On Being A Marked Man

Longtime readers of this humble little rag have by now, I suspect, garnered a pretty good sense of the wholesome, rather insulated environment in which I grew to adulthood. I often crack that I grew up on Leave It to Beaver and it's only a half-joke. Mom didn't wear pearls when waxing the floors but otherwise my childhood wasn't so very different from Wally and the Beav's.

Conspicuous by their absence from my own private Mayfield were tattoos. The only one I recall encountering adorned the arm of my fifth grade Little League coach. His name has escaped the rather feeble clutches of my memory but I clearly recall his essence, his look. Tall and lanky, like Sam Shepherd, he was a truck driver, possessed of a truck driver's deep tan. He smoked cigarettes. He told off-color jokes, used words I couldn't always define but didn't dare repeat. And his tattoo was a daunting one: a buxom, ebon-haired bathing beauty sans bathing suit, perpetually coiled in a seductive pose right there on his left arm. She was perhaps the first naked lady I ever encountered and she remains, to this day, one of the most impressive.

Tattoos, to my young mind, were outward shows of machismo, personal banners of worldliness acquired in exotic, dangerous places like Singaporean ports of call and Mexican border towns. Sailors had them, drifters, ex-cons. Not that it occurred to me to try but, in my youth, I would have difficulty, I know, reconciling a tattoo with, say, membership in the honor society. One could have a tattoo or one could get straight A's. Surely it wasn't possible to do both, was it?

More than a decade spent in New York has slowly altered my perception of this age-old body art, though. Here, tattoos are found on hipsters, Hell's Angels, homebodies, hicks, harlots, highbrows and the hoi polloi. One of the loves of my life was tattooed and don't think that didn't shake me up a little. Believe me, it never occurred to that boy back in Oklahoma that he'd one day date a marked woman. But I fell hard for a nice corn-fed girl from Iowa and damned if she didn't have a lunar tableau etched right there above her right shoulder blade!

So it was that I'd slowly come to consider taking the plunge myself. I have, for some time, toyed with the notion of marking my arm with a Route 66 highway shield. In my case, it wasn't a matter of deciding I wanted a tattoo and then having to choose an image. The image came first, it's the only one I ever considered.

The tricky part is that, strictly speaking, tattooing is illegal in New York City. Of course, there's a law against jaywalking, too, but one is not likely to do hard time for crossing in the middle of the block here. The NYPD here has more than enough to keep them busy without concerning themselves with these lesser offenses so while tattoo parlors don't advertise, they do exist.

"Cool skates, dude!" Clay exclaimed, as I entered the basement parlor, blades in hand. He sat me down, showed me his portfolio, told me he'd happily answer any questions I might have. This reception was a pleasant surprise, I must admit. Deep down, the dorky, boy-next-door within me had half expected to be greeted with jeers and condescension, labeled a poseur and quickly shown the door.

I had a moment, too, of insecurity regarding my choice of body graphic. The work displayed in Clay's portfolio was a little more, well, extreme than my tame little highway sign. Here were monsters, flaming skulls, dragons, skeletons...the stuff nightmares are made of. Would he find my little icon too dull? Would he decline my business or, worse, try to spice my design up a bit once he had me marked, perhaps wrap a hissing viper around my Route 66 shield?

I revealed to Clay what I had in mind and he seemed enthusiastic enough, allaying my fears. We scheduled an appointment for the following Monday afternoon, which allowed three full days for the inevitable doubts to creep in.

Oddly, though, the doubts never really gained a foothold. I'd mulled so long over this decision that now that the time was near, I didn't waffle. I wasn't particularly apprehensive upon my return to East 2nd Street, though I didn't relish the pain I expected to undergo. I gave Clay, upon my arrival, the artwork and he disappeared into the rear of the parlor, using a machine to turn the graphic into a stencil to be transferred onto my upper arm, which would serve as Clay's guide as he did the actual tattooing. I waited in the lobby, trying to ignore the incessant, whining buzz emitting from some recess of the parlor.

Thankfully, that unseen recipient was not shrieking in agony or I might have suddenly recalled a previous urgent appointment and fled the premises. Instead, I passed the time flipping through a stack of tattoo magazines. These were not reassuring, however. These publications, which seem to cater to the more devout among the tattoo faithful, served to raise a few last-minute doubts in my mind. It occurred to me, after paging through two or three issues, that I hadn't seen a single individual on those something-less-than-glossy pages I'd feel comfortable having dinner with. Was I about to join a club of which I didn't really want to be a member? What I wouldn't have given for a well-worn People magazine right about then!

Just then, Clay reappeared, perhaps sensing my sudden lack of resolve, and ushered me back to his workspace. It was a tiny cubicle, not unlike an examination room in a clinic though differing distinctly in decor from any doctor's office I've seen. Clay shaved my upper arm, applied the stencil, had me examine it in a mirror to insure it was placed just so and cranked up his instrument of torture.

Actually, I'm being a bit dramatic. The pain involved was significantly less than I'd expected. It felt a bit like someone with long nails giving me a good, hard scratch. Painful, yes, but not excruciatingly so; I didn't even whimper. Every now and then, I experienced a sharper pain but it was always brief.

In little more than a quarter of an hour, Clay completed his work. The tattoo looked great, exactly like the original I'd presented to Clay during our initial consultation. We discussed the first week's care for the tattoo (plenty of Neosporin), I handed Clay his seventy-five bucks and I was on my way.

Since that day, I've experienced the occasional pang of doubt. Did I do the right thing? Will I regret having this done? I truly don't think so. I'm really rather pleased with it. Clay told me I'd likely return someday for another tattoo. He said that most people, having gotten through the harrowing experience of their first tattoo, return for another. I can understand this phenomenon but I suspect that this will be it for me. This tattoo is a form of tribute, to the road, the legend that is Route 66. It's a reminder of my cross-country trip of two summers ago. And to some degree, I suppose, if I'm truly honest, it's my own rather mild form of rebellion. I don't think another is in the cards. But I'm pleased I have this one.

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