. My eyes look tired and my skin has paled. How has my skin paled? Is this what they do to you? Andy looks pale. I wonder what they did to him. I don’t want to be famous, it makes you ugly and you spend most of the time trying to be beautiful when you’re not. I sit back and feel the leather seat soft against my back. My breath is a sound here. Where is she? People look at me because I’m sitting in the car. Why are they looking? Do they recognise me? I work with Andy Warhol, I want to tell them, make them know who I am. I am someone. I, I imagine saying, am a somebody.
Baby Jane returns with Superman. She climbs in front with me. Superman slumps in the back. She starts the car and goes.
‘Where are we going?’ I say. She doesn’t answer but grunts, trying to concentrate on the difficult obstacle of New York traffic and soon she has pulled out and is driving. I, for some reason, feel happy. I want to shout “We’re driving!” but I don’t. I subdue myself. Who am I? I’m just a PA. I’ve no right to be shouting things of excitement. I’ve no right to be doing things of excitement. ‘Let me out of the car,’ I say. ‘Just stop here, I want to get out. I’m going back. I’ll wait for Andy.’
‘No, you can’t do that, Helper,’ Baby says. Superman sits silently in the back, his head lolled to one side but he’s awake. He looks tired. He smiles now and again. Superman isn’t as big as the actual Superman. He’s tall but he’s thin. He’s more like Clark Kent. I want to start calling him Clark. The only thing he’s missing is the thick-rimmed glasses and then he’d be Clark Kent for sure. Or maybe he knows this. Maybe he’s just Superman ironically. I can’t tell. Baby isn’t really a baby. That’s ironic. But she calls me Helper and I really am a helper. I write this down. I need to know these things if I am to be by Andy’s side, working as his assistant for the next few years. To understand him I need to understand the people he’s with.
We drive through New York. She picks up speed when she can. I realise no one is speaking as we drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and soon buildings that were once walled in the roads are sparse and short. A greenness appears and she picks up speed, fast and faster. Superman winds down the window and yells a noise of utter joy. He looks and sounds so happy and I wish I was him, just for a second, to experience what he is experiencing, someone who can go through life without fear and just hold onto a happiness as if there has never been a tragedy in his life. The sun rises. Then falls. It is past noon. I see fields now. A completely different world to New York City. I have no idea where I am.
‘This is a four hour drive, honey,’ Baby says. ‘You might want to calm down. You look as crazy as him.’ She nods backwards at Superman’s grin showing all of his teeth laughing silently at the wind.
Over the course of four hours Superman takes some more LSD until Baby tells him to stop and soon he falls asleep for the final hour and I stay fascinated with the countryside. I’ve not been this far north of New York, I’ve been so used to the city that it seemed that was all New York was, as if there’s no other part of the world to know about.
I tell Baby Jane about my life, for some reason. I don’t think she asks. I just tell her. ‘I wasn’t born in the US,’ I say and she glances at me for a second and then back on the road and I smile at knowing she’s listening to me. ‘I was born in England. I have English parents. We moved here, to New York City, when I was five.’
‘You have no accent,’ she says. I don’t know if she means I have no British accent any more or I have no accent at all. And how can someone not have an accent? Might as well say you have no voice.
‘I can still speak,’ I say.
‘I know that. But you sound American now. I never would have guessed. Do your parents have accents?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I had friends back in England,’ I say. ‘There were three of them. I’ve not seen them in twenty years. They probably don’t remember me any more. We had a particular fashion sense that looks old now. But, I think, everything looks old now. Everything is so new all the time.’
‘Haha, nothing will be new in the future. Everything will all be done and before you know it we’ll be repeating ourselves. Don’t you think?’
‘I hope so.’
‘You hope so?’
‘It’s funny, but I don’t like new things. It kind of makes me feel lost. Like I know one thing but everyone else knows another. It’s all fads and trends.’
‘Life’s a fad.’
‘That’s why I enjoy working with Andy.’
‘You don’t enjoy it. You’re lost in the city. I can tell.’
‘I do enjoy it.’
‘What American friends do you have?’
‘Did you ever make any new friends the twenty years you’ve been here?’
‘No, I mean actual friends. Like the three friends you had when you were a child.’
‘Didn’t think so, Helper. That’s why I’m driving. I’m taking you away.’
‘To get you out of the city. I just guessed you were uncomfortable. Besides Superman needs to get out too. You ever seen Superman on acid in the city? Not pretty.’
‘No, I’ve never seen that,’ I say. ‘Is he okay?’
‘He’s fine. He’s just sleeping. I bet he’s having some wild dreams.’ She laughs. Soon the sun is bright and white, its chalky colour now washing over the road and soon Baby Jane pulls into a dirt driveway and parks. Switches the engine off. She looks at me. ‘Get out,’ she says. I get out and stretch. Those four hours seemed like nothing compared with standing next to Andy Warhol in the Factory waiting for the reporters to finish asking questions. Superman gets out of the car. He is drowsy but he is less high than I thought. He really is tall. I never noticed before how tall he was. His head reaches far up into the sky blocking the sun and replacing it with his Georges Melies moon. He walks ahead. Purposeful.
‘Where is he going?’ I say.
‘He’s going to see the pigs.’
‘Where are we?’
‘Ithaca. Superman just loves the pigs.’
Superman’s chemical smell leaves us and we slowly follow behind as he vanishes round a corner and our feet begin to crunch under stones and a noise far from the city washes over us, an animal sound, a living sound, and we go round the corner and there is Superman and Baby Jane tells me to stop and she tells me that Superman is talking to the pigs.
‘Why is is talking to the pigs?’
‘Because he’s on acid,’ she says.
And so we wait for him and I regret to acknowledge my testicles are aching. I don’t know what it is. I try to sense the need to urinate but it’s not there. I look at Baby Jane and feel a tad aroused and I hate myself for it. I watch Superman talking to the pigs and try to forget about my penis, just for a minute, just to forget the urge to masturbate and hold it in.
‘Isn’t he strange? He always wants to do this.’
Oh God, her voice, I think to myself. I rest my shaking hands at my side. I say, ‘I need to use the bathroom. Where is it?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know whose farm this is.’
‘You could probably find one, I guess.’
‘You mean break in?’
‘The doors are open, see?’ She’s right. There’s an open door. ‘If you gotta go, you gotta go.’
So I do. I leave her and Superman and go inside. It is silent and no one is around. I hope no one’s home. The first room is a kitchen. The smell is savoury somehow. There are knives hung on the wall. A stove. A sink. Things. I go through the next room and there are so many plants in plant pots that I now smell them, alkaline and wet. I feel like a burglar. My heart is beating hard and it hurts my chest. I find a bathroom upstairs. I go in. Lock the door. I unbuckle my belt and begin to masturbate. I’m thinking of Baby Jane and of the half-naked girls in the Factory. I do it fast before I have a full erection and then I come and my legs shake and I rest my hand against the wall. I spend a few minutes on my hands and knees wiping it off the bathroom floor with toilet paper, in a farm I’ve broken into, as a man named Superman is talking to the pigs outside because he’s high on acid. I throw the tissue in the toilet and leave. I breathe a sigh of relief and feel emptied which is a good feeling, I think. Superman seems to have finished what he was doing and he is stood with Baby, talking, and they see me and look at me and smile.
‘Yeah,’ I say, feeling guilty and wondering if they suspect what I did.
‘Hey, what are you kids doing here?’
‘Just came to see the pigs,’ Superman says.
‘Go on, off my property. Don’t you know this is my property?’
‘Woah, old man, it’s a free country,’ Superman says.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘We’re leaving now.’
When we get in the car Baby tells me I shouldn’t have apologised. ‘It’s not really his property. He doesn’t own anything. It is a free country. How can someone own a piece of the Earth? You shouldn’t apologise to that fool, Helper, you don’t need to.’
‘Okay,’ I say and we begin the four hour drive back to New York City and it’ll get dark soon as the day has quickly vanished. I say to Superman, ‘So what did the pigs tell you?’
‘Told me about life.’
‘What about it?’
‘Nothing. Just told me about it.’
‘But what did they say?’
‘Well there were no answers. They just told me about it.’
‘Stuff you already knew?
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Pretty much. But I like to hear it. Helps me understand. I have a greater understanding of life now.’
‘Do you, Helper?’ Baby Jane says.
‘Do you have a greater understanding of life?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘I didn’t talk to the pigs. But I did masturbate in the bathroom.’
‘Haha, you did?’ she says.
‘The old man’s bathroom belongs to you now,’ Superman says. ‘And you should understand better about how you feel about things.’
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘I don’t know if I feel anything at all.’
‘Have a think about it,’ Baby says.
I sleep the rest of the way and wake up in a bruised New York City and I get out of the car all drowsy and they passively say goodbye and disappear into the brightly lit-up world that lives constantly. I go inside the Factory and there are still people here. It smells of chemicals and paint. People wearing sunglasses even though it’s evening. Even though it’s indoors. No one sees me. There is Andy in a crowd.
© Michael Holloway