The Tattoo

The man with the well-worn plaid green flannel shirt and grey stubble poking up on his head was friendly, turning to me and wishing me a Happy New Year.

Happy New Year, I answered. Just amazing how fast the years start to go by, I went on.

We waited in line at Kinko’s.

Yeah, he said, too fast. I think I’ll spend more time trying to serve people and less time chasing the buck, he added.

I tried to ignore the blue script tattoo sprawling across his furrowed forehead. I’m a little uncomfortable with people who use tattoos to invite attention. I’d caught a glimpse when he got into line ahead of me.

That’s a good goal, I said, sticking to the vision for 2007.

Try and spend more time with family, he said.

It was small half-inch script, a few words, one line, a little forehead left over for margin. I kept eye contact, avoiding an upward glance to the forehead that would provoke some kind of discussion I couldn’t see getting into at Kinko’s.

He stepped forward when the young clerk motioned to him and immediately addressed the young black woman standing next to him at the counter.

I listened in.

It says Jesus Loves You, only it’s written backwards, he explained to the young woman. That’s so I can see it in the mirror every day. To remind me. I forget sometimes, he admitted.

He seemed pleased, like he was used to answering questions about his tattoo, his conversation starter, a label he would live with for the rest of his life.

The woman nodded, smiling. Yeah, that’s cool, she said.

He went on to provide detail on the challenge of tattooing backwards, in script, and the comfort it brought him knowing his personal message was also a message for the world, an invitation to start up a conversation.

If I had it written regular, he continued, I wouldn’t see it right side up in the mirror, and people would read it on my forehead, and probably wouldn’t ask me what it meant.

I pictured him in front of a small mirror, maybe in prison, punching his lifelong message into his forehead.

I paid a dollar for my fax and went out into the night and the man and the black woman were still talking at the counter.

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