A subllmely funny, intellectually provocative journey through the tattoos on Peter Trachtenberg's body, each of which represents a theme or episode in his life. Lust. Faith. Penance. A funerary rite in Borneo, complete with demonic possession. A dope-sick interlude in a junkies' church. A sacreligious dinner order on the eve of the author's bar mitzvah. Daring, intelligent, unabashedly moving, 7 Tattoos combines memoir, wild anthropology, and cultural criticism to explore the furthest regions of self-destructiveness and survival, dereliction and grace. A stunningly original book.
Peter gives an overview of the book:
For a long time I used heroin religiously. I don’t just mean regularly. I used to believe that the heroin high was the closest a living person could ever get to heaven; it provided that same gliding, disembodied bliss, that same magnanimous indifference to the degrading needs for chili dogs and bowel movements. Every time I got off, I felt a ping of subconscious recognition, a fit between that chastely voluptuous junk high and my buried memories of hymns, sermons and Sunday school lessons.
One night during this period, I was on the Lower East Side, dope-sick and trying to cop. It was late fall—tuberculosis weather. No one was holding anywhere, and I was finally reduced to giving $30 to some lowlife I barely knew who said he could get me something. I didn’t believe him, but I sat down to wait on a bench in the Pitt Street Park. It was a pathetic excuse for a bench. The slats were splintered, the backrest a memory. I looked down and there, where grass should have been growing, I saw broken syringes and torn glassine envelopes. The reason I happened to be looking down is that I'd begun to double over with withdrawal cramps. And right on schedule, I started vomiting in an acrid stream between my feet.
Oddly enough, none of this bothered me. Suddenly I was serenely aware that I was exactly where I belonged. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I wasn’t pretending to be anybody or trying to convince anyone that I had anything to offer: no skills, no money, no power, no sex, no wit, no love—none of the currencies I'd used to pay for my leasehold on Earth. At that moment I realized that my entire life had been the life of a guppy—churning its tiny fins to stay afloat, darting ceaselessly to stay out of the jaws of sharks. And what a relief, what an incredible relief it was, finally, to sink to the bottom.
Somehow, when I knew that my bogus connection wouldn’t be coming back, I managed to get up from the bench and wander deep into the projects along the river. And soon I came across a long line of my fellow junkies filing into a ruined warehouse. I figured I'd hit the jackpot, so I walked to the end of the line and I asked the guy ahead of me, "What've they got?"
"It’s God, man."
"You don’t say. Is it decent?" I figured he was talking about a brand name, like "Suicide" or "Poison." "God"—it was the work of a marketing genius.
But inside the warehouse, instead of great dope, there were rows of pews, and every pew was filled with junkies. There were sniffling twelve-year-old boys and stooped veterans with hands like waterlogged sponges. Fashion models with the faces of drowsy angels who’d been chauffeured down in limousines from the East 60s. There were emaciated, crook-backed junkies who'd crawled from beneath packing crates in Tompkins Square Park, whose bodies were gruesome exempla of their disease—every vein collapsed, every limb cratered, eyes jaundiced, teeth rotten, dicks gone limp as the peeled shrimp in a fish-monger’s window: the kind of junkies you always look at and think, At least I'm not that bad. And they were all praying. They prayed to statues lined up at the front of the room, amid a sea of burning candles: Saint Sebastian—those arrows were a dead giveaway; next to him, Dymphna, the patroness of nervous disorders and sexual madness. There was Dominic Savio, guardian of choir boys and juvenile delinquents. Also, naturally, Saint Jude, the last hope of lost causes.
People prayed out loud, one at a time, while the rest of the congregation called out a response:
"Oh Lord, hear my prayer. May the man be carrying good dope tonight and not dummy."
"May his junk be white as sugar and strong as lye."
"May his coke make me speak with the tongues of parrots."
"Protect me from AIDS, Lord."
"Tonight let me find a good vein, Lord."
"And let me hit it the first time."
I have to say that I don't know if any of this really happened. I might have been hallucinating, though hallucinations aren’t a common symptom of heroin withdrawal. I wish I could say that I prayed in that warehouse to get straight and was cured from that night forward. It would make a great story. But I wasn't big on praying then.
Peter Trachtenberg is the author of the memoir 7 Tattoos and The Book of Calamities, a hybrid of journalism, moral philosophy, and personal essay on the theme of suffering and its narratives. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Bomb,...
The artistry and humor of his wriitng, the pain of his mercilessly self-punishing insights, the relentlessness of ihs guilty misanthropy and the stream of sadness that bears them along all give Trachtenberg...