On this particular morning, John Ashbery was working to judge a Gerber-sponsored baby picture contest, and my job was to assist him. During the time he was Art Critic for Newsweek, he received some unusual requests. For two years I had been his student while getting my MFA at Brooklyn College, and this was my first day on the job as his secretary when he handed me the thick stack of baby pictures. I helped him spread them out across the living room carpet of his apartment on East 26th Street—some were the usual lying on a blanket in the back yard variety, while others were professionally rendered glamour shots—so he could take them all in at a glance.
Though my main tasks had to do with his correspondence, filing, and travel arrangements, I quickly realized the job was full of surprises. He would dictate letters while we sat on the sofa in his living room, and later I would move to the electric typewriter in his office. At that time, back in the early 80s, he never used the electric machine but instead typed all his poems on an antique manual Underwood typewriter. One afternoon after typing a set of letters and getting his signature, he asked me to go to the store to buy white wine, and when I said I would have no idea what to choose, he replied, "No problem: just pick the one with the wildest, wackiest, most exploding-with-color label.”
During the year I worked for him, John was struck by a life-threatening viral infection and spent time recovering in the hospital. One evening before I left his room, I asked if he would like me to bring him anything in particular the next day. Without hesitating he asked please to bring him a Martini. So the next afternoon I stopped at an upscale Chinese restaurant near the hospital, and when the bartender handed me the drink, I poured it into a styrofoam take-out cup, snapped on the plastic lid, and took it into the hospital where I stood by his bed and watched him drink it. Just as he was finishing, a nurse came in to escort him on his daily exercise walk.
The moment I saw the nurse it dawned on me that the surgery-recovery-related medications he was taking might not mix so well with Tanguray gin. The nurse was all smiles and greeted us in her familiar brisk manner. On previous occasions I had watched John, wearing the standard-issue tied-in-the-back hospital gown, as, followed by the nurse, he pushed an IV pole on wheels down the hospital hallway. This time as he got up he bumped against the bedside table, knocking over a glass, and the nurse immediately exclaimed, "Mr. Ashbery, you are drunk!"
One final memory: A year or two after he recovered from his surgery, John attended my wedding in Schenectady, and as the reception was winding down, I walked over and asked what advice he might have for Liz and me. He hesitated for a moment, looked up at the ceiling, and then said, "Don't bug each other!" Good advice indeed.
John was a shy person but very social, always looked forward to and enjoyed people’s company, especially friends. During the hours I spent in his apartment or traveling with him, he was without exception down-to-earth, casual, soft-spoken, easy-going, quick to laugh. Though the job of being John Ashbery’s secretary was full of surprises, really a kind of year-long adventure for me, the most rewarding part of that adventure was getting to know John himself. I miss him profoundly.
BEN SLOAN lives in Charlottesville and teaches at Piedmont Virginia Community College, the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, and the Buckingham Correctional Center. The Road Home, his poetry chapbook, is available from Thirty West Publishing House.