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The Plane Ride That Changed My Mind About Tattoos

I'll never forget the young stranger who sat next to me


I was at Newark Airport waiting for my cross-country flight to San Francisco when a young man nearby stretched and swayed his willowy body, arms raised hallelujah-style. A tattoo began at his wrist, encircled his forearm and disappeared into an Army-fatigue jacket scrunched at his elbow.

After staring for a while, I returned to the AARP magazine on my lap. I wondered if his mother disapproved of what he’d done to his body. My four adult children didn’t have any tattoos, thank heavens, I thought.

An Unwelcome Seatmate

When I boarded and buckled in, that tattooed arm clicked its owner into the seat beside me. He flipped his long auburn hair, sending the wavy locks cascading down his back. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties.

I was a 65-year-old, conservatively dressed but not dowdy grandmother, still blond with my hairdresser’s help, and a small-business owner in Manhattan, although originally from a parochial New England city. The Longchamp backpack at my feet held overdue reading for the six-hour flight taking me to a writer’s conference.

“Hi,” my seatmate said, as I opened my book. “Where do you think we are now?” he asked, tracing the route in the inflight magazine and leaning on the narrow armrest to look out my window. I mumbled “probably upstate New York” and returned to reading.

Somewhere over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, a painful memory jabbed at my conscience, enough to share it with the young man beside me.

Why was he talking to me? We had nothing in common. I wanted solitude.

Getting to Know You

When the meal cart arrived, he declined. Although I hadn’t ask why, he said it couldn’t compare with the turf-and-surf meal he had with the chairman of a major toy store the night before at Manhattan’s pricey 21 Club.

I then learned that my seatmate was the lead guitarist for the popular Guitar Hero video game that simulates a rock band. Played by kids, their parents, wannabe stars and even celebrities, the set list covers generations of legendary rock and metal guitar artists. As the player’s skill improves, the virtual venues change from basements to stadiums.

The only instrument I played was a plastic ukulele but that was as a kid and only until its strings broke. I certainly had never played Guitar Hero.

“No drug references, violence or vulgar lyrics in your game?” I asked.

“No drugs or bad behavior for me,” he said.  

“It’s a pleasure to meet a positive role model. How did you get this far?” I asked.

His passion for the instrument began at 14 after his mother bought him a guitar at a pawnshop. When his friends drove around, drank or did drugs, he practiced. When his parents’ screaming marriage, which ended in a divorce, ripped him apart, he played punk-metal music to drown them out. After 20 years with a guitar, the fingers on his left hand were slightly lengthened. He was astonished by the game’s success that brought travel and fan adulation.

Finding Common Ground

Although he expected to marry his corporate-world girlfriend, he fantasized about The Mile High Club. When an attractive blonde returned to a nearby seat, he asked what I thought of her.

“You’ll need a nighttime flight and an empty back row with blankets to join that club,” I said.  

“You seem to know what you’re talking about,” he said and leaned into me. It was then I noticed his blue-green eyes that revealed a wizened soul.

“I fly often, and I’m guessing at the specifics,” I said and giggled.

Somewhere over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, a painful memory jabbed at my conscience, enough to share it with the young man beside me.

“Your passion for your craft resembles my passion for writing.” I said.

When I was in my thirties, I was in an unhappy, verbally abusive marriage. Driven to write, I spent lonely nights at my kitchen table, pre-computer days, typing articles I feared would be rejected. When I daringly enrolled in my first writer’s conference in California, my oppressive husband warned our marriage was finished if I attended. On the return flight home I cried about the pending divorce but had no regrets over my exhilarating one-night stand at the event.  

“It’s important to face life without a mask rather than pretend conformity,” I told my seatmate. He nodded in agreement.

“It’s also important to touch and to be touched,” I said, adding I was younger and hotter in those days. It struck me I wouldn’t have told my grown children that story.

“You’re still hot,” he said softly.

Talking About Tattoos

Despite our budding kinship, I couldn’t get past his outrageous tattoos. I asked why he had done it.

He shot me a get-over-it-lady glance and rubbed the octopus design. Then he lifted his T-shirt to reveal a Celtic vine tat that began at his armpit, swirled down his bony side and disappeared into his jeans. I was horrified.

“Don’t you know when you’re much older those tattoos will turn a putrid blue? Your skin will sag with deformed images?” I scolded.

He lowered his eyes as he absorbed my insult.

“Well,” he said. ”I knew early on I wouldn’t sit in any boardroom. Everyone in my generation with ink will sag, too.”

When he prepared for a nap a bit later, he clamped on earphones, shaded his eyes with wrap-around sunglasses and tossed the jacket over his head. He resembled a captured fugitive,  but I was the imprisoned one sitting in plain sight with my prejudice against tattooed people.

During the plane’s descent and with his knee resting against mine, I nudged him awake, regretting our flight was over. Waiting to disembark, he waved at a buddy several rows away who wore a nose ring, spiked hair and an inscribed arm.

“Hey, nice talking to you,” my seatmate said, as he hoisted his luggage from the carousel and waved goodbye.

“The pleasure was mine,” I replied.

A Lasting Impression

A year later, my son met me in his kitchen. A burly, 45-year-old crane operator, he’s a Deadhead and a family man, with a personality that fills a room.

“Hey, Ma,” he said, lifting his shirt as he turned around. “Like it?”

On his back was a perfectly etched portrait of his family. When he moved his shoulder, the trio moved.

And what did I think about a skull and crossbones for his other arm?

As I struggled to respond to this question, I remembered my remarkable seatmate.

I could still picture him leaving the airport terminal, that tattooed arm draped over his friend’s shoulder as they disappeared into the crowd. He had helped me make a much-needed attitude adjustment, something I was especially grateful for in this moment.

“Go for it,” I told my son.

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By Judith Glynn
Judith Glynn is a travel writer and author of The Street or Me: A New York Story.@JudithGlynn

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