The Day a Tattooist Fell Into My Lap

The Day a Tattooist Fell Into My Lap


My life is peppered with coincidences. Heavily peppered. My friends remark on it. My husband isn’t even surprised anymore at the things that happen to me.

One story of a thousand:

A few years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop re-reading The Great Gatsby and realizing I had a problem–a writer’s problem. At that time, I was writing a novel set in a tattoo shop in the early 1980s, and although I’d done quite a bit of research and interviewed several tattooists, I was starting to see that I needed to take it a step further.

It was Fitzgerald, schooling me yet again. He was so steeped in that world of lavish 1920s parties that any time he needed to conjure it on the page, he could easily call up a horde of telling details. If I ever hoped to do justice to this tattoo novel, I thought, I needed to know ’80s tattoo shops like Fitzgerald knew ’20s parties: the sounds and smells, the feel in the hand of a certain object.

In short, I needed more than interviews and books. I needed a tattoo shop where I could just hang out and absorb with my five senses.

But I was the first-time mother of an infant, and a full-time grad student, and therefore exhausted. Even my few hours of reading/writing in this coffee shop were scraped together and precious. I had neither the energy nor the time to wander around researching local tattoo studios and making friends with their owners.

Alas, I thought, or more likely Aaargh, or something like that, and opened up Gatsby again.

I am not sure Aaargh counts as a prayer, except for what happened next. Within the hour, my reading was interrupted by a man’s voice. He said:

“Did Eric Ziobrowski do that?”

I looked up to see an abundantly inked man pointing at my arm. I have an olive branch tattooed there, and it was indeed done by Eric Ziobrowski.

“How did you know that?” I said.

“We know each other,” the man said. “I’m Marc Goldfaber. I own Top Hat Tattoo in Rocky Point”–the next town over.

Marc and I got to talking. It turned out he also had an infant son. I told him about my writerly problem and he said I was welcome to stop by.

A few minutes later he came back with his business card and said, “By the way, I’ve got a guy working for me named Marvin Moskowitz who you might want to talk to.” Marvin is a third-generation tattooist whose forbears worked on the Bowery and later opened one of the first tattoo studios on Long Island. He had been tattooing for decades and knew what the world of an early-1980s tattoo shop was like–the equipment, the styles, the procedures. (Hygenic practices in tattoo shops were quite different before the AIDS epidemic.)

I still think of this as
The Day God Dropped a Tattooist in My Lap.

After that encounter, I started making coffee shop runs for the guys at Top Hat. I would call up to see what they wanted, pick up their coffee, and bring it back to the tattoo shop. Then I’d watch them work and listen to Marvin’s stories. The imaginary tattoo shop in my novel looks and feels the way it does because of what they showed me, told me.

*       *       *

Are coincidences cosmically arranged, or do we just notice and seize on them? Is their meaning intrinsic or assigned by us?

I imagine my church friends saying “Of course God arranges them” and my nonreligious friends saying “Really? I can think of some refugee children who could use a good Providential coincidence.”

Me–I waffle. My heart groans Yes, yes. I want there to be a master Storyteller; I live as if there is one–

–and yet, on the other hand, the human brain has a marvelous aptitude for pattern-catching and meaning-making.

One of my son’s first words was moon, and once he could say moon, he noticed the moon everywhere–not just in the sky but on grocery store signs, and picture books, and scraps of paper that completely escaped my notice.

And haven’t you had that experience where you take note of an unusual word, and then you suddenly see it everywhere–in every magazine article, on every billboard? (Here, I’ll do it to you right now: Somnambulist. Somnambulist. Somnambulist. Now, I predict, your week will be full of sleepwalkers.)

But maybe it’s not an either-or. Maybe our noticing itself, our evolved aptitude for pattern-catching, is a divine gift.

For example: I often see rainbows at the very moments I most need a touch of peace, but I am not silly enough to think that these meteorological circumstances were arranged just for me. Surely if God exists, God also works within us–to awaken our eyes to what’s already there–to run a highlighter over the encyclopedia of the world, and point out the bits that most need our attention.

Maybe this whole question of “is it or isn’t it” is a red herring, spiritually speaking. Maybe the real spiritual fork-in-the-road is the choice to notice in the first place–to let our eyes follow the highlighter–and to act on what we notice. When a tattooist falls into our laps, to follow up, ask the right questions, and bring coffee. When refugee children come to our attention, to do what we can.

(All this aside, though: What do I make of the fact that the tattooist got my attention? I had my nose in a book.)

 *       *       *

Something happened this morning which brought all this to mind.

I’ve got that new-mama exhaustion again. My once-infant son is now four years old and I have a brand-new infant son. I also have a new job as the Arts Director at True North Community Church. This job, like motherhood, is a labor of deep love, which means it draws on my brainpower and heartfuel and soulstrength. And stop snickering, I’ll make up twelve more silly words if I want to, I said I’m tired.

Anyway. When it comes to my writing, I find myself thinking a lot of Aaargh thoughts that may or may not count as prayer. How will I ever get an agent for this book? How will I ever find the time to write a new book? I’m so tired I could cry. (Sometimes I do cry.) Aaargh, aaargh.

This morning I had a bit of a taxing morning at work, and my family and I were driving home. We were maybe ten miles from our house, and I noticed a blue truck in front of us with the plates TOPHAT51. “Is that–?” I said.

We pulled up alongside. Top Hat Tattoo logo on the passenger door. There was Marc, driving with his four-year-old son.

It made me think of that day I Aaarghed for help at a coffee shop and it appeared.

The next stoplight was conveniently red. We had a quick chat/yell. It cheered me to see him.

 *       *       *

Maybe Aaargh does count as prayer. Maybe trucks count as answers. It’s good to be reminded of my own stories sometimes.

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