Pins & Needles
Sunday afternoon, 2
young tattoo parlor
clerk is very sorry, she says, but she's going to have to run my credit
card one more time. "We accidentally undercharged you ten dollars,
Ma'am," she explains, dimpling apologetically. The procedure costs
thirty dollars, but the hardware is another ten.
leap from my spot on
the waiting room bench, where I've been pretending to read the latest
issue of Pinz-n-Needlez Magazine for the past fourteen and a
minutes, and approach the counter, wallet in hand. "That's OK," I tell
her, smiling my very best Don't
worry about it! I'm The Cool Mom!
smile. And I pull out my VISA and hand it to her for the second time in
half an hour.
will just take a
moment," she murmurs, turning around to squint at the billing screen on
her computer. She is sporting an enormous tattoo of a phoenix, rising
from a sea of flames: it begins at the midpoint of her collarbone, then
runs across one shoulder and spreads all the way across her back.
is both magnificent
I stand at the
counter, waiting for my card to be re-zapped, I glance surreptitiously
around me. With its ferns and its skylights and its soft twinkly
background music, the place has the ambience of a Starbucks.
Technically, of course, I know that these places aren't called "tattoo
parlors" anymore. "Tatto parlor" is a term from a bygone era: it
conjures up images of swarthy men with bad teeth
and stubby yellow fingers, tattooing "Mom" onto the biceps of foolish
drunken young sailors. These days, places like this are more properly
referred to as "studios" or "shops" or "body art boutiques." Besides:
tattooing isn't the only thing they do here. Just as many people come
into these places for piercings, these days, as they do for tattoos.
other words: it's a
full-service mutilation boutique.
peer around the corner
and check on my daughter. She is still sitting there in her private
booth, in what looks for all the world like a dentist's chair,
surrounded on all sides by tubes and needles and sinister-looking
instruments of torture. The booth is mirrored from floor to ceiling: I
can see her thin, pale face from a variety of interesting and useful
angles. Our eyes meet in one of the mirrors. I waggle my fingers at her
reflection, smiling reassuringly -- Don't
worry, Honey. Mommy's here --
even though what I really
want to do is snatch her out of the chair and drag her back to my
apartment and force-feed her mega-doses of chicken soup and common
for the rest of her visit.
gives me a wry smile
-- Hi Mom,
she mouths into the mirror -- and then she turns away and looks calmly
off into space some more, tapping her fingers on the arm of the chair.
spite of all her
practiced cool, I can tell that she's nervous. The tapping fingers are
a dead giveaway. I can also can tell that she's still sick. She isn't
coughing as much as she was on Thursday night -- three nights' worth of
Nyquil and motherly hovering have fixed that -- and this morning her
temperature was back to normal. But those glassy pink eyes in the
mirror tell me she's still not feeling 100%. When she was a little
girl, I used to call it her Bunny Face: that hunted, rabbity look that
invariably heralded the arrival of some ghastly childhood illness. She
may be twenty years old now, all hip and sophisticated and grown-up and
stuff ... but The Bunny Face never lies.
you want to add a
tip?" asks the clerk, interrupting my maternal musings.
tip," she says. "Do
you want to add a tip for the artist?" I have no idea what the protocol
is in a place like this, obviously. The clerk sees the blank expression
on my face and murmurs that five dollars is considered customary.
fine," I say.
sign the slip and take my receipt, returning to the waiting area to
resume my solitary vigil. Except that it's not a 'solitary' vigil
anymore: while I've been standing at the counter, sorting out the bill,
another customer has quietly taken a seat on the bench behind me. Like
me, she looks comfortably ensconced in middle age. Like me, she is
dressed conservatively -- some might say primly, considering where we
are -- in jeans and running shoes and a natty little Lands End
pullover. Like me, she looks as out of place in this Berkeley
impalement boutique as a Brownie Girl Scout in a crack den. We exchange
a glance of wordless solidarity -- Kids:
what are you gonna do? -- and
pretend to read our magazines some more. I feel vaguely comforted by
I am not the
only overly-guilted/easily-manipulated mother in Berkeley today.
this moment, the
front door of the studio opens, and a cadaverous young man in a black
tank top and greasy leather pants strides through the door. He is a
walking, talking, gleaming, glowering advertisement for the shop: every
visible inch of his body is covered in graphic ink portraits of
shrieking demons, knives dripping with blood, nude young women with
wide open mouths and zeppelin-sized breasts. Plus he's got more metal
embedded in his ears and his nose and his lips (and -- I presume --
assorted other body parts that I don't even want to think
about) than Grandma's tomato pin cushion. From the thunderous,
frenzied ovation he receives from everyone in the shop, he is obviously
Jesus in Birkenstocks, I whisper
fervently. Please don't let
this be Kacie's "artist."
relief, he heads straight to another private booth on the other side of
the shop. As he whips the curtains open, I catch a glimpse of a young
woman inside, laying on her stomach. She is nude from the waist down.
On either side of her, two tattoo artists are hunched over her with
spotlights and needles, carving what looks from this distance like a
life-size map of South America into her lower back.
"Hey!" shouts Pin
Cushion Guy affably. "How's it goin'?" And he pulls the curtains closed
let out an audible
sigh of relief. The woman sitting next to me shoots me a brief,
weekend has turned out the way I hoped it would. While I was planning
for Kacie's visit, last week, I actually made a list of all the fun
stuff I thought we could do together ... all the places we could go and
clothes we could buy and photo opps we could indulge in. But so far we
haven't hit a single item on the list. There have been no sightseeing
trips to downtown San Francisco. No morning bike rides. No cozy
afternoons spent looking at family photo albums. No serious discussions
about stocks or sobriety or the benefits of having a high school
diploma in today's challenging job market. Kacie landed on Thursday
night, sick and distracted and filled with her own ideas about how the
weekend should go, and I've sort of been trailing along uselessly
behind her ever since, trying to find a way for us to connect.
this doesn't work, I
might be out of ideas.
a few more
minutes, Kacie's "artist" finally arrives: a reassuringly
normal-looking young man sporting a neat haircut and no visible
tattooage. He could be a UC Berkeley graduate student, come to pick up
my daughter for the Young Republicans Picnic. I watch as he enters the
booth, greets Kacie politely and pulls the curtains closed behind him.
He doesn't close them all the way, though, and through the gap I have a
fairly clear view of the goings-on. The artist sits down on a stool and
begins talking to her, very intently. I'm too far away from the booth
to hear what he's saying, but it's obvious from his gestures (and from
her facial expressions) that he's
explaining the procedure to her in graphic detail. She listens raptly,
nodding every few seconds. Yes.
OK. Yes. I understand. (If only
she would pay that much attention to David and I when we talk about
one point, he hands her a clipboard and has
her sign something. While she signs, he stands up and walks over to the
little portable sink, where he squirts disinfectant on his hands and
vigorously rubs them together, then pulls on a pair of long rubber
suddenly experience a
moment of Maternal Angst as sharp and as deadly as any of the shiny
metal implements in the artist's arsenal. What
are we dooooooooing here? it
says. Why aren't we at the zoo
right now, feeding bags of peanuts to adorable baby elephants? Why
aren't we shopping for Golden Gate Bridge refrigerator magnets in
Chinatown? Why aren't stopping for raspberry scones and Gatorade,
halfway through our bike ride on the Iron Horse Trail?
And yet there is a sort of calm weird inevitablity about all of
this. I know that she is determined to have this procedure done. She's
been talking about little else since the moment she got off the plane.
I know that nothing short of a 6.5 on the Richter Scale could get her
out of that chair right now. And I know that she would be doing this
with OR without me: at least this way I was able to pick the cleanest,
nicest, most sanitary-looking shop on Telegraph Avenue. I comfort
myself with the knowledge that it could be much, much worse. She could
be performing the procedure on herself, for instance. This is the Tot
who stood in the bathroom the morning of my wedding and cut off all her
hair. Or she could be letting one of her "friends" back home do it for
her: someone unskilled and unsanitary and unsober. (Or *I* could be
sitting in the chair next to her. During my Let's-get-drunk-and-drive-around-listening-to-Metallica phase,
that easily could have been the case.)
Things could be a
artist leans over
Kacie's face, instrument in hand. When the moment arrives, I can't
bring myself to watch. Instead, I look at the crumpled credit card
receipt in my hand. I look at the clerk, standing in front of her cash
register, absently fiddling with her nose ring. I look at the big
poster of available tattoo images, mounted on the wall beside me.
(Eleven varieties of ladybugs, from the looks of things. And at least
43,897,621 different butterflies, including one with zeppelin-sized
breasts.) I look at everything, basically, except for what's going on
fifty feet away inside that private booth.
then ... just like
that, it's all over.
emerges from the
booth, smiling triumphantly. There is a new metal stud embedded in the
soft concave area between her lower lip and her chin. "Like it?" she
asks proudly. "It's called a lab-ray." And she uses her tongue to flick
the stud up and down from the inside of her mouth. The skin around the
metal stud is already beginning to look red and puffy.
She looks like
she's been shot with a nail gun. Which, of course, is
precisely the point.
looks horrible," I
say to her flatly, and she beams proudly. This, also, is precisely the
artist exits the
booth right behind Kacie, still carrying his clipboard in hand. I'm
thinking that perhaps he's going to stop and introduce himself to me
now -- to discuss the aftercare instructions with Mom, to suggest a
follow-up appointment, to give us both a lollipop for being so brave --
but he breezes right past us and addresses the middle-aged woman still
sitting on the bench behind me.
the tongue stud,
right?" he says to her.
woman jumps to her
feet, nodding vigorously. "Yeah," she says. "I'm the tongue stud. And I
was wondering if you could look at my navel if you've got time." And
with this, she hikes up the hem of her natty little Lands End pullover
and exposes a crusty navel ring, oozing with blood and goo and assorted
other bodily fluids I don't even want to think
much for maternal
solidarity. Not only am I not the Coolest Mom on the planet anymore ...
I'm not even the Coolest Mom in the ROOM.
I don't care.
go find David," I
say to Kacie, tucking her aftercare instructions into my purse. "I'm
ready for lunch." It's been a long, weird, emotional-roller-coaster of
a morning ... just like everything else about this weekend. I want to
stop at a drugstore and buy her some antiseptic -- I wonder if Biotene
comes in the fifty-gallon jug size? -- and then I am more than ready
for a big juicy Santa Fe Avocado Burger and a mountain of french fries
at Kip's, right across the street.
she is already
striding ahead of me out the door, digging around in her handbag.
"Good," she says, jamming a cigarette into her mouth and lighting it
hungrily. "I'm dying for some Chinese food." And she strides off down
Telegraph Avenue, her chin pointed defiantly in the air ... her new
labret gleaming in the Berkeley sunshine.
to throw a rock?