Tattoo

An airport waiting area, Long Beach, California, densely crowded with people waiting for planes, many of which were running late despite perfectly clear, although hot and oddly humid, weather. Packed so tightly together, some people, such like myself, retreat into their own private reserve as folks often do when traveling, but others seem more convivial. Three people in this latter category: A middle-aged Mexican American man with a prodigious mustache (who looked more than a bit like Benicio del Toro’s depiction of Oscar Zeta Acosta), a fairly young African American guy, forced by convoluted circumstance to fly standby, with a paisley Yankees baseball cap and an easy, cheerful laugh, and, at the center of things, a young white woman, who had a hint of an Oklahoma or Texas accent mixed with her SoCal slang, sporting something like a Pat Benatar haircut. They have all three obviously been sitting here for a while; there is a shared a conspiratorial rapore between them by now. I am fiddling with my iPod all this while, having just sat down in their midst, when I notice the girl showing off to the older man a tattoo on her wrist — a fairly small calligraphic character: “It means ‘beautiful girl’ in Chinese,” she explains.

Sitting nearby, I silently hope she is right (I am not sure I would take the word of a tattoo artist on something like that). Then I realize just how remarkably unremarkable that little decoration of hers really seems now.

In 1982, when the movie Blade Runner came out, one of the uncanny aspects of it was the vivid depiction of a future dystopian Los Angeles where a mongrel populace scurried along crowded, rainy streets, speaking a babel of Japanese and Portuguese “streetspeak”. The brilliance of that imagery in the movie lies in the sense of a seemingly familiar American landscape turned profoundly alien (unceasing rain falling over sunny LA being a crucial part of that uneasy juxtaposition). The film’s protagonist, Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, oozes a palpable aloofness and disconnection that reinforces his noir persona and, at the same time, binds us to him in a shared, visceral sense of alienation from this miscegenated ground-level culture. And this racial and cultural foreignness must be attributed to the vision of Ridley Scott, himself a recent émigré in Los Angeles at the time, because it isn’t really in Philip K. Dick’s original novel. Indeed, the overarching theme of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is empathy (evoked through the discipline of “Mercerism”), and Scott’s cinematic representation of 2019 Southern California (the original 1968 novel was set in the SF Bay Area in 2021) substitutes for a religion of empathy a powerful mise en scène of alterity and alienation.

Yet, in the movie, it is Edward James Olmos’s character, Gaff, the really fluent, and racially ambiguous local, who fits right in to this bizarre (or bazar) heterogeneous mixture of Asian and Latin American cultural elements. Olmos’s part is small, but his performance is memorable — he seems at home in this crowd. And this is the striking thing about the setting of that film more generally: the recognition that, amidst all the rain and chaos, there are many people who not only feel comfortable in this odd world, but that they take it for natural. This alien Los Angeles is, to them, home.

I suppose that little overheard conversation in Long Beach, circa 2006, is merely a mark of larger cultural changes in greater Los Angeles and elsewhere, unfolding in the quarter century since that film’s release, where we all take for granted the hybridity of globalized culture, assimilating it into our own sense of the familiar. In a sense, then, we are those strange, scurrying figures in the crowds animating Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.

The uncanny and alien, it seems, indeed has come to us like in Science Fiction, but the catch is that it does not come as an outsider, but from within. The alien in the form of the myriad manifestations of our own personal choices, our own slightly exotic styles or fashions, as pleasant tidbits of unthreatening Orientalism, and as the ordinary, unremarkable accessorizing of everyday life.

P.S. A bit later, on the A320, I spotted these three again. The young black man had gotten on the plane after all — “I was the first one they called.” I congratulate him for having made the cut and observe, as he turns away to take his seat, that his blue windbreaker sports a Japanese character as part of some unidentifiable brand logo on the back.

One Response to “Tattoo”

  1. Greg Says:

    Does this Sci-Fi-ization of real life mean the end of Sci-Fi? Bruce Sterling seems to think so. He says in a recent conversation with Tom Maddox that if he was 20 today, he probably would have started a blog rather than ever writing a novel.

    Here’s the link:

    http://blog.opinity.com/2006/06/podcasting_with_1.html

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