I could have just bought postcards. Doing so would have saved me money, time, and a small amount of pain in small doses. I could have collected baseballs again like I did the last time I was in America, or I could have accumulated key rings, or seven-inch records from local record stores instead. Losing lottery tickets or fridge-magnets in the shape of states. Maybe I should have done some of those things as well as what I actually I ended up doing when it came to sorting out souvenirs. Instead of those things I got tattoos, one for each of the nine cities I visited when travelling up and across North America in May / June of this year. It felt like the right thing to do. Of course, buying postcards, keyrings or baseballs probably would have spared me the regular questioning of what those tattoos mean as well, each tattoo vague to those without the context. They don’t make a great deal of sense except to anybody but myself, and I like that about them. The tattoo’s I had done while travelling are better souvenirs than anything else I could’ve picked up, and none moreso than the one on my forearm.
‘-SURELY THIS IS.’ Bold and black and just above my wrist, a curious phrase with a curious story to inspire it. It’s cryptic, and it tends to be the tattoo which people ask about the most frequently. Maybe by writing this I can just refer them here in future – like buying postcards, it’d save me the time. I had it done Philadelphia, two weeks into my travels, where I was staying in an airbnb in the Fishtown area about five minutes away from the Delaware River. I checked in, dumped by stuff, and then walked down to said river, perching in a park by the pier, where families were hosting barbeques and college kids were out playing football (American Football that is). I was already thinking about the tattoo, after having work done in Washington and Atlanta. I spent a lot of time thinking about them prior to having them done, and they often revolved around music in some way. I was searching for a song to solidify something by the water, and I thought I had it worked out as I wondered into the city afterwards – accompanied by my most-played mewithoutYou record. I was in Philadelphia after all, home to the band, amongst others such as Hop Along, Modern Baseball and Little Big League. I could’ve opted for something Philly-centric, like the liberty bell, or a cheese-steak (not the best option for a veggie), or the LOVE symbol from that skate park from that one Tony Hawk game. I could have opted for a piece inspired by my favourite TV show, ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ maybe. Hell, I could have had Danny DeVito’s face tattooed onto my left ass cheek (my parents definitely wouldn’t have approved of that one). In the end though, I decided on none of these options, after spending a long night in the booked-up Airbnb accommodation I had booked.
I think the main disadvantage – as well as the main advantage – of travelling solo is that you spend a great deal of time going it alone. You see the sights alone, and spend long train journeys alone unless you happen to meet people on the way, or unless you happen to meet people in the places you stay in between. I met people in Philadelphia, and I had one of the most memorable nights of my life there, crammed into a tiny basement room in a house on East Girard Avenue – five-thousand miles from home. Travelling the way I was didn’t allow me a great deal of opportunity for socialising, so fixed was I on seeing the cities and taking it all in. There’d been strangers in bars who became friends for the night on hearing my accent, and there’d been the fellow travellers I’d been sat next to on long Greyhound rides between states, but nothing like the nights out I’d been accustomed to at university. I think that by the time I got to Philadelphia I wanted a night like that, so I bought a six-pack of beer and hoped that something might come of it. I think I got lucky that night, lucky in that people happened to be around, and lucky that they felt like being social also. By midnight I was drinking and chatting with a host of fellow travellers from around the globe – girls from Germany, a group of friends from Korea, and a quiet 20-something from Iran who’d been vegan since the day of his birth. There was ———, who’d come into town for a wedding from Portland, and there was ———-, who seemed content enough just to run the Rocky Steps before heading back north. There was ———, who couldn’t speak a word of English, and there was myself, sandwiched amongst their varied cultures like the happiest guy in the northern hemisphere. And I was happy, happy to be there, and happy to be with who I was with. I was happy that I’d made it that far, and grown so much in the process, and as I knocked back dollar-beer after dollar-beer I started to think that maybe another music-based tattoo wasn’t the way to go this time. Maybe it needed to be something situated around this moment, this moment of sweaty bliss in a packed Philadelphia basement. That moment of total calm and realization, where I was as content as I could hope to be in a new city with new people.
So three AM rolled around, and we turned our collective attention to the walls of the basement room, which were covered in writing of some kind, the kind of writing you expect to find scribbled along the walls of back alleys off of Main Street. Rambling, incoherent noise, lacking any meaning, and instead rejoicing in a substantially skewed vocabulary and penchant for obscure metaphors. Politically topically but not supporting any real form of politics, poetic without structure, eclectic and excruciatingly vague in purpose. I wish that I could remember half of what it said, or even select passages. I half-remember lines about vegetarian horses, about the communist party, about vanilla spinach, and about centrefold pictures. I remember little of it, so overwhelmed was I by how ridiculous it all seemed – the ramblings of a mad man. But at three AM, sense can found in even the most incomprehensible of writing, so we thought about it all, and three turned into four, and then into five, and I swilled the last sip of my Kenzinger and contemplated it. I know that the conversation took us to some strange places, theories flying about that basement room, and I know that I felt myself to be in a seminar or a lecture, reading the work of Dostoyevsky or Woolf, the words on the wall suddenly carrying layers and layers of meaning as my drunken mind tried to wrap itself around them. The whole passage, after paragraphs and paragraphs of block text, ended with two lines, standing apart from the rest of the words. Two lines: ‘-Surely this is.’ and ‘-I loved your centrefold.’ As my watch hit half-four those statements, the first in particular, suddenly seemed exquisitely profound, definitively final after an infinite amount of confusion. I latched onto those lines, mumbling them to myself as the room gradually emptied, and I thought them fitting.
We never worked out what it all meant, in the end, never settled on something tangible, nothing at all. The night had provided the most pointless of pointless conversations, in which I talked too much and listened too intently. We messaged the owners the next morning, trying to trace the origin of the writing, but they were reluctant to tell us anything, enjoying the mystery of it all. We never found out what it meant, which means then that I have words on my skin I still don’t understand. It doesn’t matter that I don’t though, because they matter to me now. I went out that afternoon after a quick Google search on the area and found a tattoo parlour with solid reviews around the corner from the accommodation I was staying in. I showed them the picture, had the tattoo done, and then caught the bus to New York the next morning, leaving Philadelphia and that basement room behind.
I didn’t really leave them behind though, not really. I wake up every morning and run my hands through bed-head hair in front of the bathroom mirror, and I see those words there reflected back at me. Almost immediately, I think of Philadelphia, and I think of my fellow travellers, and I think of the recycling bin full of beer bottles. I think of wedding guests from Portland and the guy who insisted on speaking in Portuguese all night even though nobody could understand a word of what he was saying. I think of myself, sat on a sofa bed, reading the walls and feeling immensely happy. I think of the stab of the needle in a Philadelphia tattoo parlour, and what it meant to have something to remember that night by whenever I needed to be taken back. I think of it more often now that I’m back in England, and I think of the other places I went to, and the tattoos I got there. I think that that’s why I have no regrets about the work I had done, and I can’t see myself ever regretting them. They’re reminders above all else, more than just souvenirs, and they always will be. Tattoos for travels. Postcards couldn’t do that for me – not really.