The stacks drew me every weekend, when my, oh, so boring psyche books were read and assignments finished. From there I brought home and devoured mysteries, adventures, dramas, Iris Murdoch’s whole collection of stories, everything except romance. Frankly romance left me cold and somewhat cynical.
One particular Sunday I arrived at my favourite spot only to find a lengthy queue snaking all the way down two blocks past the library front entrance. They must be giving away free books I thought. I went to the back of the line and stood my turn. The line moved at a snail’s pace, giving me time to observe the waiting crowd. As more people arrived I noticed that they were all chatting animatedly and flinging cans of Campbell soup in each other’s faces. There was every variety of soup imaginable, mushroom, chicken, beef, barley, pea, leek and more.
I mustered up some courage to ask a nice-looking, long-haired red head in front of me, “Why the soup?” His eyes opened wide as he looked me over. I was wearing tight jeans and a loose tie-dyed blouse in a rust hue. Finally he said,”Why, so Andy Warhol can sign them, of course”, while snickering to himself at my ignorance. “Don’t you know who he is?’ he added producing his own chicken noodle can from an inside pocket of an army surplus khaki jacket. I nodded affirmatively, then, clarified that I knew very well who Andy Warhol was but did not understand why all the people wanted his signature on a stale soup can?” The red head stuck out his hand towards me and said, “My name is Carl”.
“Eva”, I parried and shook hands in the way I was taught in Poland, firmly yet without malice, adding, “I don’t particularity like Warhol’s art, it is so….so American, glorifying consumer society, full of Hollywood glitz and food preservatives.”
“That’s the whole point. Andy Warhol is the King of Pop Art, painting American mass consumerism, culture, and politics. My favourite quote of his is; “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s and the most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s’ “, Carl excitedly continued, Warhol is an American iconoclast and exposes what the society holds sacred, Marilyn Monroe, Campbell soup and Coca Cola, all things consumed by rich and poor alike. I’m an artist and Andy is my hero.”
“Well, mine is Modigliani, the Italian artist who could say so much about a person with so little. His portraits had no eyes yet you could see into their souls”, I interrupted Carl’s lecture and covered my eyes with the palms of my hands to emphasize my point. “But I do get what you are saying Carl. Andy Warhol is a kind of Urban Shaman exorcising our demons. I just wish there was more to his work and not just what we see on the surface but then I read somewhere that he said about himself, ‘ If you want to know all about Andy Warhol just look at the surface of my paintings and there I am, and there is nothing behind it.’ “Carl interrupted me this time, “Well, yeah, something like that and anyway these stupid cans will be worth a fortune one day.”
For a spilt second I debated with myself as to whether to run over to the local Family Mart but decided against buying a can, thinking I didn’t want to be like all the other sheep in line. Thanking Carl and exchanging some pleasantries about meeting again, I left the line to enter the library proper and get a good look for myself at this art persona, or should I say phenomena.
Like Andy’s art, which intended to shock, the person was motivated by same. Mind you he did become ill when a young boy with a nervous disorder characterized by a loss of skin pigmentation, making him look almost like an Albino. The effect was startling, which Andy enhanced by wearing a white wig. ‘White on white’ would be the phrase I would choose in describing what I saw that day. What completed this odd picture were black sunglasses and a large diagonal scar across his abdomen which his unbuttoned shirt exposed to the fans. He never smiled or grimaced or changed his facial expression for the fifteen minutes I stood observing him. He looked like a deformed mime morphed into a statue. Just took the can from each fan and quickly signed his name on top and coolly cooed, “Next”. People were too intimidated to ask any questions and tiptoed away with their precious souvenirs.
Feeling stupidly superior to all those hopefuls, my brain aching, I proceeded to the library stacks where all my favourite authors lived. By now I was irked that half the afternoon had slipped by and I had not yet entered into the liberating feeling of escape, into the delicious world of fiction. Picking up “Under the Net”, I was immediately transported to London, England, where James Donaghue, a 30-something writer lived, while not setting foot outside of Toronto. James became me and, feeling the exhilaration of becoming a reporter in Britain, I became James.
Hours later I came out of the London fog, as the library dimmed its lights to let patrons know that it was closing time. With the book tightly clasped in my left hand I made my way back to the front foyer, where Andy Warhol was nowhere in sight and people were still milling about chatting animatedly about the artist. I ran into Carl also leaving, smiling to himself and eyeing his freshly signed can. “Cheers” he said as he rushed past, “Hope you found a good book”. I held it up in the air. “Ah, Murdoch again, I see”, Carl continued.
“Yes, I am a Murdoch addict, like you an Andy fan, what can I say”, I responded and we merged into separate streams of the retreating crowd. I lost sight of Carl and was sorry we had not exchanged phone numbers. It would have been nice to make some friends in Toronto. I love this city but find it takes a long time to meet people and make friends. I guess I should go to bars and things, but I much prefer the library. After all, where else can you run into Andy Warhol in person?
In retrospect, now a poor artist myself, hoping not so much to shock but awaken with my art, I’m sorry my pride got in the way, that day, of obtaining an authentically signed can by a famous artist. My 35-cent investment then would have made a nice down payment on a condo now.