Baxter's Blog


Posted in History, Human Interest by misterroadtripper on September 9, 2010


By Bob Baxter/Photographs by Maury Englander

We had recently published a Maury Englander photo essay on tattooed New York City Fireman. Englander even got to ride a hook-and-ladder to a real fire, and his photos showed teams of brave men who were proud of their tattoos and proud of what they did for a living. Sometimes it was tedious work (answering false alarms, rescuing stray cats from tree tops), but, when it was exciting, it was often death defying and life saving. The photos gave the readers an inside look at some of these dedicated heroes. Here are our recollections of the events of September 2001, starting with a weekend tattoo event in Long Island. It was like two parallel universes: one was normal, full of energy and celebration; the other was a hideous nightmare. Click the images to enlarge.

From the Fireman Tattoo Project, Pre-9/11. Everyone had smiles on their faces.

Saturday, September 8th, 2001

I flew from sunny Southern California to visit a The Second Annual Hot Rod Tattoo Convention in Plainview, New York, a town without an airport. But, since it was produced by Steve Bonge and Butch Garcia, I had to check it out. Bonge and Butch, you will remember, are the promoters of the New York City Tattoo Convention held regularly in downtown Manhattan (which is serviced by two airports). Since I consistently have a terrific time at the yearly celebration at Roseland, I wanted to see if our two entrepreneurs had the magic touch in Long Island. The flight from LAX was uneventful, as was the shuttle ride to the Rodeway Inn in Plainview.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon, and, as is my usual custom, I made a quick walk-through to check out who’s there. Although Hot Rod Tattoo is a local show and a great number of the booths were Long Islanders that I wasn’t familiar with, I immediately spotted Baba from Vintage Tattoo in Highland Park, California, the Kern boys from No Hope No Fear in Milwaukee, Clayton and Elsa Patterson, Matty Jankowski from Sacred Tattoo in Manhattan, Mike Wilson and Andrea from Inksmith & Rogers, Joe Capobianco, Civ from Lotus Tattoo, Billy Eason from Tattoo Planet, Eric Merrel, the Moskowitz brothers, Stanley and Walter, and, of course, out by the hotrods, Brian Everett from Route 66 Tattoo in Albuquerque (wearing his Beatniks Car Club T-shirt) and Jack Rudy from Goodtime Charlie’s in Anaheim. After a $5 hot dog and a $2 can of soda, I ran into Don and Flo Makofske, the husband and wife team responsible for the successful NTA convention in Reno, Nevada, the previous April. They thanked me for the “expose” on the NTA in the November issue and were very good-natured about the article stating, erroneously, that Crazy Eddie Funk was Flo’s ex-husband. “Ex-brother,” she laughed. “He’s my ex brother!”

One of the highlights was the outdoor car show featuring a wild array of ’50s-style hotrods and bus stop cruisers. I must say the response from car owners was tremendous, as these kind of auto-related events at tattoos shows are usually a bust. Not in Plainview. The entire parking lot was full to overflowing with chopped, channeled and shaved Mercs, Chevys and classic Fords. I was especially drawn to the ’56 baby blue Chevrolet Bel Aire, just like the one I had in high school. It even had twice pipes, just like mine.

At the end of the day’s events, about midnight, I realized it was dinnertime in California. After checking the motel to see if they had a restaurant (they didn’t), the best advice I could get was to walk down the pitchblack sidewalk past the crickets and croaking frogs, through the vacant industrial area and across the three major intersections to the local diner. I felt relatively safe, but it certainly would have been nice to have somewhere to eat less than two miles away. Especially at midnight. I guess Bonge understood the problem because, when he saw me coming through the door the next morning, he carefully wrapped the second half of his pastrami sandwich and offered it to me for breakfast. “It ain’t Katz’s,” he said. “But it’ll do.” I gratefully accepted.

All that is behind me now. Even the cab ride to the Hicksville train depot, the clickity-clack to Penn Station and the cab ride to Houston Street are just flickering memories. In light of what happened two days later in the World Trade Center, I’m glad I went. I’m always happy to support good events and hang out with people who obviously have their priorities in the right place when it comes to putting on quality shows at great locations. I hoped that everything returned to normal quickly and that the Butch and Bonge’s of the world continued to produce equally energetic events for those who love both tattoos and the red, white and blue.

Monday, September 10th, 2001

After a couple of days in Plainview, I decided to stay an extra day in New York City to support my sister Cy’s fundraising auction for Friends in Deed, the ten-year-old support organization that she founded with Mike Nichols in 1991. Held on a drizzly night at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center on Monday night the 10th of September, the much-anticipated event buzzed with excitement as New York’s A List crowded the palace-like lobby of the venerable auction house to raise money for the organization that provides help to those with life-threatening illness. Just a short taxi ride away on West Houston Street, I stuffed my point-and-shoot in my pocket, slithered into my snow white short-sleeved, hand-stitched, cocoanut-buttoned silk number with the 3-D hula girl on the back (her skirt wiggles when you walk) and found my way meandering the hallowed halls, climbing the marble stairs and entering the huge, second-floor presentation area where some of the most wonderful photographs and celebrity memorabilia imaginable graced every inch of wall space and topped every alabaster pedestal.

A vibrantly-colored, flocked, long-sleeved, button-down shirt, size XL, owned by Mick Jagger (with signed letter of authentication by the man himself) was valued at $3,000. A barely worn pair of Gregory Hines taps shoes were on the block for $800. A Lauren Bacall custom voice mail message from the legend herself, ballroom dance lessons with Broadway star Sandy Duncan, a bit part on Saturday Night Live, Harrison Ford’s bullwhip from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a walk-on part in HBO’s Sex and the City and lunch with the show’s star and producer Sarah Jessica Parker—all listed as priceless—were just a smattering of prizes awaiting the highest bidder.

Armed with my paddle (a large card imprinted with my bidding number, 556), I strolled among the celebrities, and thanks to my sister, was introduced to my longtime hero, photographer Richard Avedon, performer extraordinaire Joel Grey and, of course, Mike Nichols, Chairman of Friends in Deed and an old family friend.

It was great fun pretending I had a lot of money and fantasizing bids on Joan Jett’s autographed Gibson guitar ($2,000), Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo of Isabella Rossellini ($8,000), a 1968 cobalt blue XKE Jaguar coupe ($30,000), Annie Leibovitz’s Cibachrome photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken just hours before John was killed ($18,000) and, of course, the jewel of the crown, Richard Avedon’s unbelievably poignant gelatin silver print of Marilyn Monroe at 31 in New York City ($24,000). A stunner.

The highlight of the evening was the auction itself, with Broadway’s Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick sharing the gavel with the Christie’ staff. But, besides almost “purchasing” the Harrison Ford bullwhip by accident at $8,500 (I inadvertently waved at my sister, who was sitting in the front row), my main focus was on the silent auction where two of my friends, Don Ed Hardy and Spider Webb, had donated works of art for the event. Spider made a piece described in the catalogue as “A set of shading brushes, line brushes and tattoo guns, with elaborate feathers and each with a small ruby slipper ornament, housed in a black velvet-lined box with red-velvet jacket with beige lace and feather cover all handmade by famed tattoo artist Spider Webb.” Included with this amazing artwork was a tattoo session by the artist himself. Ed Hardy, on the other hand, donated a 22- x 30-inch signed shark lithograph and a copy of his book, Tattooing the Invisible Man: Bodies of Work. That is what I had my eye on.

18th Squad Firehouse, West Tenth Street, Greenwich Village. All hands responded to the call that morning. None returned. Neighbors created this memorial in front of the building to the six men who died that day.

St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village was one of the “Designated Trauma Centers.” Hundreds of volunteer medical staff showed up and waited for survivors. None came. Friends and families came there looking for missing loved ones. They returned and put up flyers hoping a name or a face would be recognized and that person would somehow be found. Over two thousand people had vanished that day and no trace was ever recovered. The flyers covered the entire block.

I was really happy to be there. I was even happier that Don Ed Hardy and Spider Webb represented their fellow artists at the truly magnificent event. It made me proud to see these two geniuses, so different in their approach and contribution to the history of our art, make clear, once again, their undeniable status as true legends in the world of tattoo.

The next morning, none of this mattered.

The Aftermath

A couple of months after Twin Towers, I found myself preparing to for my second visit to Apia, Samoa, at the invitation of Petelo Sulu’ape, brother of the late Paulo Sulu’ape. Even though I had my ticket, because of events in New York on September 11, I considered staying home. My head was crammed with images—exploding planes, cataclysmic fireballs. It made me think.

The 343 Brigade. Three hundred and forty-three New York City firefighters died on 9/11. At the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade after that day, three hundred and forty-three NYC firefighters marched up Fifth Avenue, each carrying an American flag. Many carried photos of their brothers. Three hundred and forty-three is simply a number, until you see three-hundred-and-forty-three people. They take up an entire City block. The sight is heartbreaking. The 343 Brigade has become a proud tradition of that parade.

Let’s see: Samoa is situated in the virtual heart of the South Pacific, eight hours below Hawaii, 2,890 kilometers northeast of New Zealand and about ten airborne hours southwest of Los Angeles. That’s a lot of time over water. But then again, it’s pretty unlikely that terrorists would bomb a plane bound for Upolu. The big worry was something happening internationally. That might shut down all the airports! I’d be stranded in Apia.

Police Officer, Sixth Precinct, Greenwich Village. P.O. Jim Leahy and Detective Danny Richards of the Sixth Precinct were among the NYC Officers killed that day. They were good guys. Later, many officers of the precinct got memorial tattoos. This was one.

Memorial Button, given to me by Jim’s family. I wore it on my dress uniform, at the memorial.

Even though I had pretty much talked myself into it, as flight day approached, I hoped for an honorable way out. Some debilitating illness would be nice—nothing too dire, mind you—so I could to stay home and tend the roses. I had been in New York on the 11th. I was covering a tattoo event in Long Island that weekend. I had lunch on the tenth in Chinatown (in the shadow of the Trade Center towers, I must say). After waking up shortly after nine on the morning of the 11th and

seeing the horrific cloud of smoke rolling toward my hotel on Houston and O’Sullivan, I experienced, first hand, over 3,000 good reasons why not to board a jetliner. It was horrible. The fact is, my plane back to Los Angeles was scheduled to leave JFK a scant eight hours after the hearts and minds of America were turned to rubble by that maniac from the Taliban. It took nearly five days and seven cancelled flights to ultimately get a ride home, and even at that, as we were sitting on the runway late Saturday morning, two FBI agents and a huge, thick-necked NYPD sergeant with guns and handcuffs rattling, marched up the aisle and escorted two questionable gentlemen out of the plane and back to the terminal. I’m not sure why these fellows were ushered out, other than an obvious case of profiling—one looked like a Middle Eastern matinee idol and the other was the typical Hollywood cinema terrorist with the black muscle-T and shaved head you see in all the James Bond thrillers. Too obvious, if you ask me. They were almost caricatures of bad guys, and any self-respecting casting agent would be drummed out of Hollywood for choosing them. But, evidently, the FBI wasn’t going to debate the issue, and whisked them out the door.

Brooklyn, New York. This memorial is painted on a wall in a park in a working class neighborhood of Brooklyn. It lists the names of police officers and firefighters who died on 9/11. I don’t know anything more about it, but it has always struck me as one of the finest and most meaningful monuments to these fallen heroes.

It’s not terribly comforting to peek out the window and see fifteen squad cars encircling the aircraft, not to mention a stewardess crying hysterically in the arms of two of her comrades in the galley. These are the images that stuck with me as the flight drew near.

Respectfully following orders from the travel agent to arrive at the airport at least three hours early, I was quickly processed by the ticket counter, got through the X-ray machine without a peep and found myself inside the terminal, looking for gate 21. It was a short stroll, but my heart was pounding as armed National Guard soldiers patrolled the corridors with automatic weapons. And just as I spotted the gate, there were Bernard and Travelin’ Mick. I took a deep breath. Friends. After hugs all around and twenty minutes or so of catching up, any thoughts of turning back were quickly erased. While we waited, I took out my six-string and picked a tune.

Life goes on.

Maury Englander/Photography

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