Tats

Disclosure:  I have no tattoos.  Not one. Not even a discreet mumbling insect somewhere only cognoscenti would look.  I do have some varicose veins on my legs which, if you squint, can be mistaken for tattoos.  I also have a couple of holes in  one earlobe, but that’s it as far as bod-mod is concerned.  Only removable stuff, and not much of it.

So, naturally, I’m well qualified to write about tattoos.

I came up in a time when they were the sole prerogative of sailors, ex-marines, carnies, and other folk with a propensity to drunkenness in unusual places and a propensity to accept dares as solemn challenges.  And, now that I think of it, a place to go when paychecks and wild urges were completely spent, until next time around the block.  Themes were limited: Mom, Semper Fi, pierced hearts inscribed with ‘[your name here] Forever,’ and a handful of dragons and dripping daggers.  There were prison tats, of course, but those mostly looked like some middle schoolers’ cribbed notes for an upcoming exam.

They remained daring for years, until  — when, the 90s?  Now they’re so common it’s unusual to see bare skin younger than 60.  And I mean common: pets, cartoon characters, bible verses.  It’s like the middle schoolers replaced their crib sheets with the kind of doodles that used to be reserved for textbooks.

Now and then you see a kanji character, an inscription in Sanskrit, or some homage to Maori body art, makes no difference which, since the bearers seldom understand them, and the artists who ink them even less often.  You know those tech instructions in poorly translated, fractured English that everyone laughs at?  How many tattoos in exotic scripts evoke the same kind of reaction in people who can read them?

In any case, tat madness coupled with the current penchant for extremes has come to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell if someone is wearing a shirt.  We’ve come a long way since Ray Bradbury’s classic book of short stories, The Illustrated Man, in which tattoos covering the entire body were used as a device to connect the stories.  In 1951, when the book was published, everyone easily bought into the notion that the man was not only unusual, but possibly a dangerous freak.  He wouldn’t even be considered extreme now.

Are there “good” tattoos?  Of course there are, dear.  Only, it’s not easy to tell them from bad ones.  Some people will tell you all tattoos are good by default, but that argument would be … tatological.

Like all fashions, this one, too, will pass.  Eventually, it will once again be a trait of the very old or very bold.  One day, your kids will laugh at all the silly stuff you had permanently affixed to your body.

If they can see past the folds and creases.

Ah, youth

Another tale from the annals of my splendidly misspent youth.  As usual, I have changed the names, out of a rather quaint sense of propriety.

Well, there we were, the lot of us squeezed comfortably into the crevices of a small, 5th floor pension a block from Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona.  What did we expect?  When you’re young, love blooms early and often, or at least what passes for love, some combination of lust and infatuation, I suppose.  Mother Nature gives us a double shot of hormones to get us making more of ourselves before we get distracted by life’s illusions.  For ordinary mammals, this is pretty straightforward; for us humans, anything but.

The Pension Fontanella was, above all, cheap, and the landlord easy going.  For 50 peseatas a day, about 75 cents in the exchange rate of the day, you got a bed in one of a half dozen or so rooms with anywhere from two to six beds each. In the morning was an included breakfast, of endless coffee, scones and butter, sometimes jam.  For another 30 pesetas, you could go down the street a ways to the worker’s cafeteria and get an enormous midday meal consisting, typically, of a giant bowl of paella, a grilled meat and potatoes course, and flan for dessert, all washed down with a Coca Cola bottle filled with cheap Spanish wine.  We thought Europe on $5 a Day, a popular guide book at the time, was woefully extravagant.

I won’t say the Pension Fontanella was a den of iniquity.  It was 1970.  The world was in one of its usual celebrations of youthful exuberance to accompany the coming of age of a postwar cohort, and the horrors of AIDS were nowhere on the horizon.  There were drugs, yes.  The landlord doubtless shared a portion of his profits with the local Guardia Civil.  It was 1970.  Mostly hashish, taken with a kind of connoisseurship: Moroccan blond, versus Lebanese red, etc.  Personally, while I had indulged lavishly while in military service, I had lost interest since my discharge.  I had come to find that while the first half hour or so of getting high was pleasant enough, after that I would often want to do something, and the hash haze became an obstacle.  Take whatever that says about the military as you wish; it was a different institution back in the days of Vietnam and the draft.

Anyway, as I said, there we were, merrily hopping from hash to hash and bed to bed, all bedazzled by the sheer possibility of life, blissfully ignorant of folly and its curses.  We played music; I imagined myself to be a competent guitarist and passable singer, mostly because of my friend Sid, who was so brilliant that when we played together, it made my amateurish thrashing about sound like intentional rustication.

Then, in walked Inga, and set it all a-tumble.

She wasn’t exactly beautiful, though her features were regular enough.  But, musically, she was head and shoulders above the quotidian, workmanlike talent we were used to.  It was the way she sang, with her eyes, gliding atop the effortless guitar lines with a sublime inevitability.  She made the trite seem fresh, and the fresh seem stunning; most of all, she made it seem personal to every male listening.  I was smitten.  So were we all.

She had arrived in the afternoon from nowhere in particular, and half the denizens of the pension sat far into the night under the spell of her singing and playing.  I fell asleep with the resolve that, in the morning, I would find her, and away from the rest of her admiring audience, I would have a chance at connecting.

Well, morning did come, and I found her, but not alone.  There she was at the reception desk, guitar and backpack all cinched up and ready to go.  Next to her was Billy, whom I had come to consider a good friend.  They were checking out.  Together.

Blap!  Just like that.  I lost my moorings.  I stammered a “good morning,” and asked, “What’s going on?  Are you leaving?”

“Yeah, Billy said, smiling broadly.  “We’re heading for Ibiza; the boat leaves in an hour.”  Inga beamed radiantly.  I was crushed.

“I gotta go,” I said lamely,  I could feel their quizzical stares as I headed for the staircase and out the door.

Well, it’s an old story, I guess, ruefully celebrated in many a folksong:

For courting too slowly you have lost this fair maiden
Begone you will never enjoy her
Begone you will never enjoy her
I once loved a lass

I walked down the street to a pub we occasionally patronized for special occasions.  It’s bar, lined with tapas the length of it, was a major attraction that outweighed the price of the beer.  Inside, I found Will, Sid’s brother.  He looked up and saw my face.

“You too?” he said.

I nodded and let out a sigh, and sat down next to him.  It was beer and calamares for a long, long brunch for us.  Not quite equivalent to true love, but it would have to do.

On being tall

Damn!  How short are you?

How’s the weather down there?

I bet you were a jockey in high school.

Say, would you mind getting something for me off that bottom shelf?

Wait, lemme put my foot up’side yours.  What size shoe do you wear?  That’s some tiny feet!

Up in front!

Hey, little guy, wassup?

For the record, I’m 6’5″ and wear a size 16 shoe.

Draft dodging revisited

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Saving your own ass is a perfectly honorable reason to avoid military service, if you don’t see a compelling reason to go to war in the first place.

au-war-protest-w

And another thing:  those were crazy times, the 60s.

The beats, those semi-feral gnosticati whom we came to later venerate, were creatures of the WW II aftermath, in exactly the same way as the Lost Generation was of WW I.  An incomprehensibly brutal war had beaten the bejeezus out of the population at large, and those few sensitive and creative souls who could banded together in resistance to the Great Blanding that followed.  They were artists, primarily, painters, poets, musicians, above all uncynical and undisillusioned, still willing to bite on the bare hook, still enthralled by beauty and the ideal.  Do I surprise you?  That cynical, hip beatnik pose that’s so familiar was a disguise at most, at worst a caricature painted by a society that wanted nothing remotely experimental to happen for the foreseeable future.  The war and the depression it followed had been adventure enough, thanks.

But, for better or worse, the beats became famous, especially for naturally rebellious young folk, always feeling stifled, but particularly in that post-war treacle of the 1950s.  For them, Kerouac, Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, and the rest represented not only freedom from accountability, but an expression of creativity completely unfettered by the constraints of the responsible, normal, world.  Never mind that Kerouac actually lived with (not to say on) his mother in Lowell between cross-country adventures, or that Ferlinghetti had served honorably in the Navy during the war.  Come to that, never mind that most of the people who so earnestly emulated them were safely enrolled in college.  It was a ramblin’ kinda thing by the early 1960s, a confusion of Woody Guthrie and William Burroughs, sort of a gay, jazzed up Alan Lomax thing, a place where Coltrane and Leadbelly were equally likely to be heard on the hi-fi in any given off-campus apartment.  And, thanks largely to sheer romance, it was all vaguely leftist.  Posters of Rosa Luxembourg, or someone equally suitably obscure, were everywhere.  People carried anarchist paperbacks in their hip pockets.  It never occurred to most to read the damn things.  Best of all, it was cozily small, an invitation-only subterranean elite.

I say this stuff as a member of that wannabe tribe, or, more accurately, as a wannabe member of it; my own background was far too odd for easy acceptance in what amounted to a splinter group of the middle class.  I was born a refugee, a natural intellectual, an ex-Catholic who grew up in a not-so-pretty working class neighborhood, in which the inhabitants would never have dreamed of calling themselves working class, or any other class for that matter.  In my neighborhood, graduation from reform school was as typical as graduation from high school, and of roughly equal status.  Almost nobody outside my immediate family went on to college.  Such was my enculturation; I didn’t have the savoir faire for acceptance as a middle class rebel.  Worse yet, as an exile from Latvia, I had no great affection for Marxist pipe dreams.  But enough disclosure.

In the midst of this happily angst-ridden fairyland, the war in Vietnam came gnawing like a small but determined troupe of mice in the pantry.  Begun by Eisenhower as a way to shore up Indochina after the expulsion of the French, it might have remained an obscure haven for covert operations, but for a series of circumstances, too complex to go into here, that led Lyndon Johnson to try to win it and get out quickly.  That meant escalation, and that meant that the draft, which during much of the late 1950s and early 1960s had been little more than a minor nuisance, became a jarring reality to the pleasant little community of rebellious savants, many of whom were in and out of college as if it were a game of musical chairs.  This was a real problem when it came to student draft deferments.  In those early days, if you lost your 2S status, you were next.  What to do?

Why, protest, of course.  At first, it was uncomfortably small groups carrying signs, in emulation of the Ban-the-Bomb rallies a decade earlier.  Intellectuals, who had studied the background to the war and had an understanding of the stakes, and of its place in leftist dogma.  Later, as more and more young men in college realized they could very well end up in the Army if nothing changed, the ranks were far less well informed, but considerably more sanguine.  I don’t impugn the integrity of each and every war protester of the era; there were certainly many who were sincere in their beliefs.  But many more simply wanted to avoid a dangerous detour in their well ordered lives, and still others saw a way to exploit a growing movement for their own ends.  Suffice it to say that the implications of the “Girls-say-yes-to-Boys-who-say-no” campaigns of the late 1960s were not lost on the many young men of the day.

Of course, people could have simply admitted that they saw no good reason for the war, and thus wanted to save their own asses.  After all, saving their asses was what the young men who did go to war were doing every day; nothing dishonorable about it.  Even those few who didn’t end up in Vietnam just by default of the system, and who really went on an idealistic mission to stop communism, in the end only fought to save their own asses, and those of their comrades.  Honesty, as usual, though the best policy, was the least popular.

As a result of all this duplicity, it became a Matter of Principle, which is to say that people chose up sides and bitterly denounced those who refused to join them.  It is a testament to this fundamental lack of good faith that to this day there remains a considerable amount of rancor in the remnants of the debate.

And me?  I got drafted, and ended up joining the Air Force, serving in Okinawa and Germany, ironically skirting Vietnam altogether.  I didn’t join because I believed in the war, or because I was afraid of the criminal consequences of dodging the draft.  I joined so as not to break my father’s heart.

That’s about all the honor I had in me; it still is.

_____________________________________________________

Photo credit: http://www.alfred.edu/pressreleases/viewrelease.cfm?ID=7252

Le Juif Errant

For the end of a week in remembrance of the Holocaust, I am offering up this post of mine from a couple of years ago.

 

the-wandering-jew-1925

Le Juif Errant, Chagall, 1925

When I was a boy, I developed an aversion to the art of Marc Chagall.  Why?  Because some of his work was used to illustrate a catechism we were tortured with in St. Philip Neri School.  I had no way of knowing at the time that St. Philip himself, a notorious iconoclast, would probably have flung the damned book out the window if we found it distracting.  After all, when one of his monks came rushing to him all aglow with the news that the Virgin Mary had visited with him while he prayed, he advised him to spit in her face the next time she disturbed his meditation.  Had I known, I might still be among the faithful, but there it is.

But I digress, as usual.  It’s what I do, isn’t it?  At any rate, as time went by, and the pain of extracting the religion from the boy, or vice versa (I’ll never know which), matured into a dull tingling sensation, I came to appreciate artistic trinkets like the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Pietá without revisiting the centuries of pilloried self-worth it took to create them.  I came also to love Chagall, whose work I had so unreasonably imprisoned in the ghetto of my anti-religiousness.

I particularly came to love his 1925 painting Le Juif Errant, The Wandering Jew.  I saw myself in that character, his home bundled on his back, passing window lit houses with their cozy fires, on his way to his appointment with the Second Coming.  If you’re not familiar with the legend, it involves a Jew who berated Jesus on the way to the crucifixion for stopping to rest.  As punishment, he was condemned to wander homeless, and deathless, until the Jesus returned triumphantly.  Considering that early Christians thought that event was just around the corner, it must have seemed to them a curiously lenient punishment at the time!

Actually, the legend only came into full flower in the European Middle Ages, long after the alleged fact, so I suppose that’s irrelevant.  It dovetailed nicely with the social realities of Judaism in that time and place, Jews often being in commerce and other trades involving traveling, and culturally separate from the largely agrarian Christians.  Of course, these elements played a crucial role in antisemitism as well.  In a time when both the Catholic Church and Islam forbade money lending, and when capitalism was just being born, Jews were the only group religiously allowed to do the necessary midwifery.  Awkward, to say the least.

Anyway, it was this essential otherness that appealed to me.  I was born in a Displaced Persons (refugee) camp following WW II.  The land that would otherwise have been my homeland, Latvia, had been requisitioned in the name of the people by Stalin and his cronies, without much consultation with said people.  I had nowhere to call home.  My family eventually settled in the US, and now I’m as American as apple pie and, er,  sour cream, but I still harbor a feeling of not quite belonging, anywhere, really.  I’m not complaining.  The casual presumptuousness and giddy brutality with which social membership is often enforced more than offset the cozy warmth of it, in my view.  There’s a feeling of freedom, as well, in not holding yourself responsible for the original foundational sin of the prevailing system, whatever that may be.  The price, of course, is total responsibility for your own choices, but that’s a fair bargain.

Latvia, the sweet, imaginary homeland of my youthful dreams, never existed, of course.  In its brief experiment with independence between the World Wars, there was a tendency to authoritarianism, especially toward the end.  We’ll never know how that would have ended, thanks to Uncle Joe. Then there was the shameful massacre of the Jews at Salaspils and other places while the country was in the grip of  German Nazis.  Some, perhaps even many, Latvians, like the Vichy French, enthusiastically participated.

But things were not always thus.  A couple of years ago, I was wandering through what used to be the Jewish ghetto in Riga, now a sort of Russian quarter near the city market.  The ghetto was “cleaned out” toward the end of 1941, all the occupants trundled off to a nearby forest, and exterminated like so many cockroaches.  Turning a corner, I came upon a construction fence, and, sitting at a makeshift booth at the entrance, a young man with a bushy beard and a yarmulke.  It was the site of a new Latvian Holocaust Museum.  There were the expected photographs of Nazi atrocities, of course, but also the less expected evidence of mistreatment under the hands of the Soviets, who so often seem curiously off limits when discussing such things.  But what moved me the most were the stories and photographs of Latvia before the Nazis, before the Soviets, a country where Jews fleeing the progroms of czarist Russia could find a home.  Every major city in the country had a strong, proud Jewish heritage; Riga had one of the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe.  There was antisemitism, yes, but not as strong and not as institutionalized as elsewhere.  The nostalgic pictures of Jews during the inter-war independence years were especially moving, considering how all that came so cruelly to an end.

The Jewish population of Latvia was all but wiped out.  Even now, all these years later, it is still struggling to regain a footing.  As I see it, it’s a big chunk of my own cultural heritage, Jew or gentile, that’s been torn savagely off.  It’s genuinely heartbreaking.

Well, I’m not a Jew, so I guess I can’t be a Wandering Jew, my romantic imagery notwithstanding.  But we can travel together for a while and keep each other company.

An alien life

Call him Rick.  He carried a large knife and claimed to be able to see through boulders.  His body was covered with scars and tattoos in a day when such art was usually reserved for drunken sailors.  If you told him someone had “shredded” a guitar, he would have smiled quizzically at the image of strings and splinters strewn across the landscape.

We met on a boat from Barcelona to Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  I had been staying in a fifth floor walk up pension around the corner from the Plaza de Cataluña, up the Rambla from the windy industrial port.  In those days Barcelona was leading a dangerous double life as a haven for hippies and a provincial capital and headquarters for the Guardia Civil.  It had been the last city to fall in the civil war, and bore the scars, both physical and social, to show for it.  The war had also begun there, in typical Spanish fashion, with neither side wanting to be the first to fire upon fellow Spaniards.  The Guardia somehow brought themselves to do it, and three years of hellish romanticism ensued.

This was years before the Great Dictator Die-Off between Franco and Marshal Tito, but the Generalissimo was getting on in years, and things were stirring.  The Guardia were not amused.  I had myself witnessed what can only be considered an early flash mob:  On the busy shopping street below, several young men began running with unfurled banners and shouting “Libertad!”  In seconds, the street was empty.  Utterly.  By the time the police had arrived and sealed off either end of the street, it looked like no one had ever been there.  The overall effect of this seemed to have been to make the already ill-humored Guardia Civil even touchier.  An acquaintance made a disparaging remark about their characteristic (and, let’s face it, ridiculous) hats, stupidly, within earshot.  He was taken into custody and not seen again.  Rumors were circulating that a crackdown on undesirables was imminent.  Then, I happened past a ticket agency, where I saw that passage to Tenerife could be had for the equivalent of about $25 US.  A one week passage on a cargo vessel, all meals included, ending up in the Canary Islands.  That was cheaper than staying put!

The first full day aboard, I learned, among other things, that turning “green” with sea-sickness was not metaphorical.  I’m still trying to figure out the biological logistics of raising that color on a normally reddish caucasian face.  That day I spent shuttling between the rack and the head; by morning, though, I was inexplicably much better, and ravenous to boot, and made my way to the dining room for breakfast.  I found myself sitting next to a wild-mannered, thoroughly engaging presence of a man of indiscriminate age.

He had a full beard and hair that looked as if it had been chewed off rather than cut, skin the color and texture of fine undyed leather, and a few scattered tattoos.  One of them consisted of a much scarred logo with the words “Barons” and “Earth” above and below.  He wore an old but well washed t-shirt of undefinable color, ancient jeans and a coarse belt upon which hung a sheathed hunting knife.  A waiter arrived with bread, and my companion drew his knife and stuck it into the wooden table, turned to face me and said, “Rick.”

In precisely the same way as one reflexively bows in response to a newly introduced Japanese person, I pulled out my own knife, stuck it next to his, and said, “Mike.”  Rick nodded, and we ate breakfast.  That no one on the ship’s crew seemed to find this odd boded well, I thought, for the journey.

I still have that knife, it’s edge still chipped where Rick and I settled an argument about whose knife was made of the harder steel.  I have rarely met a man of such imminent power who nevertheless had the charisma to evoke trust rather than fear.  I have no doubt that he was capable of brutal violence, but there always seemed clear parameters bounding that capability, and he seemed an excellent judge of exactly where those parameters were with regard to any situation.

Once, another passenger, a young, undisciplined toff of a lad had been caught stealing.  The crew had cornered him on the deck, and he had pulled a knife to fend them off.  At a certain point, Rick tired of the melodrama, and simply went up and took the knife away, shaking his head at the amateurism of it all.

As near as I could ascertain, he was originally in Europe on some dubious enterprise which fell through.  He had shrugged it off, and embarked on a purposely undefinable quest for fortune and sustenance. I imagined men and women like him piercing the uncharted wilderness down through the mangled trails of history.  We no doubt owe their kind much that is both joyous and horrific in our culture.

We parted ways somewhere near a goat cave we were using for shelter on Tenerife.  I like to think he still plies the waves of fate, somewhere in that great trackless frontier that is his personal adventure.  But I have a feeling he died long ago, blown away like the great gust of wind that was his life.

Me, in those gloriously sullen days

Me, in those gloriously sullen days