Friday, September 12, 2008

Regrets, I have a few. . .amongst other things

I just deleted seven paragraphs of writing. I'll amend that with this: I just deleted seven paragraphs of whining. Thank me for sparing you!

A few nights ago I watched "I Like Killing Flies". This movie needed a different name. When Dick said "I Like Killing Flies" sounded like an interesting movie, I immediately thought it was about a serial killer (who presumably do things like pull the wings off flies as children). But no, the movie was about Kenny Shopsin and his little restaurant in New York City.

Ever since we watched "Gangs of New York" I've been hungry for anything about the history of that city. When I heard that Shopsin had run his little restaurant for 32 years (which is enough time to make it historic), I was interested.

I enjoyed the movie tremendously, though it made me wistful and homesick. Shopsin is a type, as individual as he is (and he sure is a one-of-a-kind), that I've only found in New York. He's offensive, sometimes in the extreme, but has a great deal of love in him. He obviously loves to cook and to feed his customers. He loves his regulars and his menu had swollen to 10 pages on account of always adding new dishes that were based on the regulars' desires. Now, if you weren't a regular, you might be in for trouble. He would throw people out or not allow them in on account of his rules (or if he was just being surly). I quite understand this rule: No ordering what your dining companion has ordered. You can't say "I'll have the same" at Shopsin's. You will be out on the street. Another rule is "no parties of five" and even if you agree to split into separate tables, tough luck.

I'm looking forward to reading all his rules (and thoughts) when the book comes out at the end of the month, "Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin".

As much as Shopsin loves to cook, he loves to hold forth, to philosophize or as they say in Yiddish, "schmooze". Watching him in action, making pancakes while talking about how we've forgotten what "life is for in America", ladling out soup while explaining the deeper meanings of feeding customers. . .well, it reminded me of myself (and my father). I realized, while watching this movie, that I had been a part of a tradition, one that is, sadly, dwindling in every town and city. It is the tradition of inviting others into your place of business not just for what services you offer, but to talk, hang out, and in extreme cases (like my father, Shopsin, and now I realize, myself) listen to someone carry on about their opinions and be amused (or not) with their quirky ways.

I used to throw people out of my tattoo studio, not often, but I wouldn't hesitate when I did. More often, however, I would be brutally honest and depending on the person, they would either leave or respect my opinion (and a small few would argue). I never believed "the customer is always right." I tended to believe the customer was almost always misinformed or acting like sheep (I'll have what she's having). And I figured, since getting a tattoo is permanent, I had a moral obligation to be honest. Recently, someone told me I was "noble" in relation to my business, but there wasn't anything noble about it. In fact, I would say that I was an ass.

Like Shopsin, too, I eschewed advertising. I cared alot about my regular customers. I didn't care for running the place like a business. It was more like my home, where anyone could visit when I was there.

The thing is, however, I wasn't running my business in pre-boom times New York. Many of my customers didn't "get" me at all. The ones that did were a distinct minority of the local population. In the beginning, it didn't matter much, because there weren't tattoo studios in every little town here in Maine, so people came from all over. But once they had more choice, I lost a lot of business. It wasn't all because of my personality. I know that. It was mostly because it was far easier to go to your local tattoo studio, and if one is getting some small little tat, unless someone is truly terrible, pretty much any shop will do for that.

But in the end, it probably was my personality that doomed the whole enterprise. As people watched shows like "Miami Ink" and whatever the name of the other show was, they wanted more bling and they wanted a tattooist who was weird in some stereotypical way, a way I once played into but had stopped. I had grown sick of adhering to others' expections of who I needed to be in order to satisfy a fantasy notion of what a tattooist is (as if we are all the same). But just like folks who ride Harleys, who think they are such free spirits, they all adhere to a dress code, as surely as the folks at the bank do. It's just a different code. But ultimately, it was my personality that got me not because of what others thought, but of my not being able to run the business like a business and keep up with the changing needs of the public. Whatever the reasons, it's closed now. What do I miss? Talking to strangers. My life is far less rich without the daily interaction with people. The kind of interaction that occurs in a tattoo shop is particularly hard to re-create. I miss the combination of excitement and trepidation, and the fact that politically incorrect language was perfectly okay. I miss the teasing and the glimpse into the lives of people I may never see again. I miss seeing people change over the years. Yep, I miss it almost all of it. What I don't miss is the tattooing itself. Yes, I could have segued into just running a shop, but it didn't happen and it really never occurred to me. Truth is, I stopped appreciating tattoos, so how could I continue?

Photo note: Can you believe there's an entry in Wikipedia entitled "Fried Egg"?
I put this photo here because: 1. I'm lazy. 2. For me, it's the quintessential New York diner food (throughout college, I'd eat breakfast out and get two fried eggs with toast, home fries and coffee for less than two bucks).
And oddly enough, I once wrote the music for a song that came to known as "Fried Egg", which was issued on a 45rpm record. Sheesh, all of this makes me sound like I'm a hundred years old.