“Women, don’t get a tattoo. That butterfly on your breast looks great when you’re twenty or thirty, but when you get to seventy, it stretches into a condor.” — Billy Elmer
I recently read an article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about Southern Hellfire, a local tattoo parlor that’s raking in money big time. In the middle of a strip of bars, the parlor stays open until the wee hours. The owner explained that his business is slow during the daytime, but, bam! Once the bars close, his place is hopping with customers who decide that ink is the perfect way to cap off the evening. “I’m bored,” a one a.m. patron declared to the reporter. “I’m getting another tattoo, so I might as well pierce something, too.”
I just don’t get it. What will this girl say about whatever red-purple-blue swirl-snake-butterfly that’s still crawling down her sixty-year-old arm decades from now?
The news story made me shudder, thinking about the permanence of the decision to tat. I imagined my nineteen-year-old self in a tattoo parlor. Granted, that’s pretty hard to conjure up. Back then, the only people who inked were Popeye, sailors, and guys who ran the Tilt-a-Whirl at the travelling carnival, so it never would have occurred to me to consider a tattoo. Even in my youth, I wouldn’t have volunteered for needle pokes. On top of that, I had no money, even for a cheap little ”I Heart Mom.” But, just for the sake of argument, I wondered what inky selections I could be wearing today. Then it hit me. Rod McKuen.
Once upon a time, I was enamored with the poetry of the late Rod McKuen. When my friend Marlene and I found out he’d be performing at the then-famous Mr. Kelly’s on Rush Street, we threw down a hefty chunk of our summer job money to be in the audience. The show was in the early evening, before Rush Street’s bewitching hour when all of the horny young Don Draper-types showed up after their tough day in the office. At Mr. Kelly’s, we weren’t quite old enough to order cocktails, so we drank overpriced Cokes, acting like we knew what to do in a night club. We felt so sophisticated, sitting at our tiny round table and inhaling our Newports. Our gravelly-voiced idol enthralled us with his melancholy.
“How can we be sure of anything
the tide changes.
The wind that made the grain wave gently yesterday
blows down the trees tomorrow.”
Wow! We were dazzled by the depth of each gloomy line. Everything about Rod epitomized cool: the unruly blond lock that hung over his eyes, his rolled-up-sleeved shirt and worn jeans, even the way he slumped on the stool. His words were profound, piercing us to the core. We nearly swooned when he recited our favorites, like the one about his lost cat named Sloopy.
We’d given each other his books, Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows and Listen to the Warm, as birthday gifts, and sent copied passages to each other in our weekly letters from different colleges. In my dorm room, my bulletin board was covered with his most angsty lines I’d copied as inspiration about Life with a capital L. And here we were, so hip, seeing him in person.
Had I chosen a tattoo back then, I would have strived for something meaningful, something laced with my version of sophistication. With Rod McKeun as my muse, maybe I‘d have a likeness of his cat Sloopy on my calf. Or, inspired by another favorite, “Stanyan Street,” with its dour line “Only the clock, moving toward rejection tomorrow, breaks the stillness,” there could be a now-drooping clock on my stomach. Or, a line from a poem swirling around my bicep? Maybe this one from “Listen to the Warm”: “For every star that falls to earth anew one glows,” Instead of the whole verse, I might have been more economical and simply had stars encircling my neck.
Fortunately for me, today’s tattoo fad was decades from blossoming, so I was spared the lifelong display of what I once took for creativity and coolness. Rest in peace, Rod McKeun. You’re my reason why I am against getting tattoos.