I’d been there for some time when the three of them walked in. I had come to get some work done, and it so happened that the best-lit table was the one right in front of the entrance that night. It wasn’t exactly beneath the dim lamp hanging from the ceiling. That would have been better. But the streetlights outside the cafe lent an extra sliver of illumination if I angled my spiral notebook just right. I felt secure sitting there, facing the street and whomever might come in. And my iPod kept me tucked inside a cocoon of sonic intimacy, safely removed from the clatter of voices that existed outside my head.
Pretty quickly I settled into a nice groove. I splayed my folders out on a tiny shelf that stood conveniently beside me and moved methodically between tasks, underlining this and annotating that. I glanced up several times when a new set of people entered my purview, but none of them caught my attention until I saw that face. At first it looked like bad acne or a serious burn. Then he stepped closer to the light. The blackness of his forehead was now rich with color. A poorly illustrated serpent tail stretched below his temple toward the bridge of his nose. Set beneath dark-rimmed glasses and close-cropped hair, his pudgy cheeks edged back and upward as he approached the bar. He may have known one of the baristas, or perhaps he was just being friendly. Either way my immediate thought was that he must be pleased with himself, smiling through his hip attire and accentuated face tattoo.
I turned back to my work but couldn’t stop glancing up at him. I don’t have any tattoos, and I’d not seen many face tattoos that look like that. So I was curious. I studied the lurid details while he waited for his drink. In total, the tattoo appeared to depict a pastiche of dragons and animal monsters that presumably formed some meaningful constellation across his neck, cheeks, and forehead. I wondered how this scene continued underneath his clothing, and the grotesque thought of further constellations etched across his entire body made me feel faintly nauseous. I looked away again, but the sight was too vivid, too irresistibly graphic to return to my work. My eyes kept leering up at his face, and within a few moments my stomach steadied as my academic barometer began to kick in.
“What is he sublimating?” I thought, now allowing myself to gaze freely in furtive spurts. “Surely this man is lost, thinking his face tattoo will satisfy whatever need he’s covered over in all those layers of ink. Only a culture this debased would allow him the luxury of such manifest delusion…”
But there was more to it than that. “This is a social document,” I told myself. Yes! I was witnessing a visceral snapshot of a time and place that will one day be written about in history books like the one I’d been reading until a few minutes earlier. “Maybe I’ll lecture about it some day. Maybe I’ll even tell this story to my classes like those professors who talk about life during the Sixties!”
By now the music in my head had grown pensive, multiplying the layers of intensity these thoughts and this scene generated. I wrote down a little description of the man with the face tattoo and felt my muscles tighten as I gripped my pencil purposefully. He was still smiling, laughing now as he reached for his wallet. The absurdity of his inaudible gestures against my austere soundtrack heightened the significance of every detail. The two girls with him decked in similar flannel shirts; the haughtiness of his laughter; the radical chic issuing its common cultural currency and spilling effortful disdain over everything. This was the year 2012 at one of its proudest moments.
A hot note of envy shot up my spine as I tried to comment soberly in my notebook: “He looks adversarial, but is he really? He’s chipper and polite to the barista; he pays with legal tender just like the rest of us…”
I wanted to be objective. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. But the basic emotional fact of my jealousy infected my analysis like ink spreading across the page.
Suddenly I realized what I was writing about: “This is what modernity does to us,” I underlined twice, my shoulders twisting as I leaned inward. “It heightens options at the same time it heightens foreignness, making us all more alienated together…”
I was now lost to the scene in front of me, immersed in my own head.
“…My distance and social criticism, his raucous face tattoo: both are guilty of the same crime: neither strives to know the other…”
“…We nestle ourselves inside little individual differences, all the while missing what we might have in common; neither of us understands the other; in fact we misunderstand each other…willfully?”
“…That’s the point…”