About a month ago I spent an interesting weekend doing two things I’ve never done before: visiting a Quaker meeting and a tattoo parlor. I hasten to add that there is no connection between the two aside from the fact that I visited both in the same weekend. But they are now connected in my mind because in both places my preconceived notions, based on stereotypes, turned out to be wrong.
I wasn’t afraid of the Quaker meeting. I’m quite the daredevil when trying out different religious meetings and groups! And I was drawn to what I already knew about Quakers’ beliefs in simplicity and pacifism. It also helped that I went with friends who could show me the ropes.
The meeting house was a rustic wooden building in the woods, perfect for its purpose. The layout inside was similar to this one in New York in its symmetry and plain style. I was surprised that the Quakers looked like everyone else. Not that I was expecting them to look like the man on the bag of Quaker Oats, exactly, but . . . well, advertising is powerful.
They looked ordinary, like anyone. Like me.
I loved the hour of silence in the meeting. There’s something freeing and exhilarating about being in a group of silent people for a specified time period. (Some people are exhilarated by bungee jumping; I’m exhilarated by a group of silent people. Go figure.) This is the kind of community I love, and it’s why I’m drawn to monastic communities as well as meditation groups. I’m forced to turn off my cell phone, leave my laptop behind, and sit there no matter how uncomfortable I feel or how much my racing thoughts interfere with my attempts to pray and meditate. Such a meeting is also a way of slowing down and appreciating the things I rarely notice in the rush to complete my daily tasks: an intricate frost pattern on a window, the beautiful, every-wrinkle-earned face of an old woman, the rhythm of my own breathing.
I was delighted by the injunction in “Advices & Queries” (the Quakers’ expression of faith distilled into a small pamphlet) to “live adventurously.” Together with other reminders about living simply, respecting nature and the environment, and resisting violence in all its forms, this way of life strongly appeals to me.
I left the meeting feeling refreshed and determined to follow these principles.
The tattoo parlor was a very different experience. I’ve been thinking of getting a tattoo for a while and decided to make an appointment for a consultation. The tattoo parlor was in a seedy area of the city, and when I got there I was dismayed to find that it was located above a sex shop. I walked back and forth in front of the sex shop a few times before I realized there was a separate entrance to the tattoo parlor. With a furtive look around to ensure that nobody I knew was watching, I opened the door and darted inside before I could change my mind.
The tattoo parlor looked exactly as I expected it to look. A large, beefy, heavily-tattooed man was at the front desk and there were posters of tattoos covering the walls. I could also hear the sound of machinery, somewhat like a giant dentist’s drill, that was only slightly masked by booming heavy metal music from the speakers.
Machinery? Why would there be machinery?
I told the beefy man that I had an appointment for a consultation and he said my tattoo artist would be there soon. I sat down to wait. Then I realized I’d forgotten my cell phone. My imagination went into overdrive. Nobody knew where I was, and if a biker gang suddenly burst into the shop and took me hostage, how would I call for help? What if the beefy man strapped me to a table and started poking me with needles?
Have I mentioned I’m afraid of needles?
Chastising myself for being silly, I concentrated on appearing calm and gazing at the tattoo posters. Quite a few were of the skull-and-crossbones variety, some featured monsters and animals with big fangs, and some were downright gruesome. A poster at eye level caught my attention with a scantily-clad, muscular female figure on it and the name “Satanika” in bold letters at the bottom.
This didn’t seem to be my kind of place.
A friendly middle-aged woman appeared and greeted me. She sported quite a few tattoos but bore no resemblance to “Satanika,” which was a relief. She wasn’t my tattoo artist, though, and she turned to help the next customer, a young woman who wanted an old tattoo fixed. She explained that a tattoo artist at another shop had given her an infection and described the progress of the infection in excruciating detail, though thankfully she didn’t show it to us. I was starting to feel sick and began looking around for the nearest garbage can.
The young customer left, and the middle-aged woman told me how she’d just found some great syringe pens at the dollar store. Syringe pens? Did the tattoo artists use syringes from the dollar store? Did they get all their equipment from the dollar store? I forgot about the garbage can and began inching towards the door. But then she held out one of the syringe pens, and it was just a pen made to look like a syringe, a fun novelty item.
I told myself to get a grip. I’m sure these people could see how nervous I was. They were probably enjoying it. The sound of machinery, the posters, the pens, the customer’s description of her infection—all of it was feeding into my overactive imagination.
Then my tattoo artist showed up. She was tiny and adorable, like a fairy in a Disney movie. Except for being heavily tattooed herself, she could have fit in perfectly at the Quaker meeting. I never imagined such a delicate, feminine person could be a tattoo artist. How did she even have the physical strength I assumed someone would need to puncture someone’s skin?
Have I mentioned I’m afraid of needles?
She didn’t seem to know how to start our conversation. I think she was shy. This blew my mind: a tiny, adorable, shy tattoo artist?
I put her at ease by telling her how nervous I was. We went on to have a lovely conversation and she patiently explained every step in the tattooing procedure. She showed me her instruments, which had no connection to the machinery that was probably coming from a construction crew outside instead of the tattoo parlor. But she did have needles. (In case you think I’m an idiot, yes, I knew before going there that tattoos are made by needles.)
I left the tattoo parlor and the Quaker meeting with similar thoughts and resolutions. I thought how quick I am to buy into stereotypes and to be surprised when people turn out to be complex and multi-faceted. I resolved to be more aware of my knee-jerk reactions to people because of their religious affiliations or job titles. And I resolved to try new things more often. I may not ultimately get a tattoo or join the Quakers, but I’m glad I met real people from both worlds.