Tattoo in the Tenderloin: A San Francisco Sketch

Stumbling lugubriously down a pee-smelling, detritus-strewn sidewalk, the too-skinny woman’s eyes are glazed. She moves languidly, stopping momentarily to lean on the stanchion of a streetlight, in a seemingly untroubled haze.

Stained underwear sticks out from her soiled, oversized sweats. Her hair is tangled and wild. Her face—dirty, lined, blemished, and swollen—is full of pain. She’s mumbling indomitably sad facts, such as: “I’m hungry. I’m sick. I’m dying.”

The woman doesn’t ask for help from passersby, and no one will help anyway. Too scared mostly, they don’t know where to begin. Others are mad she exists. They’re mad she’s filthy, that she’s breathing (albeit in a hacking, unhealthy way), and that they can’t, especially in the light of day, make her disappear—not even with hate. She exists, for now, and she’s not invisible.

Slowly, stolidly, the woman moves down the street sensing, and smelling fear—and loathing—from both tourists and city denizens; they suppress their stares—but they stare nonetheless—studiously side-stepping around her, and her squalor.

At the dispensary nearby, incuriously checking a driver’s license and waiving a well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-off man inside, a young, pony-tailed security guard adjusts his cargo pants. Looking at his watch, he thinks about his bed in his overpriced apartment—barely bigger than a cell—a long commute away, and yawns with earned ennui.

Down the block, in the hotel lobby at The Hilton, an up-tempo instrumental is being piped in from hidden, expensive speakers. The sound fills the cavernous space where conferencing professors (some with name-tags still dutifully stuck to their breasts) alternatively drink overpriced cocktails and coffees. In the background, a constant flow of travelers with conspicuous baggage prepare to make ingress deeper into the hotel, or egress, to places unknown. A tired doorman in a ridiculous-looking top-hat overlooks the scene severely. He would sigh too, but he’s old, and with his advanced age he’s learned to eschew—or at least not betray—any overly visible exasperation with life. For one thing: it had never led to better tips.

A mile away a freelance writer—meaning unpaid and unheralded—sits in a tattoo shop mulling over his own existential complaints with a bald, bemused stranger—a tattoo artist he’s only just met (but who has great online reviews); the tattooist, an amateur philosopher, and professional conversationalist, listens sympathetically.

The writer is saying that once he was a practicing lawyer, but he quit, and now his major focus is writing and interviewing reggae stars. The writer is explaining how life has gotten much better for him, simpler, and more fulfilling, with much more reggae. The tattoo artist is grinning—genially, not smugly or snidely, or so it seems to the writer—he’s heard it all before.

Dappled sunlight streaks through the tattoo shop’s front window, shining on the bald head of the tattooist as he presses his tattoo gun deeper into the writer’s skin. The writer isn’t talking about law or writing, or reggae anymore. He’s talking about loss, about emptiness. He’s talking about that discomfiting realization that death—and likely some quotient of suffering, be it big or be it small—will eventually touch each and every one of us, overtaking all we hold dear.

A few miles away from the tattoo shop, deep maroon, rust-colored steel rises—like a prehistoric monster—from the surrounding foothills right into the sky. Piercing low-lying clouds, the steel creates a perch for angels—and seabirds. Below, vehicles rumble under the bridge’s majestic arches while sailboats, with their white sails billowing, pockmark the blue sea.

Back on Market Street, the destitute woman has reached her destination: a folding table her crack dealer has unabashedly set up, right in the middle of the sidewalk. Glowing, the sequined sign sagely reads: “Quick Fixes Here. Cheap!”

The music is playing louder at The Hilton now—it’s happy hour. Sickeningly-sweet expensive perfumes fill the air and mingle with the smell of sweat, alcohol, and unspoken but obvious desperation on the faces of the professors.

His tattoo complete, the freelance writer has left the tattoo shop and is walking back gingerly towards The Hilton. Soon, he too will join the desperate, drinking professors at the bar. Later though, back in the quietude of his room, he’ll put the “do not disturb” sign on the doorknob, peel off the blood-stained gauze, and look closely in the mirror. Here, in the heart of San Francisco, he’s committed to becoming someone new.


Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.