Walking from the car to the beach, it suddenly occurred to me that in the hustle to leave the house I neglected to take off my underwear. It’s not even clear to me why I was wearing boxer shorts under swimming trunks to begin with, but it didn’t matter until I was on the verge of jumping into Lake Superior.
The whole idea of a swimsuit itself is pretty asinine, really. It’s a small layer of clothing people wear while submerged in water, so no one can look at their delicate body parts as they enter and exit the lake. Once out of the water, the swimsuit dries faster than a pair of jeans, but still … to prevent people from seeing my Lake Superior-shriveled wiener I’m supposed to walk around for a half hour in wet shorts. Wetter yet if I’m a dimwit wearing boxer shorts under his trunks.
Still, I understand why society frowns on exposed penises. They are unsightly. But I can go to the beach with a giant oozing scab on my face and not be arrested, so let’s say there’s room for argument here.
Clearly, it’s not because genitals are ugly that society frowns on their public display. It’s because clothing is a perceived barrier to sexual thoughts.
More relevant in the news cycle of my hometown, Duluth, Minn., is whether women should be permitted to bare their breasts on the beach. A recent incident called to question whether Minnesota Statutes are clear on the matter. Proponents of toplessness argue that the need for one gender to cloth its nipples while the other gender need not is sexist on an amazingly idiotic level. Opponents of toplessness argue that female nipples are highly erotic and the mere sight of them will cause us all to thank our lucky stars that males have their boners covered by swimming trunks.
So, I understand all the disagreement. I’ll wear my swimming trunks, but I’m not going to deal with wet undies. So I decided to walk to the Park Point Public Beach House and take off my boxers in the men’s room like dignified people are supposed to do. Unfortunately, the beach house closes at 4 p.m., making it basically useless to the vast majority of adults who aren’t tourists.
My other option was to use a portable toilet in the parking lot as a changing room. Gross, and no thank you.
There are a lot of woodsy areas on Park Point where I could sneak away for my eight seconds of nudity, but there is also a lot of poison ivy there. So … no. Absolutely not.
An option that didn’t occur to me, because I parked where there were people around and was mentally focused on changing at the beach house, is that I could have parked at the far end of the lot and slid my shorts down inside the car. That, of course, would be a seemingly safe but high-risk move. The odds of anyone noticing would be pretty slim, but middle-aged men who are alone in a car in a public area don’t want to be spotted with shorts around their ankles.
Another option would be to keep my boxers on while wading into the water, then remove them while my midsection is submerged, slide my trunks back on, and carry the sopping underthings home with me. Of course, similar to the parking lot scenario, someone might have their eyes fixed on me and wonder what I’m up to. Maybe it would be clear when I stood on the shore, wringing out my grundies while wearing a swimming suit, what had occurred, but by then the police might already be on the way.
The biggest threat to my reputation in all of these situations isn’t that anyone might see my pecker, of course. It’s that they might get the wrong idea about why I have it out.
Which brings up why I was wearing underwear at that moment. I sleep in my underwear. So it was on when I got out of bed and remained on when I adorned myself in the rest of the day’s clothing. If I slept in the nude, I wouldn’t be in this situation.
But I have a friend who sleeps in the nude, and he once woke up to an intruder in his home and ended up in a knife fight while naked. It’s bad enough to do battle in the dark with someone who has a weapon; if it happens to me I at least want my skivvies on. I know that having a thin layer of cloth over my dangling parts will make no difference should a stabbing take place, but psychologically I think it makes a big difference to have my potatoes covered before engaging in any kind of combat.
I realize it’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever be in a midnight knife fight, but there are many things that can summon one from his chamber unexpectedly. Fires and other emergencies don’t happen often, but it’s almost certain something will happen more than once in any lifetime that will hasten one from under the covers. The most hilarious and potentially embarrassing is nude sleepwalking, but I digress.
With privacy hard to come by on a public beach, I decided to walk away from the crowd around the beach house and go out toward the end of the point. Not only are there fewer people there, but let’s face it, the closer one gets to Wisconsin the closer one is to escaping wholesome Minnesota values.
If I could get to a spot where no one is close enough to focus their eyes on me, then briefly dropping my shorts is more socially acceptable. It’s like a tree falling in the woods and not making a sound, right? If a man’s penis is exposed on the beach and no one is around to see it, does it qualify as a crime?
As I made my way out to the farther reaches of Minnesota Point, I remembered a time 22 years ago when I observed some nude sunbathing there. One of the nice things about being a writer and journalist is that I don’t have to rely on my memory about these things. There are written accounts. So I can tell you specifically the date was June 1, 1997.
I can’t pretend that I’m unphased by public nudity — clearly I take note of it. The person I observed sunbathing two decades ago was a man who, at the time, was about the age I am now. I referred to him in my writing as “Mr. Johnson,” though he was laying on his front side, exposing only his buttocks. From a distance I didn’t think he was naked; I thought he was wearing white trunks. As I got closer and confirmed the nudity I figured he might cover up when I got within 50 feet or so. Instead, he paid no mind and just napped there while I strolled by.
At least, he appeared to be napping. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses.
And, of course, once I passed Mr. Johnson I knew I would have to do it again to return, or else climb up into the woods and use the hiking trail to avoid him. It shouldn’t have bothered me, but I have to admit it did. I even considered telling him there are more private areas to sun his private areas, but I didn’t. Instead, I just behaved like a fink and warned other people down the beach who were walking in that direction to take note of the exhibitionist. At one point I even approached someone who was sitting on the beach far away and pointed to the speck of a nudist hundreds of feet away just so I could say, “Look at that guy down there. He’s stark nekked!”
Mostly I just said that because it’s fun to say.
If something about that guy truly bothered me, it was the circumstances and not the nudity. My response was completely dictated by prejudice. If it hadn’t been a middle-aged man my story would be different. If the objective were something other than sunbathing my story would be different. I know this because of the written record.
On Feb. 3, 1998, I was walking through Lake Place Park overlooking Duluth’s Lakewalk. There was a man standing on the shore taking his clothes off. He then started slowly walking into Lake Superior. The air temperature was 32 degrees, so I stopped to observe, thinking the guy might be committing suicide. Instead, he plunged into the water, kicked his feet up, swam for about three minutes, and calmly exited the water and dressed. I thought this naked guy was awesome.
Two days later I was walking in the woods at Jay Cooke State Park. Not more than 50 feet away from me, on another part of the trail with some defoliated trees separating us, was a group of noisy teenage females who were probably skipping school since it was a weekday morning. One of them lifted her shirt, shouted “whoohooo!” and showed me her breasts. Then, a few seconds later, she did it again. After that the group ran off giggling.
I think of that moment as sort of the opposite of a man in an alley opening his trench coat. It’s the same thing, yet totally not the same thing. The circumstances of nudity always matter. Which makes indecent exposure laws complex.
Brushes with random nudity happen all the time. You’re cruising down the interstate past a school bus and suddenly you see buttcheeks pressed against the window. It’s crime and comedy all at once.
Sometimes the situation is more comedy than crime, and then just because one person gets upset, it becomes more crime than comedy.
I used to be one of the main organizers of an event called the Geek Prom. There were 10 of those events from 2002 to 2013. At the very first one, a group of seven nerds snuck away and stripped off their clothing, then streaked through the NorShor Theatre. It wasn’t planned by the organizing committee; it was just a thing that happened and really capped off an evening of joy. Sometimes people are so happy they just drop their fabric and sprint with glee. If anyone in the room didn’t love it, they never told me.
The occurrence became known as “The Geek Streak,” and it was repeated in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. It was never something I organized, but always something I condoned, even though people running naked through a crowded room does increase one’s liability as an event promoter.
What had always been a fun thing quickly turned to a bummer in 2007 when we held the Geek Prom at the Science Museum of Minnesota and a St. Paul Police officer pepper sprayed six streakers. In addition to the sting of the pepper spray, the naked nerds ended up collectively with $3,640 in court fees and other costs associated with clearing their records. They pitched in to hire an attorney who negotiated a continuance for dismissal, which meant the incident was removed from their records after they completed one year of probation.
I rode to St. Paul with one of the defendants to attend the court proceedings, and later organized a fundraiser to help defray their costs, but the event only raised $830. So the streakers each ended up paying about $470 when it was over, along with completing 40 hours of community service work, in addition to having been pepper sprayed while naked.
To my relief, none of the streakers felt publicly embarrassed and they didn’t experience any career setbacks. On the contrary, they were proud of themselves and were regarded as minor folk heroes in Duluth. At the 2008 Geek Prom, two of them flaunted their probation by “streaking” while wearing flesh-colored body suits. Two other streakers accompanied them in the actual nude.
One might consider the streakers from 2007 to be unfortunate. Every other year the streakers at Geek Prom suffered no repercussions — they were cheered and revered, not rounded up and ticketed. But the 2007 streakers were also quite fortunate. If there had been anyone at the Science Museum under the age of 18, the streakers might have ended up on a sex offender list. Because anyone under the age of 18 who sees a naked adult run by would obviously be scarred for life. The horror!
Anyway, knowing all that, I still had to remove my underwear on the beach. Having walked a good distance away from everyone else, I leaned up against a pile of driftwood, and made the eight-second move.
What makes this situation more absurd is that if my wife were with me she could just hold up a towel and I could do the same thing surrounded by strangers and it would be acceptable because, hey, look, everyone can see I’m with someone who seems to like me, so I’m not a lecherous loner.
That’s the main thing anyone needs in order to be naked in public: someone to vouch. Why did that nude sunbather guy in 1997 bother me? Because he was a man and he was alone. That’s it. Circumstances. If you’re surrounded by friends, the strangers nearby will be much more accepting of your brazen nakedness.
We live in a world where people go skinny dipping and visit nudist colonies. It’s kind of acceptable to be riding a bucknaked bandwagon, but don’t go showing up alone at Lester River and wave at the teenagers as you show off your cannonballs.
Returning to my main narrative for conclusion, I’ll summarize by noting that I executed my underwear removal without anyone noticing, other than through the public confession made through this essay.
About 20 minutes after my swim, while I was on my way back to my car, I walked through the narrow wooded trail that leads from the beach to the parking lot. Approaching in the other direction was a mother and her young daughter. They stopped as I passed and I heard the mother say to her daughter, “Just let this guy go through and then I’ll help you change.”
Whether you are an 4-year-old girl or a 46-year-old man, it’s a challenge to hide on Park Point.
Paul Lundgren is author of The Spowl Ribbon. Buy a copy and make Paul $15 happier. Who knows, maybe if enough people buy his first book he’ll put out a second one. Or maybe he shouldn’t be encouraged.
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