Sooty McLain sets down her gun, slowly looks me over and pronounces me done. Sooty has an eye for detail, and she certainly took her time with me. But I’m not complaining. Sure, I’ve shed some blood, and my hide is somewhat torn and tattered, but it hardly hurts as much as I had feared it might. In my mind I had been here a thousand times, partly curious about the experience but mostly afraid of the pain, my quirky, manic melon constantly oscillating between giddy fits of anticipation and inhibitive bouts of anxious dread. Now that the time has finally arrived, I am relieved to discover that my fears were utterly unfounded. Sooty is a pro. She did me right, and now there’s no turning back.
The devilish grin above her chin lets me know that Sooty is pleased with her latest work, or at least as pleased as she ever allows herself to be. Like any artist, Sooty engages in the constant pursuit of a ghost called Perfection, chasing specters with throw nets and relishing in strife. Arduous and twisted and more difficult than most can know, the artist’s life is a journey rife with meaning and adventure. The way I see it, it’s the most meaningful life of all. So I guess it can be said that I admire Sooty. I admire her courage, vision, and skill, and I am especially drawn to the artist’s pain that lingers just behind her eyes. My mind races, my heart pounds, and somehow I feel more complete, having just experienced the business end of Sooty’s brand new gun.
“That’s it? I’m finished?” I ask, as Sooty stares me down with an intensely discerning and critical eye. A few beats later she offers a reply.
“Yeah, Sickboy. You’re finished. I hope I didn’t hurt you much.”
“Hurt me? No way,” I tell her. “As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about what I pussy I’ve been, putting this off for so long, afraid I’d have regrets. But right now, I’m telling you, I feel like a real badass.”
“Good to hear it,“ she says. “Honestly, it would have hurt a lot more if I had used my old shader. That rusty fucker would have chewed you up like a lawnmower. The new machine arrived just in time. The guys from Neuma custom made it for me. They even shipped it free of charge. Let’s just say I made a few friends at Ink-and-Iron last month.”
“Right, I remember you telling me about that. Long Beach, the Queen Mary, the parties and all. And your new gun.”
I must have said something that stung her, because all of a sudden Sooty is laying into me like a rabid wolverine.
“Whoa! Hold on Sickboy! Guns are for criminals. I didn’t shoot you, did I? I didn’t take aim and fire. What I did was render a killer work of art on that freckled, quivering canvass of yours. And for that unlikely artistic endeavor, I used a fine, custom-made tattoo MACHINE, not a fucking gun.”
Apparently, Sooty doesn’t appreciate it when the tools of her trade are referred to as guns. More than slightly perturbed, she launches into an eloquent five-minute lecture, touching on surgical grade steel, tubes and needles, coils, pneumatics and a sweet custom grip. While I definitely envy her passion, I honestly don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. After all, this is only my first tattoo. One thing is for sure, from this day on, when it comes to the art of intradermal ink, my verbal palette will include a heavy dollop of machine and not a trace ofjee-yew-EN. Sooty has just made sure of that.
“Holy shit, Sooty! I got it. A machine. I’m such an asshole.”
Sooty finally cracks a smile, which softens her rugged cowgirl stare and mellows her biker’s charm. She likes to treat me like a dartboard, and I get a kick out of watching her throw darts. The dirty-blondish, graying locks draped down to her denim clad ass suggest that big sis is a little north of fifty by now, although I don’t really know for sure. As long as I’ve known Sooty I have never thought to ask her age. Anyway, this is not her first rodeo. In the early eighties she used to run with Country Dick Montana and his crew, real rockabilly, honky tonk type shit. But that was before my time. Sooty and I met only a couple of years ago, while throwing back shots in the bar one night. She’s been like a big sister ever since.
“What do you think?” Sooty asks, as she angles a mirror next to my shoulder to give me a better view. “How do you like your Sissy Puss?”
“It’s Sisyphus, “ I correct her, referring to the rendering of the mythological Greek king which she has just finished machining onto my right arm. “Oh my god, Sooty! This is amazing,“ I gush. “The detail. The shading. The rock really pops. And the look on his face! You really nailed it. I can’t thank you enough for this. “
Sooty has done a masterful job. From my right shoulder to my elbow and wrapped around my arm, the scene epically unfolds in a half-sleeve of forcefully realized artistic vision. Sisyphus was the founding king of Corinth and quite a cunning knave. When his time on earth was up, he tried to cheat life by outfoxing the gods. His hubris, of course, just stirred their holy anger, and eventually Hades himself dragged Sisyphus to hell. In Tartarus, the abysmal pit of eternal torment, Sisyphus was sentenced to forever push an immense boulder up a steep, rocky mountainside, just to watch it roll all the way back down. A battered yet determined prisoner of hell, Sisyphus presses against the enormous rock, inching it ever so slightly up the precipitous incline, willing his way skyward in defiance of the vengeful gods. When he reaches the top, gravity pulls on the rock, and Sisyphus starts from the bottom again. So goes the eternal struggle of the once sly and mighty king of Corinth, and I can’t help wondering what’s on his mind. Now, thanks to Sooty’s considerable skill, the myth plays out upon my flesh, and I’ll forever remember Sisyphus. I don’t know how Sooty did it. It’s as if she herself took a trip to Tartarus to sketch the weary man on the mountainside. It truly is a work of art. Even Sooty takes a moment to gloat.
“I know you were set on black and gray, “ she says, “but I’m glad you let me use a touch of color in the background. The muted red and orange hues really give it a hellfire look. It looks so cool. “
It is cool. It’s badass, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Sooty reviews some care instructions with me while administering a clear cellophane patch to cover and protect the freshly injected Sisyphean scene. I promise not to pick at the scabs and stand up to give her a hug. I am a little lightheaded and nearly fall over, as my rubbery legs forget how to stand after six straight hours of sitting.
“So you’re really leaving?” Sooty asks at the end of our fleeting squeeze.
“I don’t know what else to do at this point,” I reluctantly confess. ”I think I’ve exhausted my options out here. I’m broke, out of work, and technically I’m homeless. On top of all that, everyone I know has been looking at me like I’m made of glass. I just need some time to get my head straight. You know what I mean?”
“I get it, Sickboy. Honestly, I’ve been a little worried about you since you quit your job. But I get it. So Philly it is. We’re gonna’ miss you around here. You better stop by the bar tonight and say goodbye to Jenny. She’ll kill me for saying this, but I think she’s a little upset that you’re leaving.”
Despite the grit and tattoos and sharp verbal darts, Sooty can be a real sweetheart sometimes.
“Thanks, Sooty. I’ll drop in for a pop and a shot. And don’t worry about me. I’m an ass-kicking machine. You know that.”
I give Sooty a nod and exit the shop, stepping out onto Newport Avenue, where I’m greeted with the promise of another soul-cleansing San Diego sunset. First thing’s first, though, as I turn to my reflection in the shop window and refocus my thoughts on my new tattoo. I move in for a closer look, carefully inspecting the glistening ink, when suddenly I’m assaulted by an audible plop and the sensation of some warm and slimy substance oozing slowly down my fuzzy nape. Shit! I look up just in time to glimpse the set of ragged tail feathers protruding with menace from the rooftop above.
“Fucking pigeon!” I growl, as the offending hen dismissively emits a coo and struts away like pigeons do. Beady-eyed cocks and arrogant hens overrun the streets these days, bombarding us with droppings. Some days the feeling overwhelms me; this life is for the birds.
Determined not to let a little pigeon shit ruin today’s post-inking endorphin rush. I wipe the slime from the back of my neck, turn to my left, and embark on a westward stroll. I amble along at a leisurely pace, paying special attention to the tall, slender, hundred-year old palms stretching high above the restaurants, bars, and specialty shops. Newport Avenue’s trademark trees stand in perfect single-file formation on each side of the thoroughfare, a royal greeting party to welcome all comers to the quaint, eclectic seaside village, known to locals as OB. Ocean Beach, this perfectly flawed slice of paradise, has been my home for the last ten years, but now it’s time to say goodbye.
When I reach the corner of Newport and Bacon, I see the old man who spends his days burning artistic etchings in driftwood using only sun rays and a magnifying glass. He’s strumming his guitar and peddling his wares to a fat, pasty couple on vacation from Wisconsin. The couple seems to be impressed, and well they should be. That old man is creative and brave.
I walk the remaining block to the beach and hop atop the seawall. On the wall, which had crawled with curious onlookers all summer long, there currently roosts just a few local kooks, yours truly now among them. While hippies slap bongos, young lovers embrace, and surfers catch the last waves of the day, I sit in silence and look around, listening to the whispering tide. High in the western sky, night is just arriving, as the setting sun melts into the sea along a fiery horizon. Scores of sunset revelers line the pier, as dusk rolls over Ocean Beach, setting aglow the streetlamps along Newport Avenue. Only half a block from the sand, above the door on the facade of the perfect little dive, blue lights ignite to reveal the word Tony’s in flowing metallic script. It’s my favorite time in my favorite place, but now I really have to go.
I jump down from the seawall, walk half a block east, and pass under the glowing, blue sign. Once inside, I locate my spot, third stool down from the south bend of the bar. Simone is slinging drinks tonight. She spots me right away.
“Look who it is,” she exclaims. “You gonna’ behave tonight, Sickboy?”
With her jet black hair, arms covered in ink, and an often nasty disposition, Simone scares the shit out of most people. But not me. I’ve chipped away over the years, and I’ve found a real sweet girl underneath that sassy armor.
“Come on, Simone. You know I’m just here to say goodbye. One shot and a pop, and I’ll be out of your hair foever.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Simone says with a smile, as she sets me up with a cold Bud bottle and a shot of Beam. “So I guess you’re really leaving. You OK? I’ve been a little worried about you lately. ”
“You’re not the first person to say that today,” I reply with a squint of inquisition. “Don’t worry about me. I’m aces, baby. Just gotta’ shake things up a little bit.”
Judging by the look of concern on her face, Simone is not buying my swagger.
”I’m sorry to see you go, buddy. You know, Jenny will be here in an hour or two. You better stick around to say adieu.”
“I’ll be here,” I assure her.
After two refreshing chugs of Bud, I throw back the shot of Beam and drift off in a bourbon flow, my mind turning over scattered thoughts and vague conceptions of the world I hope to know. The bourbon lights a fire inside, and the heat quickly radiates to my fingertips and toes. Here we go. Man on fire! Simone sets me up with another.
“What have you got there?” she asks, pointing to my right shoulder.
I deadpan my reply without missing a beat.
“It’s the weight of the world… right here on my shoulders.“
My play on words elicits a chuckle, and I’m feeling pretty good about myself. I like to think of wordplay as the best kind of foreplay, with slick metaphors and witty puns in place of licks and strokes and nipple twists. Simone seems to be digging it.
“Oh, you mean my tattoo?” I ask with feigned surprise. “Sooty did it this afternoon. I’m really stoked about how it turned out.”
I tell Simone all about Sisyphus, how he offended the gods and has to roll his rock up the mountainside over and over to the end of time. Then I start to go on about Camus, and how his famous essay was my real inspiration for the tattoo.
“kah-WHO?” she asks.
“kah-MOO,” I tell her. “Albert Camus. He was a French philosopher and author who wrote The Stranger and The Plague. He also wrote this essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he uses the plight of Sisyphus to make some observations about the absurdity of life.”
Simone pretends to care as I continue to describe Camus’ proposition that the only important philosophical question is whether or not one should commit suicide in the face of our meaningless existence. He puts forth the idea that once a person realizes just how absurd life truly is, the only choices are to accept God or to opt for auto-terminaton. He then obliterates that notion by suggesting a third option, the one he imagines that Sisyphus employs by finding happiness in the acceptance of his fate and dutifully rolling his boulder uphill. By coming to grips with the inescapable absurdity of life and carrying on in defiance of the void, true happiness can be obtained. Whatever Camus’ point might be, it sure as hell doesn’t make for great barroom banter. I’m buzzed and rambling now, and I’m growing a little ashamed of all my pretentious talk. I sound like a real asshole. I take another swig of brew to keep my tingling lips from flapping, and Simone saunters down to the far end of the bar to lubricate some new arrivals, just in the nick of time.
Two hours and six shots later, my head detaches from my neck and hovers above my shoulders like a helium balloon tethered to a park bench on a windy afternoon. Oh, brother. I just drank myself retarded. Social D is playing on the jukebox and I’m bobbing my head like some drunken punk. I grab a pen from my pocket and start scribbling on a cocktail napkin. Simone quickly takes notice.
“How you holding up, Sickboy? OK? Whatcha’ writing?”
I try to straighten up and look something less than smashed. I fail miserably.
“Here. Wanna’ see?” I slur, as a slide the napkin across the bar so Simone can peep my scribbles.
She starts reading aloud.
“Dear women of the world, you are God’s most special creation. I love every single one of you, but some more than others, and right now one most of all. Yours truly, Sickboy”
Simone’s emerging smile consists of one part appreciation and three parts pity.
“Aww, Sickboy. Jenny just called. She’s not coming in tonight. I’ll tell her you came by though. I’m sorry, sweety.”
“No worries, Simone. I gotta’ go anyway. Can you just tell her I said…”
I slip into a futile, silent search for words I’ll never find. Simone throws me a line to rescue me from drowning.
“I know. I’ll tell her. Good luck in Philly. Come back and see us soon. OK? What’s the name of the neighborhood where you grew up again?”
With bourbon breath and bloodshot eyes, “Fishtown,” I reply.
I lean across the bar, give Simone a friendly peck, and stumble out to the street. It’s probably best that I won’t see Jenny tonight, given the shape I’m in. I’m really going to miss that girl.
So my last night in Ocean Beach ends like all the others, alone and lost somewhere deep inside my whiskey riddled mind. It’s been a difficult year, and I had to make some tough decisions. I can understand why my friends think I’ve come unhinged. I quit my job at the onset of a great recession, lost my money and my place at the beach, and I keep suffering these manic attacks, compelling me to write or die. I think I now know what it means when they say art requires courage. Fuck it! I’ve got courage. Forget the pigeons, priests, and corporate whores. Give me the tattoo artists, the driftwood etchers, the painters and the fearless scribes, while I put my shoulder to the boulder and finally enjoy the climb.