Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tattoo: A Sordid Tale That I Won't Be Posting On Facebook Because I'm All Professional And Shit

This is my tattoo.
I'll tell you what, taking a photo of your own almost-40 thigh, in a relatively flattering light, without moving, and not showing any ass, un-groomitage, spider veins, cellulite or assorted other close-up thigh-related unpleasantness is fucking difficult. It took me like 15 tries.

Open letter to my parents:

Dear Mom and Dad,
Remember that one time the boys and I were talking about some bad, dangerous stuff we did when we were teenagers, and you guys shuddered and asked us please to not tell you anymore about the bad, dangerous stuff we did when we were teenagers? Well, this is one of those stories. Seriously. Just take your browser to another page right now and stop reading. Trust me.

Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, I can tell you this story, the story of when I got my tattoo. I've been thinking about it lately because I've gotten it into my head that I want to get the tattoo fixed up into something proper and grown-up, the sort of thing people pay for. That's because I didn't pay anything for my tattoo, which is part of the story. As for the tattoo, I pretty much got what I paid for. As for the story, well that's something else entirely.

The story starts here.
The 60s: Way Cooler In Pictures
So. After I got kicked out of boarding school, I ended getting to go to this super-sweet, founded-by-hippies private school in San Francisco, just around the corner from the house where Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead all hung out during some fleeting and entirely overrated summer of hippie love and greatness. Tom Wolfe popped by that house while he was researching The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which I know because I read it and everything I know about the 60s comes from books and the Beatles and Cream and Jimi Hendrix and movies and Donovan and a lot of things I imagined while under the influence of crap I bought on Haight Street when I was in high school.

Awww, bless!
Anyway, one thing about Haight Street at that time (I don't know if it's still the same) is that the region between Golden Gate Park and Divisadero was like some sort of Mecca for every loser and throwback and runaway who thought it was still the 60s, or who thought they could make some money off people who still thought it was the 60s. After Divisadero was a junkie crack zone, and I probably was too green to notice the borders weren't so clearly defined as that. Which meant that when you walked around Haight, people would brush by you muttering "buds doses," and also there was a really fucking great burrito shop down the end of the street. Huge burritos with beans and meat for five bucks. My brother and I used to split one for lunch because I never could finish a whole one.

In the old days, it was just coffee with no fucking pictures.
So there was this cafe we all used to hang out at after school. It was run by some Middle Eastern guys (Jordanian, maybe? There were a lot of Jordanians around for some reason) who would play really loud Middle Eastern music when they felt like clearing everyone out. Otherwise they played good music and we could smoke there without getting caught if we went upstairs (our teachers were always on the prowl for smoking, even on vacations, it was said), and the worst problem was not being able to use the bathroom because of some junkie shooting up or a homeless person conducting a lengthy personal hygiene ritual in there. Then a junkie died and they started a key system for the bathroom, which kept out the junkies but not the homeless. I think this means those Middle Eastern guys were probably nicer than they seemed, because otherwise they mostly shouted a lot.

I just now thought of Louis, the Palestinian who ran the corner store across the street from the cafe. He had an arsenal of terrifying weapons behind the counter. This one friend of mine used to go in there and ask Louis to see his gun or baseball bat or lead pipe, and Louis would go all batshit and shout stuff like "Fire in your ass!" which, in light of Turkish swearing is either way funnier or slightly less funny. Louis was nicer than he seemed, too.

I'm getting to the tattoo now, I promise.

Dear Mom and Dad,
If you've decided, against my helpful advice, to read this up until this point, around now would be a good time to stop.

Would you like to chat?
Upstairs at the cafe, there was a guy called Straight-Jacket who was running his little dimebag business over bottomless cups of strong-as-shit coffee, surrounded by a few street kids who seemed cool to us at the time, and us disposable-income private high school kids hoping to cash in on some of the cool. And also play Othello and work on crossword puzzles and flame the new-fangled coin-op Internet machines where, for a quarter, you could enter an ongoing chat and make fun of all the crazy sexual proclivities expressed therein. The screen was black with green writing. Straight-Jacket would mete out his dimebags to appropriately bedraggled kids not much older or younger than we were, who would go out and join the legions of "buds doses" walkers, and from whom we never bought anything because we knew how pinched the bags got along the way and their doses were usually bunk. In any case, Straight-Jacket never would have let me buy from one of those fuckers anyway. He was very protective, and made sure I got my dimebags properly filled up.

Straight-Jacket was a charismatic, erudite, not-quite-high-school-educated Southerner who aligned himself with the Hell's Angels White Supremacist types. He'd been in prison, which easily amazed me in high school, and he told great stories and was probably completely full of shit most of the time, not that I would have known. Because I know his real name, I Googled him recently and found he's back in the South (okay, Southeast, but whatever), refurbishing classic cars, that he has a young kid, and that he once wrote a rather lengthy and articulate open letter endorsing Obama and the Democrats. I also found out he graduated high school in New Jersey, so I don't really know what that whole uneducated Southern thing was all about.

Straight-Jacket had a tattoo of a spider under his eye. I later worked it out that it originally was a teardrop tattoo, to show he'd killed someone, or at least to make everyone think that. And he took a liking to me, which in my bull-headed innocence that The World was the way I Wanted It To Be, I assumed was a matter of friendship. Also he was twice my age, so I never would have thought of it as Liking anyway.

Dear Readers with short attention spans,

I promise I'm getting to the tattoo part soon, really. I haven't told the tattoo story to very many people. It's not because I'm embarrassed. It's because usually the background of this story is story enough, and I rarely manage to make it to the end. It's a long fucking story from here on out, so you might as well go get a cup of coffee or whatever and just settle in.

One day, I expressed to Straight-Jacket an interest in getting a tattoo of my own. I was a couple weeks short of going off to college in Baltimore at this point, and had already had my navel pierced, so a tattoo was the next logical step, given I wasn't interested in a face pierce and I'd never heard of nipple pierces. And I sure didn't want to go off to college being the one who wasn't fucking cool and sophisticated and knowledgeable about the world and shit. As it turned out I needn't have worried.

Straight-Jacket was more than happy to oblige. He may have even said the word "oblige," which would have thrilled me in a Faulkner-esque kind of way. He knew a guy called Spyder, yes, that's Spyder with a "y," who he knew back from the South or prison or maybe from just down the street in Golden Gate Park. Anyway.

Whee! Altamont!
Spyder was an older Hell's Angels type of guy, sort of a Hell's Angels-meets-hippie-meets-I-don't-actually-have-a-motorcycle-but-I-used-to-have-a-Vincent-Black-Shadow kind of guy, one of those fellows who claims to have been at Altamont when the whole Altamont thing happened. And there were a lot of scruffy-faced guys around the Haight with scaggy girlfriends and leather vests and lots of tattoos claiming they were at Altamont, so who knows? I'm not even sure how I knew about Altamont in the old days before Wikipedia, but I did. Probably it was down to Leroy, the best history teacher ever, who taught us about Altamont as part of the Civil Rights Movement unit. I also learned a lot about the 60s from school. And also the 70s when it was still the 60s.

Hee! Religious humor sucks.
Straight-Jacket and Spyder appeared to be friends on the surface. In fact, one of the reasons it took six hours to get a two-hour tattoo was because those two kept swapping Southerner fish stories. Not actually about fish, mind you, though some of them were indeed about fish. I mean the kinds of stories where one guy tells a long story and the other guy tries to one-up him with an even longer, better story. I heard some good stories that night, and I wish I could remember them.

Which is one reason I feel like I can't tell the tattoo story without making it into a really long fucking story. Some sort of justice has to be done not only to the event itself, but to narratives in general, and the narratives we create for our lives and what it all means.

Deep-down, though, Spyder and Straight-Jacket were frenemies. There's no other way to say it but with a coinage that's not as contemporary as it seems. Spyder had a scaggy girlfriend, or shall I say "Old Lady," just to be down with the vernacular, whom Straight-Jacket coveted. This turned out to be one of several underlying unpleasantnesses that went on throughout the tattoo.

I'm a Water Ox, for what it's worth.
Now, the tattoo itself, I have no idea where I found it. Simple, tribal-style tattoos were just coming into vogue, as were a certain type of Asian tattoos. And, mind you, it was 1991, so Internet for us was limited to my dad's incomprehensible Compuserve and the aforementioned coin-op machines. So somewhere, probably in a book or magazine, I found a picture of a solid-black dragon that I liked, which I traced onto a thin piece of binder paper and carried around in my wallet for awhile, long enough for it to get a bit frayed around the edges. It wasn't so much that dragons had a particular significance in the narrative of my life (though there were one or two incidents involving a lot of weed and long sticks and some vivid imaginings on my part that had occurred well before the tattoo, which I considered "defining" at the time), at least not in terms of dragon-like feelings or Asian horoscopes or anything like that.

Before taking me over to his scary friend Spyder, Straight-Jacket had me meet him at his real house (not the Divisadero squat I'd been to previously) out in Daly City. He offered me a beer, then told me not to drink too much, as it thins the blood and can cause the tattoo ink to bleed out too much. One beer was okay, though, for the road. He assured me any experienced tattoo-getter knows stuff like this, which was a good thing because I'd assumed getting shitfaced was a pre-requisite of tattoo-getting. Also, I wasn't sure how comfortable I was getting shit-faced with Straight-Jacket out in his flat in Daly City.

It's cool, and also not.
Then he went on to rant about how he'd failed the California motorcycle license test because of a question where the correct answer was that a motorcyclist should approach railways at an angle, while any experienced motorcyclist knows you should approach tracks straight on, otherwise you'll crash and die. I'll have to take his word on that one. He'd found the mistake in the book before taking the test, and figured by getting the answer wrong, he'd set the California DMV straight, once and for all. It didn't work. Articulate as he was, he still had a spider tattooed on his face, some missing important teeth, and a rather scrappy, threatening manner overall.

Dear Mom and Dad,

This is the part where we go to a grotty, possibly illegal basement flat in the nether regions of Polk Street. We told you we were staying at someone's house, and that this person's parents were at home. We knew that if you called, this friend's parents would say we were at a movie, as per The Plan. My dear brother and the friend probably actually went off to see the movie, as they were too grossed out by the squalid basement flat, and the inhabitants therein, to stay. Plus, someone else getting a tattoo is really boring and I told them they could go. It might also be worth mentioning that said dear brother and friend started advising against the whole tattoo adventure once they saw the aforementioned flat.

So if you're still reading, now would be an even better time to quit than the time I said before.

I'm the most gullible person on Earth. Just humor me, okay?
In this possibly illegal nether regions of Polk Street flat, Spyder lived with any number of street kids and runaways, both male and female. He said he was taking care of them, and I hope it wasn't just my 18-year-old ingenuousness that wants to believe this is true, because I still kind of believe it was true. There were a lot of kids there, most of them a bit younger than I was at that time, but kids to me now. The rooms were nothing but dirty laundry and clean bedding on the floor. Spyder assured me he didn't take junkies, crackheads, or whores into his house. For some of the kids, girls especially, he found housekeeping/cooking jobs, in houses with single men. So I'm not entirely sure about the whores part. On his tour of the house he pointed out he didn't take any money from the girls, but instead acted as a reference, phone number, and physical address on their resumes, as a first step to getting a proper job. Plus he claimed to beat the shit out of any of the employers who got fresh with the girls, which didn't happen much anyway since most of the employers were old-school Polk Street queens.

Things started to go wrong.
I gave Spyder the dragon picture and, using a piece of carbon paper, he traced it onto my thigh, where I wanted it to be. Somewhat hidden but a little bit sexy, in my 18-year-old might-as-well-have-been-a-virgin way of thinking. However, as he was tracing, there were these Southerner story interludes, plus some other stuff that caused the carbon to shift slightly, and when this huge bearded tattooed leather man asked me if I liked the picture before he started inking it, I just said yes because what the fuck else was I going to do? I started to mention that I wasn't quite sure about how the part that was supposed to be dragon's beard was now well underneath its front legs, and its front legs didn't look like anything, but then they were off telling stories again so I shut the fuck up.

One reason the carbon-tracing of the tattoo got screwed up is that a girl came into the house in tears. She had a stack of Polaroids, and her baby-tee showed fresh jello-y red stretch-marks on her belly. The photographs were of her newborn daughter and the family that had just adopted this baby. The new parents looked shiny and kind, and the baby was beautifully dressed and blissfully sleeping.

Some things don't go as planned.
This crying girl had just then gotten the photos in the mail and had fallen apart. The baby was about 2 weeks old and Spyder made the girl a cup of chamomile tea and sat with her until she'd stopped sobbing. Then this big, gruff leather man reminded her of all the reasons she'd decided to do this, and how happy and well her daughter looked, and how the family would keep in touch with her about her baby, as agreed with the agency. By the time the tea was finished, the girl was smiling.

Bob Fagin. Not all bad but kind of bad.
So either he was an evil Bob Fagin-type of man, or some sort of street world visionary, or I was a very naive little girl getting a tattoo.

Probably the truth was somewhere in the middle of all of that, as it usually is.

After he was done tracing the carbon, Spyder showed me the tattoo gun he'd made himself. Then he took it apart and boiled all the pieces in the teapot. While it was boiling, he assured me he had a sixth sense about people who have AIDS and had never tattooed one of them. Then he and Straight-Jacket started off on the Alabama fish stories again.

At this point, I wondered if my brother and our friend would be returning anytime soon. Two or thee hours had gone by already, enough for the alibi-parents to start wondering, if they hadn't fallen asleep, which they probably had. The alibi-parents didn't really give a fuck what we were up to, so long as no one got arrested and everyone went to school.

Spyder fired up his gun and told me the outline hurts more than then filling-in part, because the needle was thinner and slicier, while the coloring needles are actually four needles across and their vibration numbs the skin somewhat. This turned out to be true. It also turned out to be true that smoking weed would make it hurt more, but that kid with the pipe was just too appealing for any of us to pass up. Plus the homemade gun was, I suppose, a bit slower than a real tattoo gun.

And that line of speed just made me puke. "Toilet's over there, " he said, pointing to a beaded curtain, just as the prickly black lights were appearing in my vision. "I can tell when someone is about to puke." Good call, Spyder. Fortunately, by the time I puked, the outline was just about done and my brother and friend turned up.

"I just did speed," I announced nonchalantly. "And I puked. The weed's in the other room."

You never know.
So I hardly felt the coloring-in part. At one point, it was a little sensitive, and Spyder said it was because he was going over the same area again and again because it kept bleeding out. "You might have to come back for a touch-up," he said. Looking at my tattoo now, I probably should have taken him up on that. He also warned me about picking at the scabs and sun exposure, and he gave me his business card, telling me I should call him if I ever needed anything because he had a good feeling about me. He added something mystical about how our paths would surely cross again someday, when one or the other of us needed it the most. I'm still wondering about that one.

But by the time the scabs were off I was into my second week of higher education in Baltimore, and when I came home for winter break, Spyder and Straight-Jacket were no longer speaking to each other because of a kerfuffle involving Spyder's Old Lady, and the new tattoo of her face on Straight-Jacket's tricep, which Straight-Jacket maintained was for aesthetic purposes because she was so pretty, and nothing to to with any alleged fling.

Then he and Straight-Jacket started off on another story. The speed had made them all the talkier. Spyder called Straight-Jacket a fag. Straight-Jacket said, "If you call me a fag one more time, I'll cut you."

"Fag," said Spyder.

It bled a lot.
Swish went Straight-Jacket's knife, out of nowhere across Spyder's well-inked forearm. Actually, it didn't make a swishing sound at all, but it should have. Blood burbled out of the cut, and filled it, and started dripping. Spyder was creepily calm and silent on the issue and muttered something about getting a poultice. Straight-Jacket wiped the knife on his jeans, closed it, and put it back into his pocket, calling off to Spyder that he'd warned him about calling him a fag one more time. I was worrying that it was after midnight and our alibi must be seriously wearing thin. The fact that there were no cell phones in those days was both a blessing and a curse, though we generally managed to get by with pay phones most of the time, and that was okay. I just hoped a serious argument, or worse, wasn't going to result from this fagcalling-cutting incident.

While Spyder was gone (and he really was making a poultice, by the way, with a stash of herbs he apparently had in the other bathroom, along with some medical tape and cloth bandages), Straight-Jacket wanted to confess something to me.

"I don't just like you as a friend, Stranger. I *Like* you, if you know what I mean." I started to answer with the stock response a teenager has for such awkward moments, but he cut me off. "I know you probably don't think of me like that. You're going off to college and your whole life is ahead of you, better than I can ever do, but I just wanted you to know that from the first time I met you, I thought you were the cutest, prettiest little thing I ever saw."

Okay. I wasn't really sure what to do with that, and I was very, very tired, among other things. And those weren't his exact words, either, but it was something like that. We had a good uncomfortable ten minutes for this conversation.

Then Spyder came back with his arm all wrapped up. Straight-Jacket excused himself for a pee. While he was gone, Spyder said not to mention it to Straight-Jacket, but that he probably should be getting stitches, what with the way the blood had burbled like that the knife had nicked an artery, but he didn't want to fuck up his tattoos with stitches, plus he wanted to finish my tattoo.

Later I found out it wasn't just the Old Lady that had caused the rift between Spyder and Straight-Jacket. It was also the cut, which Straight-Jacket said had healed up just fine, with almost no marring of the tattoos.

After that, there's not much I remember except that the tattoo was eventually finished and bandaged, we all got home safe with no one the wiser, and I went off to college shortly after to start my new life. This life didn't involve becoming a plastic businessman, as I'd feared, so it's a really good thing most 18 year olds don't know jack shit about anything.

And so, dear readers, that is the story of how I got my tattoo. It's a fine tattoo, as far as free tattoos go, save for the bits that bled out and the bits I was never totally happy with. And I like the way it changes shape depending on how I move my leg. I also like how it's mostly secret except in summer.

But most of all,  I like the story of how it got there. And now I think, 20 years later, it's time to amend the dear thing in honor of the ever-changing narrative of life and reality, because that's worth something too.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I sincerely hope you haven't read this far. If LE ever tells me a story like this, I'll tell him to shut the fuck up, or I might just drink a pitcher of margaritas and hope he had as much dangerous fun in an ultimately safe and lucky way as I did.

Your Stranger.


Anonymous said...

From the lack of comments I guess your parents are speechless - as am I, wow what a story! I didn't even realise you had a tattoo, let alone one with such a story attached to it. Thanks for sharing, certainly made an interesting read.

Siobhan x

Stranger said...

Yay! A comment, finally! :)

I think my parents haven't read it yet. They're still speaking to me, anyway...