Friday, December 4, 2009

Cowboys and Indians

“Running Bear is the only 100% authentic American Indian I have ever met,” said Edgea. “Not any of that ‘I’m a quarter Cherokee, half Choctaw, 1/18 Blackfoot’ confusion. At what point do you drop the title of Indian from your bloodline?” We were at Dupont Circle. I didn’t want to be there, but Baxter wanted to pick up some acid. My eyes swept over the scene, wondering if I might find the ghost of Ronnie Motherfucking Collins there.
“Do you think he would tattoo us?” asked Baxter.
“I think if you have the money, he will tattoo anything.”
I had seen the Indian with long black hair, tanned skin, a husky build, large belly, and a speckling of poorly done tattoos at shows. I guess what they say about barbers is also true of tattoo artists. If there are two barbers you go to the guy with the bad hair cut. Running Bear had a taste for drink and an authentic Indian name, but he also went by his white name, Duane. He was every bit the Indian we cowboys imagined, a Navajo from the Navajo Nation. He would later tell us that his wife and children lived in a trailer on the reservation, making them among the wealthiest in their destitute community. Running Bear traveled the country seasonally, tattooing out of the rooms he rented, making work and living space the same thing, sending a portion of his earnings home to support his family. His earlier tattoos were thick-lined designs speckled with dots, hammered out with guitar strings. Only when viewed from a few feet’s distance could a person decipher the images. In the 1980s, tattoo artists didn’t ink faces or hands. Running Bear had no problem tattooing any part you wanted. He didn’t care how old you were, or if you had infectious diseases. If you had the cash, drugs, or booze to trade, he would do the work. If you had a problem with the finished product or an angry mother came around wanting to know who had tattooed her 15-year-old child, Running Bear packed up his tattoo gun, sterilizer, and a few bags of old band shirts and moved on to the next town with his brothers in tow.
When Baxter and I decided to get tattoos, we knew that the work had to be done in one sitting. Driving out to Virginia, we parked behind a pawnshop, then walked into the building next door, up one flight. We found his apartment, a one bedroom with a basic kitchen. A kid was there before us, so we settled in for the wait.
Weasel, the ringleader of the skinhead/gay-bashing incident that would happen a few days later, was about to get his first tattoo. Baxter and I waited restlessly for our chance under the gun.
“Is it going to hurt?” whined the Weasel.
“Uh, yeah,” Running Bear answered without hearing the question.
“I'm on Quaaludes. Will they dull the pain?” His face was devoid of color. He took a sip of his third beer and squirmed in the barber’s chair.
“Okay, I want a star on the corner of my eye.”
“What? Girls get stars.” Running Bear said, brushing the long, black stray hair from his eyes. His head was always tilted forward and his hair hung in front of his face like a curtain.
He puffed at the joint squeezed between his fingers before passing it to his brothers, two of whom always traveled with him and lived off of his tab. All three brothers would have drunken fistfights, waking up in the late afternoon, covered in scrapes and bruises. None would remember the reason behind the fight or where it had taken place. The smallest one started complaining about his bloody knuckles. The Weasel just sat there, like a lump of shit, wasting prime time. I wanted to hold him down with one hand and punch his face with the other, but that wouldn’t get me tattooed any quicker. So I just sat there, and from the look on Baxter’s face, he was thinking along my lines, too.
“I'll get a tear drop instead,” the Weasel decided, but he didn’t know if that’s what he really wanted. After giving it a few more minutes, he would decide on something else.
“A tear drop means you killed someone,” Baxter interjected. It also meant you were in a Latino gang, but the Weasel wanted a new image. Either way, during the next few days he would come close to murder, get arrested, and then bailed out by his father, go on the run with his dad’s help, and eventually escape the conviction by moving to Israel.
Running Bear's eyes glazed over. Sucking in the last bits of the joint’s smoke, he shrugged and dipped the tip of the tattoo gun into the thimble-sized cup that held murky black ink. With his index finger and thumb, he spread the skin just above Weasel’s cheek, adjacent to his eye. Duane dropped his foot onto the pedal and the gun begun rattling off its ticking hammer; it was a noise I would soon associate with the onset of pain. He lightly pressed the tip into Weasel's skin and made small circles. The Weasel’s eye filled with black ink. He cried out and shoved Duane’s arm away and ran to the bathroom to flush out his eyes. "He's getting a tattoo right there. What does he expect?" Baxter shook his head.
Making it back to the barber’s chair, the Weasel braced himself again. But before Running Bear dipped the needle into the ink, he whined, “Just do the outline.”
“It's a small dot that will take a minute,” Running Bear scoffed. It was rare that Running Bear spoke at all.
“Just the outline,” the Weasel echoed.
A few seconds later, it was over and the Weasel slapped a $100 bill into Running Bear’s hand for a tattoo that had taken ten minutes and dashed out the door. Running Bear called the hundred dollars the “Moron Tax.” Baxter's tattoo took two hours to complete and depicted an HR Giger alien ripping through his flesh. $60. Mine, a serpent slain by a samurai, took an hour and a half. $60. They were both sizable pieces, prices slashed due to the fact we had brought our own case of beer. Between Baxter and me, Running Bear and the Brothers, it was gone in 30 minutes. Running Bear’s work ethic, tattooing hands, faces and underage kids, kept him out of the legitimate tattoo parlors. But somehow we had found each other, and for us he was cheap and we didn’t need our parent’s permission.
“This is good,” said Baxter as I tried to forget the stinging feeling on my arm. “It marks the beginning of something new. Your going to college in New York and me off to California.”
At Baxter’s house, I pulled off the bandage. The image of my tattoo was stained on the inside. Charlie stopped over and was as excited as us to see the tattoos. The skin was red and raised but the image was clean and black.
“I’m going to get one,” said Charlie.
“Sure. I can hook that up,” said Baxter.
Charlie wouldn’t stop talking about it. Listening to him grew tiresome.
“Baxter, shut him up before I go nuts,” I said when Charlie left to use the toilet. “When he’s alone, I bet he talks to himself.”
“He’s not that bad,” said Baxter. “Why don’t you come with us?”
“No, thanks.”
I smiled at Baxter. The next day, Baxter drove Charlie out to Virginia to see Running Bear and in a short time, Charlie had a large, black-lined tribal piece, lines that swirled to points, a fast growing ivy of pure abstract designs. They say tattoos are addictive; Charlie had become a junkie. A few days later, Running Bear left without warning and went back to the Reservation.

-From Rich Boy Cries for Mama by Ethan H. Minsker

No comments: