The story began in August 2001, a month before 9/11, when I had just started a column called "People." My mission was to profile interesting characters in our city and region twice a week. At the airport food court, I saw a cashier at a deli, a young woman, with a tattoo on her neck. The two words were big as life. The first began with F, the second with Y. They did not say "Fondly Yours."
So I did what reporters do. I asked her about it. I also interviewed her mother, her boss, and the tattoo artist. I wondered, and I knew readers would as well: Why would a woman do this?
Taria Bennett was 24 at the time. She was living in West Philadelphia. She'd been raised by a single mother, Pat Bolton, who worked on a city sanitation truck. Taria had three small children, the first born when she was 16. The father of her youngest child was in jail. Taria was angry at the world. But she found herself holding it all in. And the rage was destroying her.
"I feel, in this age," she told me at the time, "you have to say how you feel or else you'll self-destruct. I almost did. I got tired of holding my anger inside. I decided to express myself."
The tattoo on her neck was one of three she got between the summer 2000 and summer 2001. The first was on her forearm, her name in the middle of a round black bomb with a fuse. "I was a walking time bomb," she said at the time. "I was ready to explode."
The second tattoo, applied on the inside of her forearm, was of a paw with sharp claws, "because I felt like scratching people's eyes out."
And then, for her third tattoo, she went all in with F.Y.
The tattoo artist, Jerry Robinson of JR's Tattoo Shop at 61st and Market, told Taria at the time, "You don't want to do this."
"Yes, I do," she said.
He said he'd tattooed the expression on people before - but always in Chinese characters, never in English.
When Taria got home, her mother said all the things mothers say: "What were you thinking? How do you expect to get a good job?"
Tony Ellington, who owned the airport deli, said he didn't see the tattoo when he hired Taria. But the first time he saw it, he told her she had two choices: Cover it up or find a new job. He provided her with a box of bandages. When working, she covered up the top word, leaving only the bottom one, You. This often raised more questions, she said. Customers would ask her, "What's under the Band-Aid?" To which she usually replied, "Figure it out."
The day I first saw her, there was no Band-Aid. She said the box was empty, and she didn't believe it was her responsibility to buy new ones. "I thought there is freedom of expression," she said.
I wrote my story on Taria Bennett, but the planes flew into the World Trade Center that same week. The entire mood of the nation changed. A story about a profane tattoo didn't seem appropriate. So we all agreed to hold it a few months, and a couple of months later, it was killed.
I don't think the department editor, long gone now, who objected to the story felt readers would be offended. I believe she felt it was taking advantage of Taria. I felt Taria knew what she was doing, and I thought readers would be interested in her slice of life.
Roll the clock forward. I tracked down Taria and her mother a few weeks ago. They still live in West Philly. In 2006, Taria covered up the tattoo.
"I got tired of ripping Band-Aids off my skin every day for work," she said. "My skin was getting raw."
The tattoo artist decided to create what he called a "tribal symbol," but most people just think it looks like a spider on her neck. When people ask about it, she tells them the story, explains what used to be there. "Most people don't believe me," she said.
Taria works now as a barmaid at Big Fella's, a sports bar at 33d and Reed. She stopped counting her tattoos after 13. Most are more benign - the names of her children, her mother, her brother and sister, both of whom have died. She's thinking about getting water lilies on her shoulder. "I just love water lilies," she said.
"I don't regret it," she said of her F.Y. tattoo. "I held a lot in. I didn't talk to people much. Not even my mom. We have a much better relationship now. I still say those two words. But I'm not as angry anymore."
She's matured, her kids are older, and the anger softened over time.
Taria, who dropped out of high school and earned a GED, has taken classes at Community College of Philadelphia, hoping to become a diagnostic medical technician.
Her oldest child, Aamir, graduated from high school and is working. Her middle child, Tionne, an A student, will graduate in the spring and hopes to go to college for nursing. Her youngest is in seventh grade.
Tionne says she always just laughed at her mother's obscene tattoo, and said she would never do such a thing. "I'm not as crazy as her," she said.
"Well, you got your lip pierced," said her grandmother.
"That's normal," Tionne said.
"I'm glad you think it's normal," her grandmother said. "Getting caught all the time in your braces. I don't understand."
Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @michaelvitez.