Things fell apart slowly. I knew my luck was going when I began losing at the card tables. It was a small shift. I’d been on a streak while I stayed in New Orleans. Every third or fourth day, I walked to Harrah’s. All I knew how to play was blackjack, and I didn’t know if it was a winner’s game or not. I’d heard that if you played the odds at craps, you could ensure a slow and steady income. But that’s not what I did. I followed the generally suggested rules of play, took chances when compelled to, and left the casino with two, three hundred dollars each visit. It wasn’t high stakes, but I’d known what it felt like to be a winner. After my streak turned, I walked out of the casino two, three hundred dollars poorer twice a week, and I knew things had shifted. I was no longer in the good graces of whatever spirits I’d appointed to guide me.
I knew what it would take to find that luck again, but wasn’t ready to embrace selflessness. I wasn’t willing to heed those warnings, and the job was the next to go. Offshore oil and gas suffered a global surplus, and the company was cold-stacking the entire fleet. I was left wishing vitality for the domestic drilling industry, an untenable ethical position, and there was nothing more to do about it. I was given an extra three weeks on my final rotation, and after two months offshore, I got dropped back in New Orleans, homeless and unsure what next.
I had lived on boats and spent my breaks traveling the world, and without that structure in place, I had no place to go. So I dragged EC to Mexico with me. I’d hurt her once before, and promised something bigger and better to lure her back despite that I had less than ever to offer. It was in Merida we first began to argue. I assured her we should bide our time south of the border, that work would return soon, though I knew it never would. She promised that if we made our way back to Louisiana, she could start dancing again, and then she would take care of me while I sorted things out. I could write poetry all day and she’d give me everything I needed, and that all sounded like a lovely dream, and maybe my luck was turning. But we devolved in cheap hotel rooms until we were crying ourselves to sleep every night and fucking each morning just to prove love still existed, and when it was time to catch our flight to Louisiana, I left EC at the airport alone.
Upon my return to California, I was given news that dementia had gotten the best of my grandmother, and she couldn’t live in her home any longer. We had a good relationship, and I’d harbored visions of being able to help her around the house. It was a step in the right direction, I told myself, a way to be of use – I could stay there while I sorted my life out, and I could do something good in the meantime. When I heard the news, I blamed myself for not staying nearer to home. I’d missed an opportunity to enrich my grandmother’s life. But I also missed a bed in a house I’d once been welcomed in. I’d always returned there to lick my wounds, and that home had been taken from me.
It had all happened once before – the deterioration – but I never expected to face it again.
I remembered hearing from the old men who taught me over cups of watery coffee. They’d helped me kick heroin and leave the bottle behind, and the only thing I needed to do was be kind and generous with my time. The only way I could maintain my health was to be unselfish. Tom had laid it out for me. He told me stories of slamming blow and having grand mal seizures in bathroom stalls. He’d suffered a traumatic brain injury, and his speech was slurred as he explained that the only way I could preserve any quality of life was via selflessness. “I know you want to be an asshole, and that everything in your nature will lead you to be an asshole. What you have to do is pause any time you’re about to react to something. You have to ask yourself, Am I about to be an asshole? Something greater than yourself will let you know the answer, and then you’ll have been given a choice. We’re all allowed to be assholes, but you’re lucky enough to have a choice – Do I want to be an asshole?”
Tom didn’t believe in God, but he’d been right. When I took a moment to ask what was best in any given situation, the answer came to me, and I understood. The singular dilemma: the right thing has often been at odds with my own desires.
I was on the rise at the time. I’d moved into an apartment, and was working two restaurant gigs. I lost weight. I reenrolled in school, and graduated. I paid off debt, and saved money. Volunteered with teenagers, and at the Salvation Army. When I was distracted from my own problems, I found something better than hurting myself. And in that way I thrived. And when it was time to keep moving up, I finished my certifications, earned my Merchant Mariner’s Credential, and took a job on a vessel doing seismic exploration in the oceans of the world.
It was Dan who tattooed the wings on my back, and Rich who tattooed the nails on my ankles. I could fly and I’d be grounded. I could occupy all realms. As I walked through life, as I made my way around the world, I would collect the soil from the earth and the shards of pavement that I traversed. The nails pointed downwards, so that every step would leave a trace. I was reminded that I could never escape my past, but was able to advantage of it and make an example of myself – in the best of all situations, showing those around me that change was possible. When I returned to land and found my way back to California, Rich tattooed my feet with a chicken and a pig, old naval talismans for a safe return home. In that way, I hoped to be protecting myself, ensuring my luck could not run out.
It was during my second month in Indochina that I decided to visit the Arjahn. His studio was in a ramshackle Buddhist monastery two kilometers from the southernmost skytrain stop. I made the journey in shorts and sandals, wearing one of the t-shirts that Keaw had accepted in place of a lottery payment owed her, and then had given to me as a gift.
Keaw told me in the most limited English that I looked like a silly child with color on my body. But when I told her one of the sak-yant masters would be tattooing me, she pondered whether my luck might be transferable, and demanded I chose her numbers for her the day. I told her 23, and she leafed through the tickets she sold, pulling free all those ending with those digits. She’d take me to dinner on the winnings, and also pay her health insurance for half the year.
From the skytrain station, I hired a moto driver to take me to the studio. I climbed onto the back of his scooter. We crossed a block through an alleyway, and weaved through all six lanes of a gridlocked thoroughfare. The street was lined with auto body shops, warehouses, and hourly hotels. A few brick tenements towered above the rest of the buildings, but unlike metropolitan Bangkok, there was undeveloped space between each structure; empty lots and mud piles were overgrown with thick-leaved shrubs. Vines climbed through the debris of a tire yard. We turned off of the main street onto a dirt drive. We passed a small elementary school, made a U-turn, passed a ten-story brick apartment building, and then we’d arrived at the temple.
A woman walked out into the dirt road, circled by neighborhood dogs, and asked if I was there to see the Arjahn. I told her that was the case and that I also had a donation for the temple. I pulled a stack of t-shirts from my bag – ten or so that Keaw had given me. The woman accepted them with a smile and led me to the shrine, which was outdoors and just around the corner on the same dirt road.
I walked through the dust to the shrine, which featured one large seated Buddha carved from wood and painted gold. He was flanked by hundreds of smaller variants, each sitting in a different posture, rendered by a different craftsperson, and worshippers were thereby given a choice of Buddhas who might address their prayers. The dogs followed me to the shrine, nipping at my ankles and the hem of my shorts. I made a merit, took the incense, candle, and gold leaf, and then knelt and asked for the grace of whatever voices listened when I prayed wisdom, peace, and contentment be granted to all my loved ones, all those I knew, all of humanity, and all of animalkind.
The Arjahn’s studio was a small structure on the temple grounds. The ground-level floor was open-walled, so that I could look in and see four young women lounging on rugs while music played. They were eating and talking to one another, and when I approached, one stood and indicated she could help me with what I needed. I told her I wanted a tattoo, and pulled out a translation of my request. It explained the significance of my other tattoos – the wings and the nails, the pig and the chicken. I said that the pig and the chicken were talismans to get me home safely, because those two species always ran from water. They were fighting animals, vicious when they set their mind to it. And yet they were sacrificial animals as well, and in that way they were an offering to the spirits that might be compelled to assist me. The yantric masters were known to imbue their images with magic, and I hoped for some. The young woman said that the Arjahn would see me first that day.
I shaved my leg at a spigot in the high weeds behind the studio while waiting for the Arjahn to arrive. The dogs sniffed around, and my sandals sunk into the mud. When I was called into the studio, the Arjahn was waiting for me up a small flight of stairs. He was a thin man, who’d been a Muay Thai champion in his teens. Dreadlocks hung down his back to the floor where he sat cross-legged. He was tattooed head to toe in the yantric style, which meant that none of the artwork on his body had been machined.
The Arjahn sat me down in front of his own shrine, which differed from the one outside in that the centerpiece was a sculpture of a wandering monk, emaciated and wizened. A wig of dreadlocks ran from the statue to each of the other sculptures and images in the room, so that they dangled from hooks and webbed the ceiling. There were images of monsters and animals displayed along the tiers of the Arjahn’s shrine, snakes and dragons and demons, Rama and Negi, Hanuman and Ravana.
After reading my request, the Arjahn asked me if I was a sailor. I told him that I was and that I had been around the world. He asked if I was a Navy man, and I said I was not. I tried to explain that I had heard of him, and had returned to Bangkok to see him, but he couldn’t follow. He said he would give me tiger. He would give me what I wanted.
I reclined on the carpet in front of his shrine, and the Arjahn recited a blessing over me. He prepared his needle and his ink, and then one of his assistants approached and bowed to me. By that time, several other folks had arrived, working-class Thai folks, Buddhists who waited for color of their own and prayed at the shrine while the men looked over my body. When I lay down, the apprentice leaned over me, placed a hand on either side of my thigh, and stretched the skin tightly over the muscle. Then the Arjahn took the recessed needle, and using the palm of his hand to tap it into my flesh over and over, he tattooed me.
It took three hours. The Arjahn bordered the tattoo with a Burmese script that I vowed never to translate. The tiger, ringed in this mystery, was meant to protect me. The folks waiting behind me agreed about the quality and beauty of the Arjahn’s work. I handed out packs of filterless American cigarettes, left a pack at the altar of the shrine, vowed never to smoke them again, and fulfilled that vow.
When leaving the Arjahn’s studio, I asked his young receptionist what was required to ensure that the tiger continued to protect me forever. “You must be good. Don’t talk bad about people. Don’t hurt them. Be a good man.”
I stood on the skytrain, and a milky, black-red liquid dripped down my calf and stained my sock. I looked at the other passengers on the train with me, who stared back in alarm, and I felt I was already failing my fellow humans.
And when, however many years later, I walked the streets of San Francisco, watching the cash in my wallet dwindle, I considered all the mistakes I’d made. I had let myself down and disappointed those around me. The next homeless man I passed, I handed ten dollars – a down payment on the tiger’s graces. Soon I’d have my debts resolved. I was alone, and I didn’t know what else there was for me, but if I got back into the green, I could find my way.
Ben Leib used to drink and use hard drugs. He used to be a graduate student, and he also used to be a merchant marine. He is now a high school teacher – the wisdom of his life’s trajectory has yet to be determined. He fears the future of the world. You can check out his publication history at benleib.com.
Photography by Kathy Rudin.