The Icings on the Cakes – A Trip to Little Vinnie’s Tattoo Parlor

Cupcake for blogThere was something I still needed to do… something else on the finish having cancer checklist… what was it…? Oh yeah, nipples. I had the strange fleshy little mismatched cones that I suppose could have passed for nipples as long as you didn’t need to use them, but they had no color. The nude nipples sat on vertical crescent shaped scars that where most definitely not even. Lefty had an off center smudge of left-over nipple skin. It was all kind of a mess. I almost wished I had just left them in their Frankentits stage – flat and scarred, righty pure and white with her off center slash looked like empty smiley face. I thought maybe the tattoos would clean them up. Put them in order. At the very least it would be nice to stop scaring myself in mirrors, when I was naked, – “what the?!”

I knew I should also do it for “closure” but “closure” would cost me an uninsured $600 a side, plus Dr. TG’s office charged a $350 “facility fee.” So I went ahead and ignored the nagging feeling until I got this email FW “A Tattoo That Completes A New Breast.” There are two very good reasons I almost didn’t open this email. One, – it’s really irritating to be on the list of – “Oh hey, look – an email about breast cancer – let’s not even worry about reading it and FW it to Catheryn.” My Mother especially lacked discriminatory powers: FW “The Carrots Breast Cancer Cure,” FW “Top Signs You Will Get Breast Cancer,” FW “Pregnant Mother Forgoes Chemo to Save Unborn Child.”   And the worst FW Some Quote in pastel font with dancing cartoon tulips and pink ribbons “Women are like teabags you never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.” Send to the 8 women you care most about…cuz one of them’s gonna get the breast cancers…

Number two, – apparently this was a vlog that had gone viral and oh the pressure. These memes about women who had organized happenings or flashmobs, come on – how many people sent me – FW – “Courageous Breast Cancer Patient Organizes OR Flashmob – Rocks Out To Beyonce’s Get Me Bodied.” Beyonce even sent her two tickets to a concert – oh my God, wasn’t it enough to worry about having cancer – now I had to worry about celebrity endorsements?

And free concert tickets? – I would have sung about a car. Whatever.

I opened it anyway and found out that Vinnie Myers – a tattoo artist who was so amazing they called him the Michelangelo of nipple tattoos (what was he going to hang me from the ceiling?)  His shop right there in Finksburg, Maryland. Now I had no idea where that was, but it was Maryland– it couldn’t be too incredibly far from my family, it’s not a very big state. And I’d be willing to bet, even if he was the greatest of all high classical renaissance artists – his shit would probably be cheaper than Beverly Hills.

Next time I go home I thought. I’ll take my Mom, she’d always layered in a thick hint about how bad she felt about “not being able to be there” for me. Maybe enough water had passed under the bridge and I’d grown enough that we could bond over the whole thing.   I decided to combine my summer visit home after the beach with a trip to the tattoo parlor. Mom was excited. She said, “Oh! we could go and get our nails done after!” She then launched into a story about a woman who needed nipples but had had a bilateral mastectomy so they didn’t know what color to make them so she took her sister and they matched hers. She loved that story, I can’t tell you how many times she’d told me that story.

When the summer came I called Little Vinnie’s and found out that Vinnie was booked through January but I could go to his protégé Trent. I thought – why not – in for a penny, in for a pound. That and the total bill would be $600.00!

I was at the beach with my cousin and sister in law the week before my appointment when my besties brought up a very good point.   “Are you sure you want to take your Mom?” Christina asked. It was late at night and we were a couple of bottles of Chardonnay in. The dishwasher was running and everyone else was tucked in bed. The time for honest advice.

“Well, you know – she’s always felt bad that she couldn’t help more, you know, come out to California I guess.”

“Okay.” My sister in law is smart enough to know I will start filling in my own blanks.

“I know she will probably say something awkward and make some really bad jokes and….” I trailed off. I thought about driving out to some strange tattoo parlor and having a man stick a needle into my ugly scarred fake breasts while I was trying to make my Mom feel more comfortable.

The dishwasher chug chug chugged.

“Do you want her to go?” Christina asked.

“No.” The tumblers in my head fell into a solid place.  I didn’t. Going alone would suck and I was tired of it, but I didn’t want he to go. I felt relief.

“One of us will go.” Christina offered.

I felt bad at the same time I realized I felt very lucky.

These women cared about me, they wanted what was best for me, this is what honesty and tough love felt like. How lucky was I?

I knew they were both busy with their jobs and kids, my sister in law with a breastfeeding newborn to go on a field trip to Finksburg. But I found myself saying “Yes, yes, that would be great.”

True to her word my sister in law made the trek out to Finksburg with me. There was a moment of panic when we were told that babies weren’t allowed in tattoo parlors. This made sense to me but my sister in law insisted on going anyway. “JP and I will hang out in the car.” I couldn’t say no. I mean I could, but I really didn’t want to.

Little Vinnie’s was located in a strip mall way north and west of Baltimore between a vet center and a Curves. The walls were bright yellow covered with drawings of snakes and flames and your prerequisite deer antlers and skulls. There was even a pool table in the center.

I was filling out paperwork a yellow leather bench when an older couple came in.   The wife was positively giddy. She had the same mischievous look on her face as the ladies I had seen on the web talking about how they went to a tattoo parlor for “little Vinnie’s.” like it was almost naughty. These mostly older women sporting mischeivious grins had come from as far away as Saudia Arabia, Spain and Brazil. I thought there was something quite lovely about it. These women who had survived breast cancer, got to break free of the sterile hospitals and Dr’s offices and go to a genuine pool table having antlers on the wall tattoo parlor.

A slight gentleman in a vest, bowtie with hipster porkpie hat and mutton chops emerged from the back room. I knew from the interwebs that this was the famous Vinnie. The couple introduced themselves, they had come from Seattle.   Soon everyone was laughing and talking loudly over each other like they were at a party.

My tattoo artist Trent had the same hipster uniform, vest, tie, collared shirt. No hat, a close shaven head. When I told him about my sister in law outside in the minivan with a baby he laughed and pointed to a picture of a pretty woman cover in tattoos with three little girls – “I’ve got three tell her to come on in.” I assured him that Molly was a physician’s assistant who had actually worked for a plastic surgeon who did breast reconstructions. He said not to worry, as long as the baby didn’t start crying.

Trent for blog

So there we were. My sister in law, Trent, the baby and my nude nipples in a little room in a tattoo parlor in Finksburg, Maryland. He squeezed out ink into a long row of tiny pots; turquoise, yellow, green, peach, baby blue, pink, red and a bunch of flesh tones. Molly and Trent laughed and told me that back in the day women had three choices – salmon, beige or pink. Trent pulled on black latex gloves and used a pink Sharpie to draw a pair first to check for placement. He had me stand up and he and Molly stood back, cocked their heads and narrowed their eyes.  JP looked uninterested. The right one needed to be a little bigger to cover more of the scars and skin – but they couldn’t be covered entirely, unless I wanted nipples the size of pancakes. Please, just make them look like nipples. I had heard the stories of women who had roses or angels, the woman in Oprah magazine who had decided to take all of the money from reconstruction and create a gorgeous winding floral artscape on her chest. The idea came from the man she was dating who she would later marry. And then there was the nurse at the hospital when I was waiting with my father during one of his cancer treatments, apparently the nurses knew I was ‘the breast cancer daughter.”   “My friend got shamrocks – here and here she said loudly with a finger on each nipple. “Loves ‘em!”

Trent fired up the needle which startled the baby. Molly went ahead and breast fed him. No one said anything but I’m sure the irony was not lost on any of us. It didn’t hurt, – I didn’t have nerves in my fake nipples. He took his time adding those little brown bumps – and shading. He and Molly chatted about how they used to just make the tattoes with a little metal circle template. I zoned out and inspected Trents work on the walls. He specialized in calligraphy. I noticed on the wall a drawing of a pair of angel wings with a halo – under it were the intials CB and a date of death. Well, that wasn’t creepy at all.

Blue ink for blogIt didn’t take long at all and before I knew it I had a matching set of gauze pads over some hot red nipples and a little pink bag with a sticker that said “Tattoo the Tatas.” They look fine. Not great, not epic – not high renaissance but I don’t startle myself in mirrors and I’ve checked the box.

If you were wondering how my mother reacted to being uninvited to my tata tattooing – don’t worry, she was fine. I called her the day after my late night kitchen conversation. I was riding home from the park on my sister in law’s blue beach cruiser bike with my ear buds in when I just launched right into it, “Mom, I think it’s best you don’t go with me for the tattoos.” In an effort to stay true to the original spirit of bonding I added, “you know, as much as I put on a brave face, some of this stuff isn’t easy for me.”

Mom said, “You’ve handled yourself really well through all this, I’ve always thought that I’m glad it was you and not me.“

For a split second the beach cruiser swerved towards the curb. I deftly steered back towards the road. I knew what she meant. I knew she thought it was a compliment, I knew I would follow the sandy asphalt back to the house where there was a kitchen with a dishwasher, chardonnay and love.


“You have an audition.  Check your Casting Networks Alerts for audition details.”

Woo hoo!  I love getting these texts.  I go right to my email to see what it’s for.  Could be anything!… A national network spot…?!  A Proctor and Gamble mom,  a funny shopper, a snarky office worker, a…

ROLE: CANCER SURVIVORCancer-Club-CommercialBlue


Hmmm.  A “REAL cancer survivor -Female, 25 – 45.”

I bet my agents were psyched when they saw this – “hey, we’ve got one of those!  Brockett!”

The casting notice read, “We need someone who has a warm, inviting presence on the screen. Someone who can tell the story in a way that hits on the emotional parts but can also deliver it in a way that won’t leave the viewer depressed.  A positive outlook.”

As much as I’d love to quote the rest of the notice, it’s not really Kosher, but I have to tell you it said the actress should have “hair of some length,” but if it wasn’t long enough, “the illustrator can always draw it in.”   Then it says “REAL CANCER SURVIVORS ONLY” in ALL CAPS, which makes me think 2 things; #1, have they been having problems with FAKE cancer survivors?  And #2, the cancer has to be real, but the hair can be fake?  I’d really rather it be the other way around…

I can’t tell you what the product is, because again, not really Kosher, but it is national network and cable, if you are not familiar with the industry that means cha-ching in the thousands and thousands of dollars.

A note at the end says that casting director would like pictures with friends and family during treatment emailed to them directly.

The whole thing kind of bothers me, and I’m not sure why.  I mean I am a commercial actress – I will sell anything (okay not cigarettes.  Well, maybe in Asia.  No – I’m kidding, not even in Asia.  Thailand maybe…)    Seriously – it’s my job.  And I am a REAL CANCER SURVIVOR, and I have good hair.  In high school they called me Blair Hair.  You know, from Facts of Life, I spent a lot of time in hot rollers, but that ‘s really not the point.  The point is – I need to go book this job.images-1

When I get to the audition I see another actress sitting outside the room, waiting to go in.  A beautiful black woman who is completely bald.  As a cue ball.  No hair.  None.  Egg, black egg.  Anyway, I think maybe the illustrator can draw it in…  I also think, maybe I have an edge!

“Weird, right?”  I say to her like I know her.   Like we’re in the same club.  Club cancer.  And I hate that because, well, I don’t know, for the same reason I freak out at the thought of walking in one of those walks wearing a pink ribbon rhinestone emblazoned hoodie.

I look at the scripts posted on the wall.  Happy fluid drawings of a woman banking.  (Ok – it’s for a bank.)  Shots of her smiling, running, shopping…using the ATM…  There is a note explaining that the audition will be interview style, and we should consider answers to some of the following questions;  “What kind of cancer did you have?”  “Can you share experiences with friends and family during your cancer treatment?”  “What has the experience of cancer taught you?”

I head to the bathroom, “what has cancer taught me?”

“What has cancer taught me….”  A peek under the stall doors shows one of the two free, I enter and a moment later the whole thing shakes the sister door is slammed shut.  Then another door slam.  I come out to find another beautiful black woman, standing at the sink fixing her make up.  She has gorgeous hair.

“Well I guess that didn’t go well for her,” she says and eyes the door.

I put it together – she wasn’t the slammer.  “Oh, I guess I missed it.”

“Are you here for?…” And I’m doing it again, the club…ugh.


And I want to ask her ‘what kind?’  But I really hate that question.  She volunteers, “uterine, but I’m worried it was too long ago.”

“Well, you have great hair.” I tell her.

“You too!” she says.

I say, ”I wouldn’t worry, as long as you have good stories.”

Good stories.  Positive stories, while smiling into camera, “You know, cancer really taught me to value life.”  “My friends and family mean so much more to me.”  “I really know what matters now.”  Positive outlook stuff you’d find on coffee mugs or posters with kittens at the ends of branches.   Like it’s assumed that somehow surviving cancer is a good thing.  Not being dead comes with an added bonus of the key to meaning of life and knowing who to bank with!

The casting director calls me into the room. Surprisingly he is a very young man, and sweet.  We share a little laugh a little at the absurdity of the casting.

He starts to tape,  “So, when did you find out you had cancer?”

I smile right into that camera and say, “funny thing, it was right before my 39th birthday.”  (It wasn’t funny.  Well, it was kind of funny in an absurd waking up on your birthday with a piece of your boob cut out and having people over for strawberry cake anyway type way.)  “But I guess the timing for these things is never good.”

“Did you have chemo or radiation,” he asks.

“Actually, no – (crap, maybe they’re going to think that’s not bad enough) so I offer, “I had a bi-lateral mastectomy,” (oh, that was probably too graphic… too much information?  Positive, the positive…)

“I love my doctors, I was really blessed.  My doctor, Dr. Kristi Funk is actually Angelina Jolie’s doctor (why would I say that?  Am I actually cancer name dropping?)  “She’s great, she always saw me as a well person, not as my disease. I don’t know how I would would have made it through without her positive attitude from the start.”  (That’s all really true, and she’s funny and beautiful and when she took it personally that they couldn’t save my right areola I felt like the luckiest one nippled girl in the world.)  Breathe.

“What about your friends and family?”  he asks.

I look above the camera to the right, like I’m retrieving a meaningful memory, “Well, you really find out who your friends are.  The people who you are close to become much closer going through an experience like that.”  (And some people suck.  Some people are like, “shit cancer!” like it’s somehow contagious, and you don’t hear from or see them until you track them down at their place of employment because you happen to need a bottle of wine and know he works Thursdays and say, “what the fuck – I thought we were friends!”  And then feel horribly guilty because you know that when people react ‘badly’ it’s probably because of their own fears – that as soon as you say ‘cancer’ it goes right into that deep core of fear in the center of us that says – that if it happened to you it could happen to them, and taking it personally is pointless and lonely.

Aloud I say, “Yeah, you learn to really value those people,” and deliver a wise meaningful look worthy of a turban chemo scarf  wearing City of Hope poster woman right into that lens.

And then there it is – “What have you learned from having cancer?”

“What have I learned from having cancer?”  And I know what I am supposed to say – but I hesitate….

Awkward silence, he prompts me again as if perhaps I missed the question, or maybe really never thought about it.

“What have you learned from having cancer?”

(That it’s horrible you fuck nut!  That there’s no real way you can put it in a a pre packaged/bumper sticker/coffee mug/window decal/positive sound bite bank selling kind of way.

That it sucks!  That you think why me?  Am I going to die?  Is it somehow my fault?  Am I supposed to make meaning out of all this myself or am I – as I deep and dreadedly fear, someone who is supposed to make meaning for someone else – like am I freakin’ Barbara Hershey in Beaches when I want to be Bette  Middler or Randy Pausch from the Last Lecture or Susan Komen.  No!  It’s a deep dark place that late at night you can think it would be easier to die then fight with the hard grip of something that is bigger and more terrifying than you are. That it’s even worse because it has come from within you – your body has created it and the whole thought of whether you will win or lose the battle has to do with whether you believe you will or not.

Is that positive enough for you buddy?  Pal?  Can I open a new checking account?

But out of my mouth comes,

“What I learned from cancer… Is that cancer didn’t teach me anything.  The meaning of life doesn’t come pre packaged with any experience good or bad, it’s  a choice, a choice you can make every minute of every day, like Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  I wouldn’t recommend cancer to anyone as a way of learning that lesson, I am sure there are much easier ways.

So that’s what I say.  Smiling, looking directly into camera.

And I booked it.

No, I’m kidding, that was soooo mean.  Honestly, I didn’t even get a callback!

I’m not sure why.  (Did they want a more difficult cancer?  Maybe an amusing chemo story or two?)

All I know was that it definitely wasn’t because of my hair.

But Ya’ Gotta Eat!

I have not had a diet coke since June 3, 2011.  I used to drink 3 or 4 a day.  What’s better than starting your day with a cold soda for breakfast, then one at lunch of course, and a sweet little treat waiting in the fridge at the end of  a long day?  I’d drink them with ice and lemon if I was feeling fancy, or just warm from the case I’d keep in the trunk of my car.

I knew it wasn’t great for me, but it was diet coke – not crack – whatever – George Burns smoked 10 – 15 cigars a day and he lived to be 100 years old.  My friend’s golden retrievers only ever drank water from her pool and they lived until they were 16 and 17, and that’s old for goldens.dietcokewithbacon_custom-1049e7370fb5f53e1a64499d969fa48626b6a324-s6-c30

If you asked me then I’m sure I couldn’t have thought of any way I could give up this guilty pleasure, how would I ever kick the soda habit…?

Then I got cancer and I thought – well, that would do it.

After the initial period of shock – a sunny May weekend which I ate my way through most of the Gus’s BBQ restaurant take out menu half of a Sweet Lady Jane’s Princess Cake, several plates of food at a gourmet picnic; including 3 kinds of meat, 2 types of pie, many cookies and wine, most of a cheese and chacuterie display at a wine tasting, a burger, fries and more wine, – things changed.

Because when Monday morning came – the world stopped spinning with a cold hard thud.  I thought – oh my God, I have cancer (breast, these boobs are new – I’ll be fine, but if you are anything like me then you will be wondering the whole time and I am trying to tell you a story.)  But at the time I didn’t know anything – what stage I was in – did it start somewhere else – was it creeoing around in my body?… So after that Bachanailian weekend of wine and denial I thought – I better make my body into a lean mean cancer fighting machine.

Right?  How does that happen?  I mean I’ve heard those stories about people who have cured their cancer through the power of juicing or garlic, or milk thistle or an all carrot diet, I thought it was all bunk  – but what if it wasn’t?  There are people that say eating anything with a face will give you cancer.  Like my landlord, who wrote a vegan cookbook – she was thrilled when she found out I had cancer – she said, “that means you are going to give up meat and dairy, right?” (but she’s not exactly a Ph.D., she stopped eating animals in the 60’s after she opened a refrigerator when she was tripping and all the meat spoke to her.)

What are the rules?  I stopped eating meat, dairy, wheat, sugar, anything processed and alcohol.  I was afraid to eat anything that wasn’t organic.  I emptied my cabinets and wondered what else was trying to kill me.  I threw out my Secret deodorant and stared suspiciously at my Crest toothpaste.  And my Britta filter, come on – you pour water through charcoal and that’s seriously supposed to remove anything toxic?

Sugar Feeds Cancer with WordsI was particularly afraid of the evil white sugar because of a very intense energy healer lady with big white hair who got all up into my face to say, “sugar feeds cancer!”  It was just like that scary moment in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure – “tell ’em large Marge sent ya'”  Aghhh!!!

I went to a Chinese Wellness Center and paid a ton of money for a brown paper lunch bag of twigs and mushrooms and sticks that I could only brew in a ceramic kettle – so I found one at Sears, and made pots of tea that smelled and tasted like something that was scraped off the forest floor.

I taped the Tao’s food philosophy, a quote from Hippocrates, to my refrigerator door – “Let food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”

No fast food, chips or cookies, not one bite of steak or cheese, bacon, butter, pizza, diet soda or Lucky Charms.  Lucky Charms; the only sugar cereal I was allowed to eat as a special treat as a kid – and only on vacation – the heady pleasure of taking the time to eat an entire bowl, all the little oaty things out first, then each color marshmallow leaving only the pink hearts floating in a bowl of now warm purple grey colored milk sitting at my Grandmother’s breakfast table in the Florida morning sun.lucky-charms10

In my adulthood, I was not above buying a box to get that high and eating around marshmallows – with the grown up addition of pouring the sugary milk into my coffee.

So – never do that again?  Never, never?

Everything good was ruined – meatloaf was replaced by “neatloaf” a “meat textured bake made with oatmeal, organic catsup and barley.  Butter with palm fruit oil spread, mayonnaise with Vegenaise, ice cream made from nuts, “burgers” made from sprouts and nuts…

I barely survived Thanksgiving, – rescuing a few green beans before they were casseroled and funioned, watching everyone slather soft butter on white flour fluffy rolls and scooping up bourbon laced sweet potatoes topped with crispy browned white sugar marshmallows.  I missed out on dessert because newsflash – no matter what Vegan Girl says on her Vegan Yum Yum website – you really can’t make pumpkin pie that tastes “even better than the real thing everyone will rave” with tofu.  It doesn’t!  It’s like you said about the “delectable chocolate mousse” made with “a rich avocado base” – you know what that tastes like Vegan Girl?  Avocado with chocolate.  Chocolate guacamole!  And yes, it’s disgusting, – it tasted like burp!  The pie.  Not the mousse.  Come to think of it – the mousse too.

I would bake authentic white flour, white sugar, butter and vanilla chocolate chip cookies tor my favorite nurses and doctors, because several attempts at vegan cookie favorites like “grapefruit icebox cookies” and “magical nut chews” proved there was no replacement for the simple perfection of the original Toll House recipe.  And when I would get to my favorite part – that just mixed soft dough stage where it took Herculean effort not to stick my finger into the bowl, I resisted.

I did it.

And I felt strong – like I was doing something, you know -with every bite of blueberry pomegranate seeds and quinoia salad and sip of disgusting tea – I imagined that the superfoods were soldiers kicking ass in my system.

The mutant cells were being starved into oblivion without their hearty diet of acesulfame K, benzly isobutyrate, methyl benzonate and hydroxphenyl-2-butanone.

I ate my weight in broccoli.

My friend who is now the head of surgical oncology at a major hospital, but back when she was only a fellow at an internationally renowned cancer program, would just laugh at me.  Sitting at the bar Delancey’s eating fancy pizza one night, I ordered mine without cheese or sauce (yes, crust with mushrooms), and she said, “you know it really doesn’t matter.”

Of course it matters, if it doesn’t then there is nothing I can do – I have no control, I can’t stop it, the cancer from coming back, what if I eat all the crap again and I get cancer again later – what if it’s because some tiny little mutant cell behaving badly was just about to die a death of starvation – when along comes an ethyl methylphenylglycidate on a digesting marshmallow bit and it hitches a ride and grows an multiplies – only because I wasn’t strong enough to resist magically delicious breakfast cereal?

But I did cave.

It was Christmas cookies.  But I’m sure you could tell that was coming by the way I wanted to FF chocolate chip cookie dough…  Then it was Christmas dinner.

And then I caved and I caved – delicious bleu cheese, butter, pizza, and the meat from heaven – smokey crispy bacon and wine – lots of wine.

And everything was delicious.

Because what about twinkly eyed George Burns and those happy golden retrievers and every centurian on The Today Show who say it’s about “not sweating the small stuff,” and “having a sense of humor.”  Like Jeralean Kurtz – 114 years and 148 days who told Willard her favorite foods include potato salad, honey buns, and McDonald’s chicken nuggets!

They’re right, right?

I thought my control freak diet made me feel stronger – but now I think maybe I was just punishing myself.  Because I was angry.  At life.  No comfort in comfort food.

Does it matter what you put in your piehole if you are living your right life?

A woman named Anita Moorjani is the hot spiritual expert on cancer at the moment because get this – she was admitted to the hospital after 3 years of cancer and given only hours to live because her organs were shutting down, but get this – she didn’t die.  She had a near death experience, woke up completely healed – doctors can’t find a trace of cancer in her body and they can’t explain it.

In her book she says, “If I ever had to create a set of tenets for a spiritual path to healing, number one on my list would be to make sure to laugh as often as possible throughout every single day – and preferably laugh at myself.  This would be hands down over and above any form of prayer, meditation, chanting or diet reform.”

“The only universal solution I have is to love yourself unconditionally and be yourself fearlessly!  Add a box of good chocolates into the mix, and we’ve really got a winning formula!”

I still don’t eat fast food, rarely processed food, and to this day not one sweet sweet refreshing diet coke.  I have sitting in my cabinet a single package of Lucky Charms I was given as a gift.  One day I will feel safe enough to eat it.