Everybody puts something on Saturday night, but at Nightingale's what goes on doesn't come off. Nightingale's is the tattoo parlor on 12th Street NW, a snug two-room depository of symbols macho and mad, a double-locked and bolted bunker between the bus station and the inner city.
Richard Burch, a short, sandy-haired young man, works all week plastering D.C. motel rooms with wallpaper all in the same pattern. He last came to Nightingale's when his father gave him the head of a beautiful woman on his right biceps for his birthday.
Now he slouches in a well-worn green chair, his rebel flag and skull belt buckle glinting in the array of lights that Carol Nightingale has trained on his forearm. With white hair, white goatee and white coat, Nightingale seems very much the country doctor, except his coat is unbuttoned baring a belly and chest filled with tattoos.
On a shelf behind Burch are containers of Lysol, Ajax, Janitor-in-a-Drum, Axion, SOS and Joy. Snapshots of Nightingale's artistry fill the walls: Reagan's head, Harley-Davidson wings, Bugs Bunny, snakes and eagles.
Above the electric staccato of the tattoo gun a cheap cassette plays. Burch's left arm metamorphoses to the strains of "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "White Cliffs of Dover."
The phone rings.
"Sure, come on over. They all sober? Don't come if they're drunk, lad." (They'll come, sober but as nervous as raw recruits on a dangerous mission.)
For 20 minutes Nightingale's sure line pirouettes over the arm. Burch remarks, "The blue's bright. I like that."
Nightingale calms some jumpiness: "Enjoy it. It's like Breakfast at Tiffany's."
His ordeal over, Burch refreshes with a Pepsi.
Nightingale wraps his work with paper towel and masking tape. Though instructed not to bare the arm for a day or so, Burch says his Saturday night won't end without an unveiling of his new companion for life: an ornate, bright red flower just over the inscription "Mom."