Homeward Bound

Tattoos and ashes and in Hawaii

Rollo Banks
Rollo Banks (by Thomas Woodruff)

I sat on the beach at the Royal Hawaiian late last night, staring at the dark and depthless Pacific as it rolled onto the sands relentlessly. Twenty-five years ago, I’d lived at the famous Waikiki hotel known as the Pink Palace for two weeks while Rollo Banks and I were on our honeymoon. On Saturday, his 67th birthday, I helped spread his ashes. Their sheer weightlessness crushed my heart.

It was as idyllic a honeymoon as possible, under the December moon in 1984. We were so completely in love that I am in awe of it even now, a quarter-century later. He’d told me he loved me four days after we first went out, and asked me to marry him four days after that. We were married two months to the day, a romance played out in the pages of the Chronicle. It was the closest to true happiness I’ve ever had, so of course it couldn’t last, poisoned by the heroin addiction that strangled him right up to his death.

We were married for 15 years. It’s something I’ve written about often, including the notation that except for a couple of periods of estrangement, we remained close, right up to the end. I write about in part because it’s my history, but also because I am so fucking lucky to have had that man in my life. He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for me. Most people never get that lucky, but I did. His obake is always present.

Up in Punchbowl crater, under a Hawaiian blue sky and in a wind as soft as the scent of leis, we each stood – friends, old friends, lovers, partners, de facto family, the former spouse. We all spoke as we dug into the “ash that makes the cash” bag that his best friend and longtime tattoo partner Kandi Everett had made for the occasion; it sported a huge $ on it, which was as totally Rollo as the macabre depiction of his suicide 30 years before on the cover of the Honolulu Babylon.

There’d been a public memorial in Chicago after his death in 2007, but he’d yet to be cremated then. This ceremony brought together the tattoo artists that were close to Rollo, less a wake than a gathering of the old warlords, coming to send home one of their own in true modern tribal fashion. Everett presided over it like the lead chanter in a hula halau, holding a fetish of his hair. A Buddhist monk led us chanting the mantra tattooed on Rollo's wrist: Om ma ni pad me hung. We stood over Sailor Jerry’s grave, the tattoo artist who’d inspired Rollo and numerous other tattoo artists who stood by the grave: Ed Hardy, Thom DeVita, Scott Sterling, Doug Hardy, Pete Stephens, Lance McLain, Goodtime Charlie Cartwright.

I was lucky to be there. It was like a peek into a secret society initiation. Once, that world had been mine. I was queen to one of the kings. When the marriage was gone, so was that crown, my entrée into that world. After Rollo died, however, I was treated like the widow, which was easy to respond to because I grieved as if I’d lost my husband. For the journey to lay his ashes, I wore my wedding rings one more time, as well as the Hawaiian sweetheart bracelet he’d had made for me, asking me how I wanted it to read.

“Don’t put my name in Hawaiian, that’s phony stuff,” I instructed him. “Margaret means ‘pearl’ in Greek, so how about ‘pearl’ in Hawaiian, ‘momi’?”

“Okay," he agreed begrudgingly. “What I really want is to have ‘Chubby’ put on it, but you won’t wear it if I do.” That was his favorite nickname for me.

“Of course I will,” I assured him. “I wore the stupid hat with the gold plastic peacock you made me for Valentine’s through Chinatown.”

The bracelet sits on my wrist, with “Chubby” in black enamel inlay on gold, right below the tattoo Kandi put on my right forearm using Rollo’s ashes.

In preparation for the Music Awards every year, I use a folder, the kind that often comes with press kits, to collect my various papers. Sometimes I use press kit folders, like this year when I chose the one that came with the media materials for Hori Smoku, the documentary on Sailor Jerry that showed at South by Southwest Film in 2008. The cover illustration was a classic Sailor Jerry tattoo design, a ship at sea with “Homeward Bound” in the ribbon.

I brought it with me to Hawaii because I’ve kept it in use since March, but when I looked at it this morning, its significance became clear: Homeward bound, indeed.

Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana, and now my story is told.

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