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In Search of the Duality of Man

The story that follows may not be 100% "accurate."  For reasons of both legal liability and creative freedom, a few of the details have been tweaked, but you get the point.

This weekend's Head of the Charles Regatta is a moment of personal celebration.  It's not that I care about rowing (although I took a class in it once and made the front page of the local paper my first time out on the water.)  It's that this is the 20th anniversary of the day I got my tattoo.  It's an event that will stay with me for a lifetime (and not just because of the ink.)

I remember exactly what I was doing that Saturday in 1997.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  The day was about as boring as it could get.  I might actually have been staring at a wall watching paint dry.  No, there was nothing that interesting going on.  I was in this near-catatonic state, when my friend Ben asked me if I wanted to go to Rhode Island with him while he got his tattoo fixed.  I was in the car before he finished the sentence.

Getting a tattoo had long been a goal of mine.  I came close to getting one during my semester abroad in London two years earlier.  I made it to the shop (apparently a world famous location), took two steps in, and then took three steps right back out the door.  For any of you who remember the movie, Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, it opens with a tracking shot down Portobello Road.   About 20 seconds in, a guy stumbles out of a tattoo parlor where they've messed up his design.  That's the place I bailed out of!  I laughed disproportionately hard in the theater at that moment, which made my friends think I was an idiot, but I digress.  In any case, this was my chance to make up for that moment of cowardliness.

Ben originally had some kind of tribal art on his hip bone, but it looked like a guy playing volleyball.  I forget what he was changing it to, but he had done some research and found a few possible places in Providence to get it fixed.  (I should note that Ben brought another friend with him.  To this day, I can't remember a single thing about that guy, except that he was there.  Feel free to insert whoever you like into this picture.)

We made it to Providence somewhere around 6:00 that night and started checking out the various options.  Finally, we settled on the shop that seemed like the best fit.  There was a single artist there, and his name was Spike.  How do I know that?  Because that's what it said on his belt.  Spike said he could fix the tattoo, but there was a six hour wait.  We put our names on the list and proceeded to explore Providence.

[This section redacted due to ongoing legal concerns.]

Five hours later, we went back to Spike's shop, where we killed the remaining time by going through every tattoo magazine in the place.  Some people do amazing things to their bodies, my friends.

Finally, at the stroke of midnight, it was time for Ben to get in the chair.  I watched as Spike started working, and I could tell every time he hit my friend's hip bone, because Ben turned a shade of grey I've never seen before or since.  I was starting to have flashbacks of Portobello Road while watching this, but there was no way I could back out now.

Somewhere around 1:00 in the morning, it was my turn.  Spike asked me what I was getting, and I told him I was looking for a yin-yang, with one symbol green and one blue.  (For the life of me, I don't remember why I wanted this.  I can only cop to being an idiot.)

Spike looked at me like I had just taken a dump in the chair.

"Green and blue?  What the fuck, green and blue?  You can't get green and fucking blue.  It's yin and yang, black and white.  It's about the duality of man!  The fuck, green and blue."

Green and blue was quickly forgotten.  Spike lathered up a section of my ankle with shaving cream, and then he pulled out a straight razor blade that looked like it was a foot long.  It was the first time anyone ever used one of those on me, and I was starting to wonder if I might have made a mistake.  As Spike started to shave my ankle, he asked me an unexpected question:

"You ever heard of The Mothers of Invention?"

Having already angered Spike with the whole green-blue fiasco, I feared that disappointing him again might lead to me losing a foot.  As it turned out, I had a response:

"Yeah, Frank Zappa's band. Totally underrated."

This comment met with Spike's approval, and he went back to work.

Friends, this might be the pure essence of "Clearing out the Clutter" distilled into a single moment.  The only reason I've ever heard of The Mothers of Invention is because I happened to read the book, "I'm With the Band," by legendary rock groupie Pamela Des Barres in 1987, and she wrote something about them being underrated.  I don't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remembered that random line from a random book from 10 years earlier.  I didn't know a single thing about them besides what I told Spike, but thankfully it was enough to keep my foot intact.

About 45 minutes later, the tattoo was done, and it was time to head home.   My recollection of the return trip is that Ben was bleeding heavily through his bandages, and we may have driven up an off-ramp at one point, but it's also possible that I've added that to the story as the years have gone by.

My head finally hit the pillow at about 4:00 in the morning, and I was asleep by 4:01.  A roommate woke me up at 7:00 because my mom was on the phone.  (I forgot she was supposed to visit that day.)  She told me something had come up and she wouldn't be able to make it down.  I mumbled something back and hung up the phone.  My mom being my mom, immediately called me back to say I didn't sound good, and she wanted to make sure everything was okay.  I forced myself to wake up enough to coherently tell her everything was fine.  I said I'd just had a late night, then placed the phone back down and immediately passed out again, the adventure complete.

20 years later, and the story still makes me smile every time.  I don't know if I've come any closer to finding the balance that I hoped the tattoo would help me reach, but I'm glad I didn't get it done in green and blue.  Thanks, Spike.


The Mothers of Invention October 22 2017Definitely underrated.  (pic via


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