Big Bird Smoking a Crackpipe

Originally published in the Jan 2010 issue of Tattoo Guru Studio Magazine


Money may not bring happiness, but the lack thereof will certainly bring unhappiness. There is something about having my bills paid on time that leaves me with a sense of contentment.

How many times have I been standing beside my car at a gas station filling my car up when a man approaches, explaining his plight, “I’ve lost my wallet and was hoping you could give me a few dollars for gas.”

My initial thought is usually “bullshit,” but I usually give a few dollars, never more than five, feeling that if I’m going to let this guy scam me, he won’t scam the hell out of me. Just a little scam, and it makes not much of a difference considering I could do without the five dollar bill and if this guy is telling the truth and he really needs gas to reach his destination, I’m more than happy to help someone out who is down on their luck. I knew one day I’d be on the other side of the line.

Well, almost. My girlfriend was kind enough to lend me twenty three dollars to make the three hour trip from her house back to the shop I work at. Considering I had just realized my bank account balance had a minus sign beside it, I would have been asking strangers for whatever they could spare, a couple dollars perhaps, maybe five, just enough to get me home. Having been in their position so many times, I’d have to explain, “Listen, I know what you’re thinking. I’m probably lying, right? But I’m not, and I’ve been in your shoes many times…just a few dollars…” My pride would not be sacrificed.

I speak with artists from shops in my city, in cities hours away, in cities in other states, and many agree: business is slow; horribly slow. And I’m sure not every artist is standing in a gas station somewhere asking for five dollars, but I believe that many don’t have the influx of money we saw even two years ago. I remember tattooing so many clients in one day that we’d have to turn people away so we could eventually go home and sleep, but now, I turn no one away. If you come into the shop, I will tattoo you. Our shop minimum of sixty dollars is a barrier that can be broken simply by telling me, “I only have fifty dollars.” Ask the guy whose hand I tattooed “Blessed” on recently for twenty three dollars. A few months ago, I learned a lesson about blowing off people with money.

I was standing outside the tattoo shop with my girlfriend, saying my goodbyes to new friends I had just made, a couple who also partnered together as filmmakers. The man, Brian, had just returned here from New England after moving away a decade earlier. He was unfamiliar with the area, the people, the places, its culture, and he seemed unable to grasp the idea that Port Saint Lucie is the same place he left it. I told him, “Believe me.  You’ve missed nothing except a few new strip malls.” The heat seemed to eat away at our bodies like a disease. Our skin was glazed over with sweat and the heat was inescapable.

The thing I have realized about people you don’t want to run into, is that you will always see them in the worst possible and most undesired situation, either that, or you will see them just as you were about to unknowingly escape the situation altogether. As we neared our goodbyes, inching closer and closer to concluding the conversation, a yellow bicycle nonchalantly rolled in our direction. The filmmakers stepped out of the rider’s way as he passed us. Moments later, I felt the direct heat of someone’s stare from behind me. I turned around and saw the man on the yellow bicycle. Our eyes meeting immediately ignited the opportunity for him to speak. I say man because he is old enough to buy cigarettes, and henceforth, that will remain the only reason I use the term “man” when referring to the person riding the yellow bicycle.

“Ay, man,” he began. I already knew where this was going. The feeling a skirt-clad young lady feels when a man overtly changes his direction to approach her and start a conversation.

“You do tattoos?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“You do gang tattoos?”

“Not really,” I told him, even though we would because we’re here to make money, not provide a support center for confused and disgruntled youth. It was pretty obvious that he’s no stranger to drugs and these conversations usually don’t lead to anything besides someone trying to impress me with fake gang stories.

He rolled his bicycle closer to me. Despite the intense heat, he wore sagging jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. His boxers were the only barrier between his dirty ass and the bike seat. His hat sat crooked on his head. His eye contact with me was never interrupted and though it never relented, he never seemed intimidating. He had that blank druggie stare like he was just coming off a decade long high on any drugs he had heard about in a rap song and the permanent effect made you think he might snap at any moment and shoot us for being near him. His arms already had flash tattoos of clowns holding guns surrounded by smoke, faded from years of cooking at a fryer. He spoke long and drawn out, expecting his audience to be patient while he conveyed his idea, like an enlightened pothead expressing his views on how bad war is.

“How much would it be for a sesame and some guns?”

Like you, I also wondered what the fuck a sesame is. Usually, “sesame” is followed by a noun indicating the object. Like seed. Seed would work here. Does he want a sesame seed tattoo? I don’t know, and while standing in the burning summer sun on my day off with friends, I don’t care what a sesame is.

“It depends on how big it is, how complex it is, where it goes, and so on. We’re closed today. You’re better off coming in another day.”

“Does Mike tattoo here?”

“Yeah, he’ll be here later this week. Swing in on Saturday and talk to him.”

I told him to come in on Saturday because I’m off on Saturdays, and we in this shop like throw the odd clients to each other as a sort of practical joke.

“Oh hey, Hannibal Lecter, Shannon would love to do this tattoo. Let me go get her!”….

Not getting the hint, he continued on, “Well, I want to get this tattoo here,” he blabbered away as he reached into his pocket and carefully removed a poorly preserved black and white printout of the entire Sesame Street cast. It looked like a letter a soldier had carried with him throughout both World Wars, dragged through the snow, rubbed into the dirt, and trudged through the water, half-soaked in blood and sweat.

He held it up so I could see it. “Oh, cool,” I said, not thinking it was cool at all.

“I wanna get like, this whole chest piece, but I only got two hundred dollars. Can you do it for that much?”

“I’m sure we can work something out. Maybe you can come back later this week and talk to someone and get it all planned out.”

I cast him off as being one of the many people who just wants to talk about getting tattooed, but never wants to spend the money to do it. He’s not the first person to have this approach, and although it may not be wise to deal with a new person based on experience with another unrelated person, I decided to. I’m not here to discuss morals and ethics. Like many people in South Florida, I just want to get the fuck out of the sun and conversation with a nut only makes the experience more miserable.

He reminded me of a miniature lookalike of Doogie Howser M.D. who walked into the shop one busy Friday night and told me that this weekend would be the real highlight of his existence: his gang initiation, and in celebration and honor of this stoic experience, he wanted to get a back piece, with guns, bullets, and a multitude of other gang related images, most certainly to make his mother proud, proving his manhood on his 5 foot 6, hundred pound frame. Quite honestly, I barely heard anything he said in the whole twenty minutes he spent conveying some thought or another because the music was so loud my coffee was rippling. I didn’t believe his story for a second, but I love going along with people in these situations, letting them think that I’m in the passenger seat of the story, eagerly awaiting the next gun fight, stabbing, or drug-related accident. I don’t call people out like I did when I was younger, now I just sit with my ears wide open, waiting to see how far they’re going to take things. The second time hundred-pound-Howser showed up, he wanted an ICP hatchet man; the third time, a swastika tattooed on each eyelid. People like this don’t often get the tattoo; they just enjoy talking about it. And I go right along with it never advising him that he shouldn’t let his alligator mouth get his mockingbird ass in trouble. These are just confused kids whose ideas on how to live are derived entirely from television and shitty lyrics. I listen to their stories like one listens to a child’s story of fantasy and adventure that is the product of imagination. That’s the cutest story ever!

Just minutes into the discussion, the man, still sitting on his yellow bicycle, saw me as trustworthy and decided to let me in on the secret of his tattoo, knowing I wouldn’t screw him over and get the same gem tattooed on my own chest. A big favor here, revealing the Holy Grail of tattoos:

“I wanna get like Big Bird up top here smokin’ a crackpipe with the bitches and the hoes hangin’ all over him an’ shit holdin’ two guns. And then I wanna get Elmo with all like muscles an’ shit, like huge muscles, an’ The Count givin’ the middle finger, and the Cookie Monster with the muscles holdin’ a knife, an’ weed leaves falling everywhere and then I want the guns and the smoke and the bullets, black bullets,just like flyin’ everywhere.”

The bitches, the hoes, the guns, the bullets, did I get everything? Oh, muscles and a knife. Got it. I’ll go whip this right up!”

By the time he got to the part about Big Bird smoking a crackpipe, I summoned my greatest willpower to contain my explosive laughter, which as I am sure you already know, only makes you laugh even more feverishly. And so I did. I let it out. But to make containing my laughter even harder, I could not look over at my friends who were themselves turning around to hide the air bulging from their faces. Never acknowledging our uncontainable laughter, he must have thought that we were laughing at a joke made earlier, because surely, Big Bird smoking a crackpipe is a monumental idea only to be taken seriously.

“Ok, well swing in later this week and someone can definitely help you out!”

I said goodbye to my new friends, unlocked the door to the shop and walked inside, expressing with urgency to this young man that I had “to check the meter.”

I looked outside as he rode away on his yellow bicycle. Confident that I would never seem him again, I was proven wrong when he returned the next day and the next day after that. I didn’t see him on the second day, but on the third, I saw his yellow bicycle sitting outside the shop with him on top of it. I believe “fuck” was the first word to come to my mind. By this point, he had decided to add blunts, boxing gloves for Big Bird, and a banner with the words, “Pimp My Hoes.” Testament to a gang life he claims to have lived through. “I use to be a hardcore gangbanger,” he tells me outside, “that shit’s no good.” ….

“I’m sure it isn’t,” I tell him, trying to sound sincere and not like a pretentious douche. I honestly don’t know what else to say to that. It’s like when someone told me that I should cut down on my salt intake as I dumped a good tablespoon all over my tortilla chips.

“It’ll raise your cholesterol.”

Yes, I’m sure it will. Thank you.

As we stood outside, listening to vague stories about his past life as a gangbanger, I noticed he was now dressed for the weather in a wifebeater. He was standing close enough for his body odor to infiltrate my nasal passages.

“Go ahead and take off your sweaty sweatshirt. Make yourself at home. Can I get you any deodorant? A douche? A fire hose?”….

This is an ambitious tattoo. How Big Bird is supposed to be smoking a crackpipe and holding two guns astounds me, especially while wearing boxing gloves. I’m sure this man does not often cross paths with logic and rationale, but his presence, although awkward and laughable, does grab you. What’s funny to admit, is that by day three, I had become use to him. Like a rash, that although I would prefer it not be around, I don’t mind it so much now. His ideas are foreign to me and would be considered childish to most, but once I let my guard down, listening to him speak became an interesting visit into someone else’s world. In other words, it’s like watching COPS, but I now saw him as innocent and with only good intentions, despite his admiration for crackpipes, blunts, and a muscled out Elmo.

His third visit was all it took to get the tattoo ball rolling having set up an appointment with the shop owner. The man gave my boss the faded picture of the Sesame Street characters and my boss made the appropriate notes, “Blunts…smoke…bullets…muscles an’ shit…”

“That’s real straight,” he tells me, after sealing the deal with Mike. “That Mike dude is real cool. He’s gonna hook up my tattoo.”

“That’s pretty cool, man,” I said, this time meaning it. He was sincere, you couldn’t deny that, and sometimes I’m so starved of meeting sincere people that this guy became alright.

A few more minutes of meaningless conversation and he rode away on the yellow bicycle, anxiously awaiting his sesame and guns. And sure enough, a week later this man was walking around with Big Bird smoking a crackpipe tattooed on his chest along with all the other characters tattooed on him from his beltline to his chest, a two hundred dollar outline that took an hour and a half and had the same quality as if he was paying twice that.

A few things changed from the original idea however. One, he changed the banner reading “Pimp My Hoes” to “Pimp Daddy,” feelings that “Pimp My Hoes” was too hardcore. While my boss was tattooing the words Pimp Daddy on him, he looks up and asks, “So, what is a pimp daddy?”

“Um,” I began, “I think it’s someone who gets a lot of girls.”

“Oh, because I thought it was someone who has prostitutes.”

“Yeah, maybe that too.”

More interestingly, I realized just hours after the customer left that my boss didn’t add “the bitches and the hoes” hanging all over Big Bird.

“Hey, Mike, you forgot to add the bitches and the hoes on that guy’s tattoo,” I told him.

“No I didn’t. His mom said that was too much for the tattoo.”

Too much for the tattoo. Blunts, bullets, crackpipes, the desecration of a famed children’s’ show. I agree, sexist and chauvinistic imagery would be too much.

Now, this could have been my two hundred dollars if I hadn’t blown him off and I’m not going to tell you that I regret blowing him off because all in all, I really don’t, but if everyone had blown him off, no one would have made the money and he would have gone to another shop. My boss got his idea, drew it up, did the tattoo and got the money. No attitudes, no stress. Just a simple everyday transaction. Among many things, our shop prides itself on being clean, always doing solid, consistent artwork, and never giving customers bad, rock star attitudes. And because of my boss’s mentality, one that urges the notion of giving everyone the attention they deserve (within reason, this shop employs no suckers), he won’t be standing at a gas station, asking for a few dollars, hopefully five. And aside from this occasion, neither will I.

2 thoughts on “Big Bird Smoking a Crackpipe

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