"From One Tattooed Lady To Another."

Such is the inscription on the front page of a very battered copy of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. My friend Trey gave me the book, I think during the spring semester of my freshman year at art school in the South. It couldn't have been my sophomore year, because I had pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth for that time span, and it wasn't my junior year because I took that copy with me to my semester abroad in Russia.
I met Trey in the winter quarter when I was 18 in an intro to film class. He asked me to help him on our first assignment, and I will freely confess that I was a little unsure. Trey is so incredibly skinny and long, with the geekiest glasses ever and capable of a very startling stare. But then he mentioned his wife.
So one somewhat frosty morning Trey and his housemate and I were hanging out in one of the squares of Savannah, with a bolex, a tripod and a light meter. Trey had made these signs that were reminiscent of silent movies from the 1920's. I was in charge of light metering and his housemate (whose name I've forgotten) was the actor. Actually both he and Trey acted. Trey was playing the part of an inventor of visionary genius with enthusiasm bordering on insanity.
To be honest, Dear Reader, that pretty much sums up Trey himself.
The film was over-exposed and to this day I really believe that's my fault and probably the moment when I realised I would never be much of a film-maker. I'd like to believe I have some good ideas, some good stories bashing around in my brain, but I don't think I'll ever have the leadership and marshaling abilities to make them a quality reality.
But that's not really the important part.
The important part is that Trey and I recognised something in each other. I didn't have many friends at school, at the time, though I was trying. At home in upstate NY I felt too artsy. In Savannah, I didn't feel artsy enough, and that if I were to try and fit in with my schoolmates, I would be a phony. But Trey wasn't a phony, and he just didn't toe the line, he just did his own thing. For me, at 18, that was so admirable.
Who the hell knows what Trey saw in me, but I feel extremely lucky that, whatever it was, he saw it.
We made another film together, this one, in my opinion was much better. I wasn't in charge of the technical aspects, so you could actually see it, and I had come up with this idea that Trey had helped developed into a thought on the sign and the signifier involving the church and science (basically, science is the new church). We were in the film department building until the wee hours of the night editing it. When I say editing I mean old school editing; literally cutting the film at a particular frame and taping it together. This, if I were to stay with film, was what I was meant for: Editing.
It's an essential step, but is so totally behind the scenes. Editors don't usually share any glory with producers or directors or even screen writers, but they can really make or break a film, and often when I watch a movie my main thought will be on the editing. It's a supportive role. You are part of the team but you don't have to inspire the team to operate on a cumulative 4 hours of sleep in an airless warehouse for a month (and those are the good times). It's also really meditative. You sit at the table, or the computer and focus on time measured so minutely (24 frames of film is 1 second) that you really get into the zone.
But, I wasn't to stick with film. I went into art history instead, for better or for worse. I may not be a good leader, but I am fantastic at bullshitting.
Trey and his wife, Jaime, also began to feed me on Thursdays. I don't know if there's anything more demoralising than eating alone in a college dining hall. I wasn't really into food at the time, anyway, and feeling like an absolute friendless loser didn't really change that. When I came to SCAD I weighed in at 130. By Christmas I was at 117. There was a lot going on with me, a lot of anger, a lot of confusion; I look back on it as sort of being put through the fire, like a metamorphic rock. When I left for the summer I was teetering on 110.
Anyway, on Thursdays Trey would pick up me and a few others from our film class and drive us to his and Jaime's condo. Usually we would get pizza, but sometimes Jaime would make something. One night after I had rhapsodised at length about my mother's lasagna, Jaime made a spinach lasagna and it was delicious.
He had this idea of beginning a sort of collaborative group of film making and headquarters would be his home. So we would watch movies like Time Bandits and Brazil and discuss what kind of things we wanted to do. I don't want to aggrandize myself, but I am fairly convinced I witnessed the conception of Team G.
One day, I forget what the season was, Trey called to say he was on his way to pick me up. He began talking to me about Franny and Zooey and how it was a wonderful book and that Wes Anderson (who I adore)was heavily influenced by the Glass clan, a family of eccentric and precocious individuals. I may have said something like, "That sounds like a really good book."
And Trey replied, "I'll loan you my copy; I think you should read it."
He was a little bit longer arriving at my dorm than usual, and when I got in the passenger seat of the car, he handed me a paperback copy of Franny and Zooey.
"I figured you should just have a copy, so I went to Barnes and Noble," he said.
Dear Reader, if you haven't picked up on it already, I have the same enthusiasm and admiration of Trey that a little sister would have of her wildly successful and far older brother. Anything he did... scratch that: Anything he does is genius and I'm not the only one who thinks so. He was capable, while driving me around, of having me doubled up, almost suffocating with laughter and, there is no other way to put it, he educated me.
The first time I went to his house he pulled a Polaroid off the fridge and presented it to me. It was a picture he had asked the nurse to take during his operation. I think it was his litmus test of who would be worthwhile to keep around. When he finally got on the bandwagon and created a Facebook account he listed me as his muse. Trey later elaborated to say that I was his "Earth muse," in that I was just constantly supportive. Jaime was his "Fire muse," who constantly challenged him.
So, I had read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as a junior in high school, and I didn't really think much of it. Holden Caufield was one of the whiniest bitches I had ever met on the page. I had no respect or sympathy for him. But I could recognise that at least he was a full-fledged character, which isn't always the case with narrators. Nick, in the Great Gatsby, for instance; I know nothing about him.
But if Trey thought Franny and Zooey was Important Reading, it was.
So I read it. And I understood something within it, but I'm not sure what it was at first. There was something important that I identified with. At first it was the extreme depression in Franny. Then it was the frustration of Zooey that I understood. Every time I read it, it was something new, and it was always a new interpretation of Trey's inscription. On the surface, "From one tattooed lady to another," meant "from one oddball to another."
I read it a lot. Salinger quickly became my favourite author and I wish so much that I could write like him. My love for italics is a direct result of Franny and Zooey. Whenever I needed a touchstone of some sort to ground me and stop myself from sliding ever further into sadness, I reached for Franny and Zooey. I went to Vassar's Rose Parlour with it and lay on one of their insanely uncomfortable couches while someone practiced Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano. In a film adaptation of Franny and Zooey, obviously that sonata would feature heavily in the soundtrack.
And of course, I took it to Russia for 14 weeks. I loaned it to my friend, Frances, and my other friend Anne. She took it with her to Ukraine, and when I got it back it was considerably more battered.
But I'm OK with that, actually. Like scars, a book showing wear and tear is precious to me, it's a sign of just how important it is to me.
Last night I had an epiphany concerning Trey's inscription. You can cover a tattoo up, and for all appearances be normal. But you're not; you're forever marked. It's not like being the bearded lady, or the elephant man. People look at those individuals and just don't expect them to fit in. It's obvious they're different and thus are treated differently. But a tattoo you can spring on people. There is nothing outwardly different about Trey or myself. We walk, talk, breath, our hearts pump blood, and we eat and drink. And yet... sometimes, without meaning to, or maybe we are meaning to, we say something or find something funny that not many others do, that's not normal. It's like rolling up our shirt sleeves or taking off our jacket forgetting that not everyone has a tattoo, or was expecting us to have a tattoo. They thought we were nice and just like them. And then we shock them, realise it and try to cover it up again, but you can't take it back.
The line is a quote from Zooey while he's in the bath talking to his mother, Bessie. He says his elder brothers, Seymour and Buddy, ruined him and Franny by teaching them Eastern philosophies at an early age. "They made us the tattooed lady," he spits out. He goes on to explain that he can't even eat a meal without muttering the four great vows under his breath. He tried once and nearly choked on a clam.
So the frustration and the depression is knowing that you are different, and it's not a difference like having copious amounts of hair, it's not something you can help. This is not an organic difference. This is setting yourself apart from the tribe you could have belonged to, literally marking yourself. And now you have to always cover it up, until you recognise it within someone else. Like how Trey and I recognised each other.
Franny, found her own touchstone in the little Russian prayerbook, a mantra to keep the jacket on. But it is so difficult to do that. In Russian the word is "tyajolie" and it means heavy. At one point Franny bursts into tears in the bathroom, having told her normal boyfriend, Lane, why she quit theatre, why she might drop out of college, why she can't bear the thought of going to the Harvard-Yale game with one of his insufferable friends. He thinks it's because she's insane. She says it's because of her ego. She doesn't want to build it up anymore. But I think it's because she took a look around and realised that the people surrounding her have nothing in common with her. Not really. She wasn't even marooned on an island. Because, again, being marooned on an island would be out of your control. Being the tattooed lady can be vaguely within your control, you can choose to flash the tattoo around, or you can keep your jacket on.
Neither has much appeal.
I want to make two things clear: Of all the metaphoric groups discussed, tattooed vs. non-tattooed, neither of them have any superiority other each other. It's just that sometimes I feel to be in a minority. A very small and not so appreciated minority. These suspicions would hover over me when I'd be hanging out with friends and realise I have nothing to contribute to the conversation. I had plenty to say, I just figured either it wouldn't be welcome, or no one would understand me. Or when I went to see The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou with a friend from high school. I thought it was one of the most beautiful movies I had ever seen and that Bill Murray was fantastic. My friend wasn't all that impressed. So I just kept my mouth shut until I could talk to Trey again.
I also want to point out that there is nothing wrong with tattoos. I talk about marking or marring the skin. But I don't think it's ugly or anything. It's just something that you do to express what you're into. They used to be something... underground? I guess? It used to be you had tattoo if you were in the navy or a Russian prison. Grace Kelly did not have tattoos. But now, whatever, I know so many of my friends who have ink on their skin. Girls, boys, philosophers, lawyers, bricklayers.
So I guess it's not such a taboo thing anymore.


  1. I don't trust those people who wear all their tattoos on the outside. From high school to now, I've known people who cover themselves in conversation pieces -- purple hair, literal scarification, clunky yet meaningless jewelry, facial piercings -- because they want to be known as outsiders. When I sit them down for a conversation, beneath the artifice, they are commonplace. Which, yes, is my judgement here. I know you see them too. It is getting so that the surest way I won't get along with someone is to count how far they push themselves to be "other". My ex and her clan had ritual tattooing sessions wherein one had to give a thought out reason before they were allowed to fork over cash to get tattooed. While is cut down on the Tweety Birds, not all of the tattooing we chanted over went below the skin.
    I know few teachers who don't have tattoos. Half the students in Poughkeepsie seem to have them too, the same three templates repeated (even middle schoolers have them on occasion, which must be a form of child abuse). These tattoos are vapid and sad-making because they were done, if anything, to be *less* of tattooed ladies. To fit in and be visibly less extraordinary.

    Writing like this is showing the edge of one tattoo, something intimate but occasionally unavoidable. Thank you.

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