On June 3, 2007, two thousand naked people gathered to be photographed at a parking garage in Amsterdam.
My hippie-California childhood afforded me lots of opportunities to see naked people–in hot tubs, at nude beaches, at births. A whole wall of the commune where my schoolmate Howdy Do-Good (who later changed his name to Jordan) lived was decorated with images of his birth at a Colorado truck stop. His mother, before starring in Howdy’s Birth, had been an actress in Hollywood and appeared on an episode of Star Trek.
Later, I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, and it wasn’t unusual to see a naked person in class (wearing a backpack and Birkenstocks with oatmeal socks). It also wasn’t unusual for one of my freshman–excuse me, freshperson–year TAs to begin our discussions with a round of bong hits (that TA is now a fancy-pants politician in San Francisco).
In the early ’90s a student at Berkeley became famous as The Naked Guy. He was protesting clothes as a tool of classism and gender oppression. I ran into him once in a clothing store.
Exhibitionism as a form of social protest is one thing, but exhibitionists who have a psychosexual compulsion to expose their naughty bits to strangers are another animal entirely.
You never forget your first flasher: I encountered mine as I was walking down a steep San Francisco hill. A man with crazy hair and Coke-bottle glasses was rollerblading up the hill towards me. He was red-faced and breathing hard and appeared to be wearing a pair of flesh-colored shorts. As he came closer, I realized they were not flesh-colored shorts–he had cut the front off of a pair of running shorts so that what remained was the sheer mesh liner underneath. Technically, he was covered, but his enormous erection was plain to see. I laughed when I realized what I was seeing, and I was oddly impressed with his ingenuity.
I saw him again in a bookstore. He wore short-shorts and had his leg propped up on a stepstool, so that his testicles were on display. I was less impressed this time.
My next encounter with an exhibitionist took place in New England, on my way back from visiting the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. P.T. Barnum was arguably the greatest exhibitionist of them all, though not the psychosexual sort.
Barnum is famous for saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” except that he never said it. One of his circus-owning competitors attributed the quote to him in a newspaper article, and Barnum, instead of denying that he said it, thanked his rival for all the free publicity.
Barnum’s career as a showman began when he bought and exhibited Joice Heth, a 160-year-old slave who was billed as George Washington’s nurse. When she died, it was revealed that she was no more than eighty years-old. Barnum opened his American Museum in New York City in 1841, and his “collection” included Charles “Tom Thumb” Stratton, the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, and the Fiji Mermaid, a gaff (or a fake) made out of papier-mache, a fish tail, and a monkey.
When Barnum’s American Museum burned down in 1865, he opened a new museum, but that one burned down too. So Barnum took his show on the road, calling it “The Greatest Show On Earth.” The star of the show was Jumbo the elephant, who died when he was hit by a train. Barnum had Jumbo stuffed and donated the body to Tufts University, where it was displayed until it, too, was lost in a fire.
I was a little disappointed with the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. The displays consisted mainly of reproductions of articles and images, and a whole section of the museum was devoted to the industry of Bridgeport (home of the sewing machine), as Barnum had once been Bridgeport’s mayor. There was also a recreation of the library from Barnum’s opulent Oriental mansion, Iranistan (destroyed by fire, of course). I did enjoy seeing the the doll-sized clothes and furniture of Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia Warren, as well as their carriage.
Best of all was Commodore Nutt’s carriage, which was shaped like a walnut shell.
On the drive home, I had a weird feeling about the the car in front of me on the freeway. It was white and nondescript, like a rental car, but it was weaving and the license plates were missing. And the driver’s right foot, his bare foot, was propped up on the dash. I assume he was using cruise control. The weaving, the missing plates, the bare foot on the dash in the middle of winter–it all made me nervous, and it seemed wise to get far away from this car. So I moved into the fast lane and sped up in order to pass him. The driver wore sunglasses and was hunched down in his seat. He appeared to be having some sort of fit. He was vibrating. I hit the gas, and so did he. I got ahead of him, and he maneuvered so that he was right alongside me again. He looked at me and grinned. Then he hopped up onto his seat (using cruise control again?) so that I could see him jacking off in the window. We were going 80 miles per hour. He ejaculated onto the window, and slipped off the freeway at the next exit.
Shortly after I moved back to California from New England, I stopped at a red light in San Francisco where Haight Street hits Golden Gate Park. A mostly-pink wave of a thousand naked people on bikes swept down Haight Street and poured into the park. It was The World Naked Bike Ride, a protest against car culture and our dependence on oil. I honked and cheered for the twenty minutes or so that it took them to ride by (never mind that I was sitting in my evil oil-dependent car). I was home.
UC Santa Cruz has a tradition: The first rain of the school year, hundreds of students run naked across the campus. They’re not protesting anything, they’re just enjoying the thrill of nakedness and the feeling of rain on their skin. This year I had a front row seat (again, I was in my car). As strange as it is to be teaching where I used to go to school (my office is literally spitting distance from my old dorm room), and as sad as it is that the ideals of this place have changed (they didn’t have grades, fraternities and sororities, or sports when I was a student here, but they do now, and the sciences are swallowing up the humanities), the sight of six hundred naked young people, shrieking and leaping in the autumn rain, was comforting.