My wife Beth and I moved from the quiet suburbs to an old, remodeled warehouse loft in downtown's East Village five years ago.
We loved the sunsets from our fire escape, the fireworks over the bay and ballpark, and that it was not the Gaslamp, not quite gentrified, not completely safe, but still real and ecelectic.
Beth embraced everything about East Village life, even the sirens, the weekly traffic accidents, the three competing rock bands that practiced next door, the construction, the parking problems, the crowds from Petco Park, the lost tourists driving the wrong way down our one-way street, the drunk bar-hoppers wandering back from the Gaslamp, the runaways sleeping outside our building. The homeless folks made me nervous, but Beth learned their names.
The only neighbors who bothered her were the guys who ran the tattoo parlor across the street. Day and night there was a gang of them camped out inside the shop or in a row of chairs on the sidewalk out front. They blared "#!@X! your mother" music at two in the morning, got into car-stopping fights in the middle of the street, harassed any woman and intimidated any man who passed by. They were the reason Beth didn't walk on that side of the street.
For two years, she glared out our third-floor window, sending hate-filled vibes toward the row of guys sitting in front of the shop. I'd disrupt her trance by asking, "Honey, what are you thinking about?"
Without turning away from the window, she'd answer methodically, "I was fantasizing about shooting out the tires of their big, black trucks with a BB gun."
I resisted saying, "Beth, it's been over two years. Get over it."
She was stubborn.
Then one day at work I was interrupted by a phone call from Beth.
"Joe, I decided I'm going to get a tattoo. You okay with that?" I laughed, not quite knowing if she was serious or not. She had never wanted a tattoo. In fact, she took some pride in being one of the few people in our circle of friends with no body art. Though surprised, I distractedly said, "Okay," and went back to work. Less than an hour later she called me back and announced, "I did it."
I hurried home to our loft, and found Beth beaming as she showed me her left wrist, revealing the delicately scripted words, "Love Thy Neighbor."
She explained how she'd walked to the ATM and withdrawn some cash, then marched across the street, taken a deep breath, and stepped through the doorway and into the parlor. The walls were covered with tattoo art, skulls, bloody knives, naked women, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Chuy was working on somebody's backside. "Excuse me, I'm your neighbor from across the street; may I watch you?" He looked up at Beth and gave a half nod.
As she sat there in her pink T-shirt and ponytail, Beth noticed she was the only one in the room without piercings, tattoos, and black clothing.
After watching Chuy a while, she decided to step out onto the sidewalk and have a seat in one of the chairs in front of the shop. She tried to relax and take it all in; she studied the world from their perspective. The guy next to her asked what she was getting done.
"Love Thy Neighbor," she muttered.
"Why?" he asked.
"Well, you guys are my neighbors, and I'm having trouble loving you. You kind of scare me," she sputtered. "You know, with the fights that break out over here and all..."
"Whoa! That is so cool!"he exclaimed. He hopped up and ushered her back into the shop and announced with complete sincerity, "Chuy, dude, we're scaring our neighbors! We gotta stop fighting."
Chuy was not quite so touched by the story. "Hey," he said defensively, "I'm just tryin' to run my place." Beth explained that her intention was not to change him; she just wanted to get this tattoo.
The tattoo artist next to Chuy said, "Love Thy Neighbor? Like with brass knuckles and shit?"
"No, that's not exactly what I had in mind," she responded.
He found a tattoo magazine and turned to a picture of "Love Thy Neighbor" tattooed on a man's inner forearm — with a bloody knife and bat in the background.
"That's not exactly it, either," said Beth.
Chuy, who Beth sensed had learned his penmanship behind bars, began to methodically prepare his tools. A few of the tattooed locals gave Beth the rundown on all the care and instructions for a first-timer, and Chuy began to do his art on her wrist. Then he stopped. "How do you spell 'Thy'?" he said shyly. "I didn't go to school."
The other tattoo artist piped in, "Dude, it's not because you didn't go to school, it's because you don't read the Bible! It's all over that book."
After that day, Beth could often be found out on our fire escape waving down to the tattoo guys, whom she now called her new friends. The music that came streaming across the street from the tattoo parlor was not so grating. Fewer fights broke out. The sidewalk felt safe. Or maybe we just imagined that all this was different. I was a little skeptical of it all, and whether her "new friends" remembered her, or if she was even on their radar.
Then about four months later, Beth took our car in for an oil change at the tire shop on 11th Street. As she entered the office she noticed Chuy talking to the repairman behind the counter.
"Excuse me, Chuy? Hi, I'm Beth. I'm not sure if you remember me..."
Before she could finish, his face broke into a smile, and he stepped forward and gave her a warm hug. "Hey," he said to his friend behind the counter, "This is my neighbor, the one I was telling you about."