I have a question about tattoos. I often see people, sometimes acquaintances, with tattooed letters spelling words I can’t decipher. Is it okay to ask what it says? I spoke with a woman in Amsterdam last year, curious about a hexagram tattooed on her arm, one of those I Ching – – & — things, 6 lines. She had no idea what it meant, something about ‘good fortune,’ she thought. I suspect there are a lot of people wearing tattoos that mean something other than what they think.
I asked some guy at my gym in Sweden where he got his ink—good question, hip. I watch tattoo shows on TV. He seemed pleased to explain.
The whole tattoo thing seems weird to me. What is it when people are convinced ripped jeans are cool, and piercings? I’m eighty this year, maybe it’s my age. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one without tattoos. Wife doesn’t have one, but our dog does, in her ear.
I’m in Amsterdam tonight; at the Torenczicht Hotel’s bar, watching people, which seems half of what I do here, watching people, noticing tattoos. I’m watching Anna, tend the bar. She’s got the best tattoos I’ve ever seen, these kind of smoky things that go up her arms and disappear into short sleeves. Skulls, strange beings and shapes I can never quite make out— words in script around her neck. I can only see a few of the letters, but they appear to be in English.
Anna’s Romanian, by way of Hungary somehow—but lived here in Amsterdam for years. She speaks 7 languages, English, of course, and Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese . I forget the others. I have never seen her fail to communicate with anyone looking for a room, or a drink, or how to get to some location. She rides a motorcycle bigger than I am, and wears the best in leather gear, first class, expensive helmet.
It’s 12:30 p.m. and the place is crammed, standing room only and no standing room left. I count over 50 people. Bars open to the public close close at 2. Anna is working alone. I watch impressed as phantom shadowed arms blur into motion, washing glasses, making change, bantering wisecracks, pouring beer, mixing drinks, checking people in, and telling them how to get someplace. She’s poetry in motion, like Tai Chi, but faster.
In the mist of this there’s now a problem with someone’s change, something about how many beers his table had had—a guy in his middle 20’s giving her a hard time, in a friendly, teasing way.
“Ahh, I’m just messin’ with you,” he finally says. “I have a complicated brain.”
“No, I think you have a very simple brain,” she tells him. Those close enough to hear crack up.
I’m laughing before she even speaks. You don’t tread on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the Lone Ranger, and you do not mess around with Anna. She has heard it all. Every quip, pickup line, and ‘Oh I forgot to pay,’ line—drunks and stoners. She handles it all with charming expertise born from years of experience.
“I’m going for a nice long ride after work tonight,” she tells me when her shift is near an end. “Then tomorrow do the same thing all over again.”
At 1 a.m. her replacement arrives. She heads upstairs to get her motorcycle gear. Before she leaves I have to ask, ‘What does that say, around your neck?”
“Been here, Done That,” she tells me. We both laugh.