Or a day in the life of a tattooist in 1978
At 4pm the sun was shinning nearly dead even into the window of the small tattoo shop on Kennedy Boulevard speaking of dead it was located just opposite the car rental that rented the white van to the first unsuccessful bombers of the World Trade Towers. Union City, NJ was not exactly exotic like Bombay nor was it cool like NYC for that matter it didn’t even seem like New Jersey it was more like little Cuba. Run by a soon to be convicted for corruption and extortion Italian wise guy, the not so honorable Mayor Musto.
The windows in question, where the sun was about to cook through, were grayish and gritty. Despite the efforts of the proprietor, that’s me by the way, to clean them often. I suspected it was probably from the crematorium just a few blocks up the boulevard. It gave me pause to think of somebody’s grandfather dusted across my window. So I always said “excuse me folks” when I washed it off and wished them a quick trip over the river Styx.
Although it could have been the carbon burning traffic on this snake like road, it was constant and as loud as two young Italian wannabe wise guys yakking up stories of hitting and robbing the trains in the transfer station in North Bergin and wanting to trade stolen goods for tattoos.
This strip down to Staten Island on the NY side was much later to be the haunted holy grounds of The Sopranos’ Godfather Tony.
It’s not what you think, a typical scummy little tattoo shop in a grimy small town in New Jersey. It was a small piece of heaven in 1978 for me. “Clean enough to eat off the floors” I’d say. The shop was only 12 feet across and 25 feet long and it held the universe. From the moment I opened the doors I had so much business I almost couldn’t handle it. I became fast friends with the local Santero, A Santeria Priest for those of you of the white bread persuasion. After that I was gold in the Cuban Community they watched out for me Cooked for me invited me to salsa dances and got tattooed as penance or prayers Santa Barbara, St Lazarus, Cryptic scrawl of Santeria spells all became my tween worlds my bread and butter. I was being taught to speak enough Spanish to ask what color and how much do you want to spend by a young lovely young Cuban woman without dancing legs in a wheel chair who sat with a talking Parakeet on her right shoulder that spoke more Spanish than I could, after four months I quit.
Speaking of Spanish speaking birds and other oddities of living in the land of the Mariolettos (Cubans let out of prisons and insane asylums a gift from Castro for the US State Department to give visas too. the Set on rickety boats to America. Those who made the crossing also made their way from Miami FL to Union City NJ. What was I saying? oh yes, I have to pull on your coat about the Birdman.
I had a slow day doing a couple of cryptic Santeria tattoos on friends of the local Santero. I was buzzing away on the last one when it started.
I had a wall separating the tattoo area from the front and a small security mirror to see who came through the door.
I heard this chirping. I was thinking it was a bird found it’s way into my shop. I looked up to the to see him, this guy chirping away. First long chirps with pause then rolling chirps all connected together.
He was wearing a cut off yellow windbreaker with out the usual wife beater shirt, and ripped jeans.
I called over the wall “I’ll be right with you pal.”
He just stuttered out another bird song.
Completing the tattoo I was doing, I collected my fee and walked through the door to the front.
“So what’s up?”
He pivoted, pulling down the jacket zipper turning his naked to the waist and tan lined body to me smelling of High Karate, yelling, he was,
To prove it he had it emblazoned across his his back from shoulder to shoulder in eight inch tall Old English letters tattooed, that read,
I say calmly, “OK Birdman, never acknowledging the eight inch missing M, What can I do for you.”
Pointing to a blank spot among the small bird tattoos wallpapering his arm, he said, rattling through his nose.
“Well! What do you think? I want a bird tattoo right here.”
There were birds the likes of hummingbirds as big as eagles and chickadees larger than crows, no accounting for scale, style, or skill. Although, he was working hard to fill with birds in every open space. Sort of like the driving style of New Jersey drivers if there is a space you fill it.
He shows me the picture of a whippoorwill whilst chirping the whippoorwills’ song or so he claimed. I never having seen or heard a whippoorwill took his word for it.
During the tattoo he entertained me by singing no less than 50 songs of various birds of North America, all while chewing on sunflower seeds. I didn’t bother putting on the stereo.
Someone else came through the door, as I was finishing up the tattoo. Birdman was donning his windbreaker; I strolled to the front to chat up the next client. He passed me singing a sad bird refrain and smiled and whispered passing.
“I’m the Birdman…”
The new customer and I walk to the work area. I look down to the clients black leather chair and there to my astonishment where Birdman was sitting, was a three inch,golden foil covered, chocolate egg!