If you look carefully, you can see the scars where my ears used to be pierced. At one point, I had metal jammed through my conch and parts of my lobes, and the scar from the hole in my tongue is still there, though I doubt I could get a barbell through it anymore. While I was happy to shove metal into my face as a younger man, when I stumbled upon these piercings the other day I almost didn’t recognize them. I was never very good at being a pierced member of society, and the ones that I paid for seem like poor choices now, considering how little money I had back then. While it certainly hasn’t disappeared from the world as a whole, it is clear with hindsight that I got caught up in the piercing craze of the ’90’s. The fact that I don’t have saggy earlobes and tribal scarring on my arms is a testament to how much of a temporary dalliance it actually was for me.
Growing up in the ’80’s was complicated for everyone in a number of ways, but by the time I was in school one topic that came up often was that of piercings. Nearly all women were expected to have tasteful piercings of one kind or another, and there is often a rite of passage that young girls go through with their mothers when they are old enough. I remember my mom taking my sister to the mall, who returned in pain and with new holes in both of her ears. I was older than my sister by five years, and while it had never occurred to me that I wanted my ears pierced in a similar fashion, once I saw my peers all wearing them, I wanted it too.
However, once I made a comment about this out loud, the trouble started. “Boys don’t get their ears pierced,” I was told by my family, but I knew that this wasn’t true. I had seen men on TV and in public wearing piercings, and as much as I knew that men could do it, the subtext of the conversation was two-fold then: wanting pierced ears made me gay, and my parents would have nothing to do with it regardless.
It wasn’t until I started talking to my friends about it in Jr. High that I started to hear the, “Left ear, buccaneer; right ear, queer,” rhetoric Prior to this, I had no understanding of sexuality, or even that there was something other than the binary that my parents represented. All I knew is that I wasn’t yet over reading comics and playing with imaginary friends, and that girls were mysterious and not for me, yet. But as my friends started to show up to school with a single piercing on the left and budding facial hair in patches, they usually accounted for it with some sort of phrase like, “Left is right, and right is wrong.” I made a few attempts to ask my parents about this, and the awkward silences and shared glances between them meant that this likely fell into the territory of, “The Talk,” and I wasn’t about to let me dad load me into his truck again so he could drive for hours trying to explain to me something that he was very clearly not entirely comfortable with himself.
I dropped the idea until High School, that time when the venn diagram of self-destruction, boundary pushing and poor impulse control overlap into a fun-filled four-year period where everything sucks. Not only did I see a slight up-tick in the number of piercings I saw my fellow students – on men, no less – but the more I talked to people about it, I discovered that you didn’t really have to pay someone to do it for you. A collection of heshers on our campus accidentally taught me that if you sterilized a safety pin (aka, “burned the end with fire”), you could shove it through any fleshy part you liked, and it only hurt for a few days. I also discovered that, if you do this on your own without telling your mom, she’ll be a little horrified and surprised to see random scraps of metal hanging from you ears. While I was never asked to take them out, I could tell that this wasn’t exactly the best way to win her over as we became strangers to each other through the sheer act of growing up.
Boredom usually motivates much of what teenagers do, and by the end of High School I had removed all the safety pins, and more or less let them heal over. It wasn’t until I moved to Eugene, and more importantly met a dude named Ocean at an IHOP one night, that this began to change.
If you were of a certain age range in the ’90’s – and you were not the kind of person who had discovered alcohol as a wonderful way to enjoy your evening – then your destination when the sun went down was the nearest 24 Hour establishment that served coffee. On any given night, across the country, teens and 20 year olds would wander the streets in packs, looking for a booth to set up camp in and write your crappy poetry, or draw your unpublishable comics, or talk about the bands you would never actually start. I had several circles of friends that all did this, and one night as we were mocking up stuff for the newest issue of my ‘zine, we ran into Ocean, head to toe in piercings and tattoos, with his girlfriend Yannica, who had both just gotten to Eugene and thought John’s Skinny Puppy shirt meant we should all get to know each other. This not only inaugurated Ocean into our circle, but when we found out that he’d gotten a job at High Priestess – the first local shop in Eugene entirely dedicated to piercings – this soon became the place that we hung out at when the staff were between clients.
In those days, piercing shops were not at all common, and while you certainly met people covered in them, I was often left to wonder where this stuff was done. High Priestess was interesting in that it was below a tattoo parlor, and near a convenience store. A parade of weirdos and like-minded folks came into that building every hour, and hanging out there meant a good chance to meet people you knew, listen to music, and in some cases when the clients were into it, you could watch people get undressed as different parts of their bodies were being lanced. Between the watching various tattoos and piercings be administered, I saw a fair and steady string of naked men and women.
I ordered the two small hoops in the picture above, and against Ocean’s recommendation, used a safety pin and made a pair of mostly centered holes for them. One day, while bored and out of clients, gave me a $10 deal on my conch, and I put various items in it over the years. When I would go shopping for new albums, I usually dropped by so Ocean and I could check them out. We would regularly gather at the shop to plan our evening afterward, which sometimes involved dropping acid, or getting coffee, or hitting a party as a group. For a brief period of time, it was the center of our social group.
I had a job that I hated working in a factory at the time, which I got in the wake of being dumped and evicted from the place I was living. I piled everything into a storage locker and started staying with the aforementioned John, but working 12 hour shifts at night only separated me from my friends further, and made be a little bitter about the way it had all worked out. In a fit of anger, I walked out during a shift, quit the job, and cashed out every check and pending income I could find. I made one last stop by High Priestess and asked Ocean to pierce my tongue. Then I left town for a week to sort things out.
The tongue piercing was legendary among many people I knew, largely because it was supposed to improve your oral sex skills through the aid of this studded implement. I can’t really speak to that as someone who had the piercing. What I remember was the pain; it hurt. And continued to for days. Eating was a bitch, and as I tried to each noodles the day after I felt betrayed and horrified by the act that I’d been through. I almost took it out, but let it heal, hating the experience, and when all was said and done, found it to be in the way more than the sexy and alluring accoutrement that I hoped it would be.
As the years wore on, I found it to be in the way more than a bonus to my lifestyle. It would accidentally clack against my teeth, or would get chomped on by mistake. Occasionally it would feel a little sore, and the piercing required regular cleaning that I did not account for. I moved out of John’s place, and eventually moved away from Eugene entirely, and when it had been years, after I’d already removed all the other piercings and decided that was no longer for me, I still had this barbell in my tongue, impressing no one, occasionally causing me pain and getting in the way.
One day I took it out, and set it in a dish near my bed. And I never put it back in again.
I suffered in the long run. One of my front teeth on the bottom – where the piercing would regularly “clack” into by accident – is now gone, it causing incredibly paid one day from the damage it sustained over the years. Instead of the piercing, I get to wear a denture, a fitting end to a bad idea. I occasionally notice the scars these left behind, like memories from a friend you no longer see, lodged in there, waiting to be found by accident.
But so far, I have yet to want to get pierced again.
Our own past is the most challenging to deal with, because it has so many dead ends and so many unanswered questions. Like fads and trends, people and things and hobbies and habits move through our lives and disappear one day, and it can take years to notice what happened to they, or where they might have gone. I don’t think of myself as being pierced, and my own dalliance with the hobby was poorly formed, badly planned, and left me with real scars that I will have for my entire life. But I also don’t notice that I was one a pierced man either. The scars are small, barely noticeable, and wouldn’t even be visible if you didn’t know where to look.
Like all lost friends, these parts of the past might slip away like Ocean did, but the impact will last forever.