June 28, 2003
Pins & Needles

Last Sunday afternoon, 2 p.m.

The 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.

The "hardware." Yeesh.

I 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 half 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.

"This 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.

It is both magnificent and ghastly.

While 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.

In other words: it's a full-service mutilation boutique.

I 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 sense for the rest of her visit.

She 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.

In 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.

"Do you want to add a tip?" asks the clerk, interrupting my maternal musings.

Say whut?

"A 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.

"That's fine," I say. 

I 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 her presence.

Obviously I am not the only overly-guilted/easily-manipulated mother in Berkeley today.

At 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 very popular.

Sweet Jesus in Birkenstocks, I whisper fervently. Please don't let this be Kacie's "artist."

To my unspeakable 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 behind him.

I let out an audible sigh of relief. The woman sitting next to me shoots me a brief, sympathetic glance.

Nothing about this 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.

If this doesn't work, I might be out of ideas.

After 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 retirement planning.) 

At 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 gloves.

This is it.

I 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.)

Yep. Things could be a lot worse.

The 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.

And then ... just like that, it's all over.

Kacie 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.

"It looks horrible," I say to her flatly, and she beams proudly. This, also, is precisely the point.

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.

"You're the tongue stud, right?" he says to her.

The 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 about.

So 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.

And I don't care.

"Let's 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.

But 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.

Kacie & Mom, June 2003

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i still think that a little pair of green feet
on my ankle might be nice