Day 999. I am staring at a cartoon-sized jug of antibacterial wipes. There is a lot of tiny writing and fine print that I cannot read. However, in large bold font directly in my eyeline it says FRESH START. I look at this repeatedly over the next hour or so. I am getting a tattoo on the inside of my right arm and nobody has a mask on. This includes the guy in front of me with a needle. What year is it? Where am I? Does it even matter anymore? Why do we get continuously washed ashore on the same island? Is it to create our “Wilson” like Tom Hanks? Is it because the natives need us? Is it fate? Is it science? My wife says I ask too many questions. It’s rude to ask too many questions. “Eighties” by Killing Joke plays on the sound system. Should this be hurting more than it does?
“It clogs your mind.” says the guy with the needle. Johnny Inkman is telling me in his slightly broken English about how he almost died from drinking too much alcohol 2 years ago. “Woke up in the hospital, someone found me and took me there or I’d be dead.” He is telling me to drink a ginger shot every morning. He is telling me how his friend recently died from drinking too much alcohol. “It clogs your mind.” is probably the best and most succinct reason for staying sober. He doesn’t say so, but I suspect he asked to do this tattoo when I sent the idea in randomly to the shop’s email account. He is very excited about my idea of an old car odometer flipping over from 1,000 to 1,001 (the last digit stuck precariously between numbers). The man with the needle is switching needles now. I tell him I think it’s been 5 years since I’ve done this. He laughs at me like I’m a beautiful idiot.
The Inkman has begun shading now. I can tell this is the part of the job he lives for. I’ve noticed that the few tattoo artists I’ve sat for seem to loathe the “tracing” part of the tattoo. Well maybe loathe is too strong of a word, but it’s like someone feverishly cutting vegetables for a big meal. It’s something that needs to be done. It’s important. It’s the part where you dig in and get lost in hypnotic busy-work. Then when the shading needle comes out, it’s like seeing a little kid with a new set of paints. A child-like exuberance grabs hold of their mind. The man with the needle asks how my arm is, does it hurt like I remember? It’s about the same I say. To be honest, the scrape and grind is beginning to annoy me now. It feels like the sharpest #2 pencil on earth is drawing on the sunburn I got the time I passed out drunk in a lawn chair.
The film I chose to watch on the eve of my 1,000th day of sobriety was Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. For my money one of Nic Cage’s finest performances. He runs around calling criminals “shitbirds”, wears $55 swiss cotton underpants, yells “To the break of DAWN!” to rapper Xhibit, lurks behind an old lady’s nursing home door while shaving with a Norelco, AND does a 2 minute soliloquy about his lucky crack pipe. Is it over-the-top? Perhaps just a smidge. It does however show the cheap fun-house slide into addiction almost as well as Cage’s Oscar-winning performance in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. Except this time Cage doesn’t go willingly into that sweet goodnight. Port of Call – New Orleans ends on sort of a cliffhanger, as Cage sits in front of a giant fish tank and says “Do fish have dreams?”
The brilliance of the film, is that you come in wanting to see all the Cage debauchery and it does a sleight of hand thing on you. Cage fell down this rabbit hole of addiction because he goofily hurt his back jumping into the Hurricane Katrina muck to save a prisoner, then he became hopelessly addicted to pain killers (and eventually crack). So when the movie ends with a cleaned-up version of the prisoner offering him a lifeline in a seedy motel room it’s kind of a letdown. “Uh…, I thought this was a blaze of glory movie like the Harvey Keitel Bad Lieutenant?” Nope, this guy is just at a crossroads, just like any regular old schmuck. Your typical mid-life crisis. He has to choose his next move, just like the prisoner had to choose the straight and narrow after a rehab stint. The ending is the pause before the next chapter, and it is highly refreshing to see in a film like this. Cage spent the whole film dancing around Big Fate (the oddly named aforementioned Xhibit), before once again “failing up” into a promotion when he bumbles his way into a big crack bust.
The tattoo idea must have came to me after all the driving around I did during the Pandemic. Just roaming around contemplating Big Fate and making photos of rusted out shitbuckets along the road. If there is one thing I have learned, it is to always…I mean always just take the picture when you see it, because on the way back it won’t be the same. Something will always get fucked up. The light will change, somebody parks a dump truck in front of the only angle that captured what you envisioned, it will start raining, or you’ll get called back to do a last second Zoom meeting. There aren’t many things that are more frustrating than missed opportunities.
I forgot Val Kilmer was in this Bad Lieutenant reboot. He is Cage’s partner. Cage doesn’t have any sideburns and chews scenery like it’s his last meal before the electric chair. Kilmer is overweight and says very little, if anything. The Lizard King is wasted as a side man in a film that features gator roadkill and an “iguana cam”. He’s a plump, jolly wallflower. My 2 favorite actors, together at last…but it is meaningless as Kilmer’s character could have been played by Clint Howard and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Can you imagine if they let an overweight, past his prime Val Kilmer play “Big Fate”?
I’ve been thinking about aging a lot lately. I’m sore all the time and ornery as shit most days. I don’t exercise much, so I don’t know that I’m reaping the full benefits of quitting heaters and beer. “Motion is lotion“, says the fitness infomercial lady at my work. 45 seems to be when the wheels slowly begin to fall off. I can see why I see nothing but 55 year-olds huffing and puffing up and down the sidewalks around me. My favorites are the weekend warrior cyclists I want to hit with my car as they mindlessly chug down the middle of our country road. They all dress like Greg LeMond. They are unwavering in their stoic crawl to immortality…or the closest yuppie brewery. I want to be in shape like them I think, then I can be whole.
The man with the needle finishes up and shakes my hand. I feel like I’ve just stepped back into the life portal after a brief pit stop on Waste Station 9. Twenty minutes ago I was alternating staring at the FRESH START jug and at the black mark the size of a Band-Aid on my arm that I will probably stare at for the next 40 years. I doubt I’ll see the Inkman for at least another 1,000 days. Until then I will be the plump wallflower watching the lunatics dance with Big Fate. Tomorrow I will drive 2 hours to drop my daughter off at Summer Camp for the first time. I will make sure to take a picture.