"Free," I said with a smile.
The thoroughly pierced hippy woman looked at me queerly (and I'm not using that term because she was wearing a green shirt with white lettering proclaiming Why Yes, I'm A Dyke!, I promise).
"Um . . . pardon?" she said in reply to my reply.
I smiled slightly. "You asked me how I am, and, uh . . ."
"What?" she asked.
"Never mind," I settled on as my answer. I knew that any attempt to explain to her what it had taken for me to arrive at that café would be met with more askance looks.
She tapped her pen on the side of her notepad. "All right, then. What'll you have?"
"Um, what's good?" I asked, picking up a menu.
"I dunno," she said. "A lot of people like the couscous."
"Is the couscous good?"
"I don't like it."
"So it's not good?" I asked.
"Well, a lot of people like it," she responded, tapping her pen against her pad again.
I pondered the situation. Here I was, being sold a plate of couscous whose only selling point was the fact that everyone except the waitress liked it. I didn't even know what the hell couscous was. I mean, I'd never been in an Indian restaurant before that moment. But I was feeling adventurous. Exploratory.
"What the hell, I'll try it," I said with a slight smile.
"You got it," she said as she turned to go put in my order.
The whole interaction was different than any I'd have in a restaurant at home. It was off-kilter and unbalancing. But different, I decided, was good. Given the fact that my decision to take this gig out in San Francisco had been based on shaking things up and changing the status quo of my life, it was exactly what I needed. Besides, it beat the holy shit out of the tiny room I'd practically barricaded myself in since I'd arrived.
It was horrific. Sitting there in that room, I knew that a glorious and exciting new city lay just beyond the door of my apartment. And I wanted to experience it. Oh, more than anything, I wanted to soak myself in the culture and the vibrance and the excitement of San Francisco. I'd even done some research before I flew out to find an area of town that best fit with my interests, settling on Haight Street, just a half mile south of the famous Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. My place was a tiny little walk-up near Divisadero Street, an "apartment" I subleased from a lady I knew from the chat room I frequented at the time. It wasn't cheap, but hey, my employer was footing the bill, and I had no trouble whatsoever with spending BOSS Systems's money.
I did, however, have trouble leaving the apartment. I wasn't used to traveling alone. I mean, I'd taken a drive up to Chattanooga by myself before, but other than that, this was my first trip out of Georgia. However, now I had a corporate American Express card. And before I'd come out here, Gary had told me that if I kept the monthly expenses below five digits, he'd sign off on anything I purchased.
Still, for the past two days, each time I brought myself to the point where I was ready to go out and explore the city, I found something else to stall my departure. I'd showered, but I couldn't go out until my hair was fully dry. And once it was, I'd happen to find an interesting show on television . . . And once that was over, well, it was time to eat, but I had no idea what was around my new apartment, so maybe I should order a pizza . . . And once that came, I was too full to walk around, so I decided to just go out the next day . . . And as Thursday became Friday, and Friday became the weekend, I started to realize I was pathetic.
I didn't need my friends to go with me for support, or anyone's permission to go out and have fun. I was a grown-up, and by George, all I needed was to man up and get out of that apartment on my own and do some new, exciting stuff in a new, exciting city. So Saturday afternoon, I put on a jacket and walked out the front door. I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do besides get the hell out of my apartment and—at the very least—get something to eat.
Fortunately for me, there was a little Indian café up across the street from my temporary home. And that was where I first tried couscous, a dish that isn't even Indian. But it was there, and it was new, and I was being adventurous.
"You know, this is really good," I told the young pierced-up waitress as she came to refill my glass of water.
"Nasty," she said, sticking out her tongue in seemingly involuntary disgust.
"Okay, fair enough," I replied, not knowing what more to say. "You mind if I ask you a question?"
"What do you want to know?"
"What is there to do around here?" I asked.
"This is the Haight... There's a lot to do here."
"Well, what do you like to do?" she asked.
"I dunno. I'm looking for something cool and unusual."
"You've come to the right place," she said.
"Just turn left when you walk out of here and start walking. It'll find you."
I was confused. "What will?"
"I dunno," she said strangely. "Whatever you're looking for. It's all here." With that, she plopped my check down on the table and walked away.
As qu—um, strange as she might have been, the waitress's advice was right on. As soon as I left the café, I began to encounter cool sight after cool sight. I saw a sign for a comic book store on Divisadero that had some of the back issues of Cerebus I'd been hunting for months, and a really great (but very tiny) record shop that had a ton of old Mr. Bungle LPs—originals, in fact. When I asked the clerk about the collection of old Black Flag LPs I had on my want list, he said, "They probably have them down at Amoeba."
"Yeah, man, Amoeba Music!" he said, looking and sounding very much like a hippie from central casting. "It's an old bowling alley that's been turned into a gigantic record store, man—it's far out!"
"I'll check it out. How do I get there?"
"Just take a left out of here, man, and keep walking—you'll find it!"
So I did. And on my way to Amoeba Music, I ran into a gift shop that carried tons of stickers and buttons for old punk and rock acts, as well as novel gifts that would be perfect to bring back to my friends. After that, I found a neat gelato shop selling the tastiest tiramisu-flavored scoops I'd ever had, before or since.
When I did get to Amoeba Music, I was greeted by the single largest collection of music for sale I'd ever seen in my life. It's no exaggeration to say that this place was the size of a two Costco warehouses, stocked only with records, cassettes, and CDs. A few hundred dollars later, I was the proud owner of just about every rare LP and CD made in the nineties that I could have named at the time. To say I was satisfied with how the day was going would be true, but there was something more than happiness at play. I would almost say that I was proud of myself. I'd gotten over myself and ventured out on my own and explored this brand-new territory.
What better way to commemorate that event than with a tattoo, right?
Yeah, I know now that it wasn't the greatest idea. Tattoos are things you get after months and years of thinking over what it is you want inked into your skin for the rest of your life, not tokens of whims to commemorate the day you stopped being a coward and went walking around a city. But having gotten my first tattoo a few months before my trip to San Francisco, I was begging for an excuse to get another, and this seemed like exactly the right reason. Lucky for me, there was a tattoo parlor right across the street.
I walked into the clean and extremely well-lit store with eight bags of merchandise in tow, and I was greeted with the looks one should expect from a bunch of grizzled tattoo and piercing artists when one is twenty-one years old, carrying eight bags of merchandise, bright-eyed and eager to get a permanent reminder of an afternoon's worth of adventure. Dismissive, jaded, annoyed—take your pick.
"Can I help you?" asked a wafer-thin Bettie Page look-alike. She had more piercings than Bettie had, and more tattoos than Bettie had, and less cleavage than Bettie had. But the haircut—that was right on.
"I'm looking to get a tattoo," I said.
Without missing a beat, she reached behind the counter and produced a clipboard with a stack of documents on it. "Sign these," she said sharply.
I began filling out the forms. There were release forms, proof-of-age forms, forms that explained the health code—tons and tons of forms. Looking back on them now, I'm not so sure that I didn't end up adopting a dog during the whole thing. A good fifteen minutes later, I slid the clipboard filled with completed forms back toward her. She asked for my driver's license and went to make a photocopy of it."Look through those books, see if anything interests you," she said without even looking my way.
I began looking at the photo albums for the various artists in the shop. After about ten minutes of flipping through what was available, I decided that Marcus was the best of the bunch. His work had an original feel to it, as if it had been done with more artistic vision than jaded monotony. I saw works in his photo album that weren't just repeats of E-11 and C-24 from the flash art on the walls. Perhaps, I thought, I'd found the man who could do the piece I'd always wanted.
"Over here." The Bettie Page wannabe waved at me from my right.
I walked over toward her and was quickly asked what I was looking at getting done. "I'm not sure, but I think I want to talk to Marcus about a piece," I replied.
"You're looking for me?" a short, curly-haired man said from just beside Bettie Page, Jr.
"You're Marcus?" I asked.
"Yup!" he said jovially, reaching out for a handshake. "What can I do for you?"
"Well," I said, "I'm thinking about getting some work done."
"Cool, cool," he said with a practiced nod and a few years of customer service under his belt. "You got some artwork with you?"
I considered talking to him about the Akira-themed piece I had been sketching for the past few years, but it wasn't quite where I wanted it. Besides, I wasn't entirely sold on getting an anime-themed piece. I mean, people might laugh at me (of course, 10 years later, I went ahead and did it, then posted pictures all over the internet and ended up in Wired magazine. And people laughed anyway).
"No artwork with me," I replied. "But I was looking at your work, and there's a theme I've wanted to work on. I was hoping maybe we could collaborate?"
"Whatcha got in mind?" he asked, leading me back to the rear of the store where his drawing desk sat.
"Well . . ." It was then that I began describing a story I'd been working on for a comic I'd planned to draw during my downtime in San Francisco. The plot of the comic was rather elaborate (overly so, when I think back on it with an adult mind) but had quite a lot to do with gateways and portals to faraway places and distant lands. I described one of the gates I had in mind, and he instantly seized on it.
"Man, that could make a pretty righteous back piece," he said. "You could do the top of the gate up around the shoulder blades and have it go down the back all the way to the waist." He sat down at his drawing desk and began sketching something.
"That'd be . . . uh . . . that's pretty big," I said with a marked note of anxiety.
He paused and looked up at me. "It doesn't have to be," he said. "It's your piece. If you want it on the shoulder or on the forearm . . ."
I looked down at what he had sketched. As soon as I saw it, the power and energy of the day's adventurousness hit me full force. A full-back tattoo:It was crazy. "Let's do the full back!" I said excitedly.
"You sure?" he said, smiling and reflecting my newfound excitement. "Great, man!" He patted me on the shoulder. "That's what I was hoping you'd say!" With that, the two of us began designing what would be the largest individual symbol of my newfound sense of daring.
A few hours later, we stood back from the drawing desk, stretching our backs, which had become stiff and cramped from such a long period of time arched over our work. We shook out our arms and our shoulders; we blinked a bit. With refreshed eyes, we returned to give the work a fresh look.
It was beautiful.
At the time it was definitely one of the wickedest, most profound things I'd seen committed to paper—and it was made even more so from the dueling pencils that Marcus and I had wielded in concert. It was a fantastic representation of the story line I had been working on. My detail work in the patterns of the wrought-iron fencing for the gateway had been brought to life by his subtle shading, and his background work was unbelievable. The entrance into the next plane of existence had never looked so clear. I'd never thought to place the statues of heroes past and other symbols beyond the gate, but he assured me it would make for a more interesting piece.
"And you're sure it'll look like this when it's on my back?" I asked him.
"Oh, no doubt, man," he replied, removing his cap and brushing through his thick brown locks with his fingers. "Just understand, this is definitely a multiple-day job."
"Oh, yeah, definitely," I agreed. "I wouldn't expect you to be able to do all this in . . . uh . . . what time do you close?"
"Nine," he answered.
"Yeah, so, like, three hours? No way."
He chuckled. "We'll be doing good to get it done in three days, man."
My eyes opened wide. "Three solid days?" I asked, remembering how uncomfortable it had felt to sit three hours for the tiny Japanese symbol on my left shoulder.
"Oh, no way," he replied. "It'll take at least two weeks between sessions to let the area heal up and let the new skin peel. You're talking about six weeks or so."
"Oh, wow. Well, I'm here for the next few months, so I guess that won't be a problem."
"Cool," he said, replacing his cap on his head. "So, when do you want to start?"
I gave him a sideways look. "How about right now?" I said.
He laughed. "Dude, come on! Today's my birthday! You're lucky you even caught me in here today. I'm supposed to be off. "
"That really sucks—I'm sorry, man!"
"Yeah, and I only agreed to come in for a quick morning sitting, but then you showed up and ruined my afternoon."
"Dude," I replied passively, "why didn't you say something? I could have come back."
He patted me on the shoulder. "I'm kidding, man. It was great. It's nice to get to do some original work."
"At least it was fun," I replied.
"Heh," he said. "I'm just glad I was wrong about you."
"What do you mean?"
"The second I saw you, I had you pegged as one of those jocks who wanted a damn Chinese character or something."
I ducked my head and grinned.
"What?" he asked.
I slowly lifted my left shirtsleeve in reply.
"Oh, man," he said, shocked but laughing. "I am so sorry! I didn't mean to insult you."
"Hey, don't be," I said. "I was eighteen."
"Say no more!" he said, slapping me on the arm again. "You know what? Fuck it. My party doesn't start until ten anyway. Let's fucking bang out some of the outline."
"Really?" I asked, delighted.
"Hell, yeah, man," he answered. "I'm stoked to do this thing here. We can get the outline going and some of the detail work in that masthead if you want."
"Hell, yeah," I echoed. "But if it's okay, I'd like to start with stuff that can be, you know . . ."
"Oh," he said, reading my mind. "You'll be able to walk around with it. I won't just leave you with a bunch of black lines."
"Rad," I answered.
We went back to the tattooing studio, and he had me sit on a piece of furniture that very much resembled a dentist's chair, only wider. I waited as he set up his tray and needles, and I watched as he got his instrumentation dialed in and his inks set up. About forty minutes later, we were ready to work.
There's something odd that happens when you're being jabbed in the spine multiple times with a gigantic needle. The constant reminder that you're in pain slows the passage of time to a crawl. It felt like I'd been lying there for a century or maybe even two. In reality, it had been nearly two hours. At last he sat back, sighed, and told me that we were done for the night.
"Yeah?" I asked, half inquisitive and half relieved.
"Yeah," he replied. "Stand up and take a look."
I stood as he handed me a large mirror. I looked at the reflection of my reflection in the large wallmirror behind me, and what I saw left me underwhelmed. "Wow," I said, reacting to the black lines that framed the top part of the door on the gateway.
He could hear the disappointment in my voice. "I know," he said. "Doesn't look like much, but really, it's a lot of the important stuff."
"I dunno," I said. "The circle decoration from the top center part looks neat, and I'm glad that's done and filled in. But the line work . . ."
"Yeah, I know," he repeated.
"It just felt like a lot more was done, you know?"
He nodded. "I do indeed. But hey, some good groundwork was laid tonight."
I shrugged. "Eh, well, here's to a really good start, right?" I said, trying to sound cheerful.
"Right," he said, smiling. "It's cool, man, we're going to get a lot more knocked out tomorrow."
"Cool," I replied as he began rubbing the new ink and line work with some A+D ointment. "I'm really looking forward to this. I can already see it in my mind."
We shook hands and I wished him well at his party, then I put on my shirt and left to pay the Bettie Page chick at the front of the store. I left the store and headed home with all of the trophies and markings won from a day full of adventure.
I awoke the next morning sore but eager to face the new day. The rush one gets from overcoming his own trappings and shortcomings is one that isn't easily lost—it lasts for as long as one can keep recapturing that moment. In a city like San Francisco, with a new outlook on my new neighborhood and a back full of new art to receive, I was primed to carry the feeling through the next few months.
I got dressed and strode out of the apartment with an air of confidence. I smiled as I trotted down Haight Street toward the tattoo parlor. I wasn't exactly looking forward to the feeling of my spine being treated like a hunk of city street by a jackhammer. But the end result would be worth it. There would be something uniquely mine on my back for me to carry wherever I went. A permanent piece of equipment; the framework of my courage.
I practically crashed through the front door of the tattoo parlor. From the inside, I probably looked as though I thought I was Fonzie from Happy Days entering Al's diner. The Bettie Page girl from the night before was standing behind the counter. I approached with a swagger and tapped out a quick rhythm on the counter in front of her. "Heya," I said, chipper as could be.
She didn't reply.
I shifted my weight between each of my feet for a second or two. "So, where's Marcus?" I asked in a lighthearted tone. "I'm ready to get this show on the road."
She immediately placed her face in her palms and began sobbing. I heard her mumble something. It sounded like someone chewing on an overcooked mouse.
"Excuse me?" I said politely.
Her head shot up, and she looked at me as if I'd just thrown a dart into her best friend's ass. There were black streams winding their way down her blushed cheekbones. Her neck was a fiery red, and a pasty mixture of white makeup and teardrops pooled at her jawline. "I said he's dead!" she barked.
"What?" I asked. Not so much because I didn't understand her but because my brain had performed an immediate lockdown—absolutely no new information was allowed in or out of it.
"Can you not hear?" she practically screamed. "Do I have to write it out for you?"
"Sir," I heard from behind me. I turned to find a tall, lanky man in a draping beach shirt, some cargo pants, and a pair of sandals. "Are you here for an appointment?"
"Yeah," I replied. "I was supposed to . . . Wait, so like, Marcus died?"
"God!" the Bettie Page girl yelped from behind me. She then became overwhelmed and burst into tears again.
"You'd better come with me," the man said, touching my arm lightly.
I staggered behind him, bewildered by what was happening. As I looked around, I noted the sullen faces of all of the employees. They were all very clearly shaken up—the piercing lady was hugging one of the counter workers; two tattoo artists sat in chairs across from each other with their elbows on their knees and their heads hung between their shoulders. Another person sat in the corner, staring out the window of the parlor.
"Have a seat," he said as we dipped behind the curtain of the studio. I sat in the same chair I'd been tattooed in the night before. "This is so hard . . ." He began to choke up.
"I imagine," I replied, hoping to sound somewhat sympathetic.
"We just . . . I mean . . . Okay, basically, Marcus was hit by a bus last night."
"Oh my God!" I said. "Is he okay?" I felt like such a cock. I knew the answer before I'd even asked the question—it was just a reaction, completely involuntary. But it had come out, and now I had this man who was being so kind staring at me as if I'd just fallen out of the back end of a stray dog.
"He died last night," the man answered.
"I . . . I know," I blurted out. "I mean, like . . . It was just . . . I'm sorry."
He held his hand up, waving off my explanation. "It's okay, I understand," he said politely.
"Man, I am so sorry," I said.
"It's going to be hard here without him," the man said.
"Wait, why are you still open?" I asked. "You should all be at home. This is a pretty intense thing."
"We can't close," the man answered. "We're a franchise. There're rules."
I took a deep breath as the two of us sat in silence for several moments. I debated letting it go, but my curiosity got the better of me. "How did it happen?" I asked, adding, "If you don't mind?"
He took a deep breath. "We were all out for his birthday. We all had a lot to drink. It happened so fast . . . He was such a great guy!" He broke down in tears momentarily before regaining his composure. "He was my best artist."
I nodded. "He was very talented. We worked on a piece last night together."
"I saw that," he said. "It looked very impressive. It would have been a great piece."
I shifted in my seat. A nagging question had entered my mind the moment I realized Marcus had been loosed from this mortal coil, one that I didn't even want to admit to myself that I was asking. But it was there. I could feel it creeping from the depths of my subconscious, slowly working its way from the inner core of my mind, down the brain stem and into my throat.
"Speaking of that," I felt myself say.
He looked up at me, knowing full well what I was about to ask and wearing his reaction to my unspoken question clearly on his face.
I shifted in my seat again. "Like, well, the piece is unfinished . . ."
"You want a refund," he said with disappointment—not just in me but in the selfishness inherent in the entire human race.
"No!" I exclaimed. "That's not what I was going to ask."
God, I was such a liar.
He looked up at me. "What, then?"
"Well, I mean . . ." I coughed slightly. "Is there, like . . . Can someone in here finish this?"
He thought for a moment. "Let me see?" he asked.
I took off my shirt and showed him where we'd left off.
"I hate to say this, but honestly, looking at the artwork, I really doubt it," the man said.
I felt a dread creep up within me.
"But I'm sure we could do something," he said.
We went on to discuss the possibilities. He mentioned that someone in the shop might be able to connect up the lines and basically cover them with a design that would cap off the existing circle motif. He assured me that it wouldn't look like a shoddy cover job and that I wouldn't have to feel ashamed to have an unfinished tattoo on my back.
I wasn't thinking much about the future. I wasn't thinking about the fact that I could probably find a high-quality artist to pick up where this one had left off. I wasn't thinking about the fact that if I could just be patient, I would be able to take the motif and finish it.
No. Panic and dread over the idea of having a blob of black lines and a circular motif with no shading led me to agree to allow one of his artists to cover up the beginnings of the masterwork. On the house, no less.
The end product wasn't horrible, I said to myself after four hours of having a hairy-armed beast of a man bear down on my back with another huge needle. It looked like a semi-Gaelic Asian-fusion tribal sort of thing. Not ugly. Not particularly notable. Just a black conglomeration of lines on my shoulders with a circular motif in the center. I'm certain that only I look at it and can see where it was once the beginnings of the top of a beautiful gateway to a far-off land. To everyone else, it's something to be polite about. But even after all the tattoo work I've had done since, I haven't brought myself to have it covered. It is, after all, a souvenir from one of the greatest trips I'd ever taken—a trip through the doorway from fear to adventure.
If you would like to be notified when new stories come out, vote on this story, or leave comments,
Sign up for an account! It's Free (and Safe)!
Posted on Monday, June 02 2008
| | | | | | |