Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why I Wrote a Play About San Francisco's Naked Guys

Public nudity isn't something I was, pardon the pun, exposed to in the South. Private nudity wasn't even part of my upbringing. I may have seen my father's bare legs half a dozen times, usually as he dashed from the bedroom to the bathroom.

There was a time when, as a boy, I stumbled into a room in which a relative was breast-feeding her baby. All I can remember thinking was, "If you offer refreshments to one person, aren't you supposed to offer it everyone else?"

And so, I was a public nudity 'virgin' until I moved to San Francisco. It didn't last long.

Soon after relocating to SF from Atlanta, I heard about the nude beaches scattered here and there, such as Baker Beach, Land's End, and Gray Whale Cove. Nick and I, strictly in the spirit of research, hit them all. We rarely kicked off our own bathing suits, however. It wasn't so much that we thought it was wrong. It was mostly about maintaining a tan line.

There was the undeniable curiosity factor, too. You go to a place where naked people hang out, you're bound to come back with stories. For example: One day at Gray Whale Cove, a game of nude volleyball was happening. A good female friend of ours sat with us, not far from the players and their bouncing appendages, intensely reading a book about how to stop children from thumb-sucking. The juxtaposition still makes me laugh.

About five years ago, a slow-burning movement began, but at the time I thought it was simply an isolated case. A couple of guys would walk around San Francisco's freewheeling Castro neighborhood completely naked, except for shoes. They'd casually stroll up and down the streets, almost as if they were on their way to the grocery store. In truth, they were all undressed with nowhere to go because no business establishment, I assumed, would allow them in.

Upon first sighting, I was shocked. Who would do such a thing? Gradually, I began to see the naked guys with a bit more frequency. Each time, I was less surprised, but I was still baffled. What was the point of it? I didn't like how it made me feel: uncomfortable, annoyed at them, and annoyed at feeling Puritanical.

Not surprisingly, the naked guys grew ever so slightly in numbers over time. And then, the public nudity movement began in earnest about two years ago, when the city created a public plaza at the highly trafficked intersection of Castro and Market Streets (shown below). Suddenly, there was a place for the nudists to congregate, because it was public property. And this is where it gets even wackier: Public nudity isn't a crime in San Francisco, as long as you're not visibly aroused.

Photo: ABC News
Even in a city as liberal as San Francisco, feelings are sharply divided over the naked guys (and, by the way, the occasional naked woman). Some of my friends find it ridiculous, disgusting, pointless, an unnecessary 'political statement,' and an embarrassment to the city. 

Among these sentiments, there's one I've heard expressed often that's a little troubling. To wit: The vast majority of the naked guys are unattractive and out of shape. In other words, the public nudity is bad--but maybe it wouldn't be so bad if they were cute and buff. Typical comments I've heard include "The naked guys are the ones you'd least like to see naked," and "Who wants to see Santa Claus nude?"

On the opposite side, I've heard friends say that the public nudity is yet another by-product of living in a liberal, tolerant city. They'd all lived in places that aren't so welcoming and relaxed and are downright hostile to people who are different. And while they don't exactly love the naked guys either, they accept them as part of the eccentric, accepting, be-whatever-you-want-to-be nature of San Francisco.

Where do I stand on this issue, you might be wondering?

I started off in the first camp and slowly moved into the second. And during that journey, I became fascinated with the emotions the topic stirred--enough so that I wrote a 10-minute comic play about it, The Buck Naked Church of Truth. The play is currently running in San Francisco through Oct. 13th. It's part of a show called Family Programming, an evening of seven short plays, all of them awesome. You can buy your $15 tickets (yes, please!) at Brown Paper Tickets.

In my play, a father (Jeff) who sees himself as liberal has come to San Francisco with his girlfriend, Joy, who's a bit conservative. They've flown in from Kansas City to visit Jeff's son Tony, a gay man who lives in the Castro.

Jeff and Joy arrive early and go to the Castro so that Joy, who doesn't think she actually knows any gay people, can get comfortable being around gays before they have dinner that night with Tony and his new boyfriend. But while Jeff and Joy are sitting at a sidewalk cafe, guess who shows up buck naked? Tony and his new boyfriend.

The father, who had no idea his son is a public nudist, is outraged. And before the lights go out, roles get reversed quickly: the liberal becomes conservative, the conservative becomes liberal; the naked get dressed and the clothed shed a few layers.

The Buck Naked Church of Truth is beautifully acted and directed. And it may end up being a historical play, perhaps soon. The naked guys controversy is in the news again because a city supervisor is considering proposing a ban or at least restrictions on public nudity. And in a twist that only San Francisco could have invented, the supervisor's name is Scott Wiener.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

North Carolina Barbecue and the Meaning of Life

This just in from The Wall Street Journal: "Studies show that food cravings involve a complex mix of social, cultural and psychological factors, heavily influenced by environmental cues."

In other words, my blog and I are back from vacation, and we want to talk about comfort food.

Nick and I recently spent two weeks on the East Coast. It was one of the best visits we’ve had there in years: a whistle-stop journey visiting family and old friends from Boston and Provincetown to Richmond, Va., where Nick is from, to my hometown of Greensboro, N.C.

It hasn’t always been easy for us to visit our hometowns. Nick has often spoken of the ‘wet blanket’ of the past--unhappy memories that descended upon him as we drove into Richmond. Growing up gay in a dysfunctional family tends to do that to you.

To help salve those wounds, Nick and I would seek out Richmond 'comfort' food. Bill’s Barbecue, a long-term Richmond institution, was a frequent destination, not just for its minced pork barbecue sandwiches but for its limeades and crinkle-cut French fries, too.

In Greensboro, any number of emotional sand traps would cause me to "self-medicate" with food. To the rescue would come Krispy Kreme, whose illuminated neon ‘hot light’ would suddenly cause our rental car to careen into the doughnut palace’s parking lot. Rarely could we drive past a Chick-fil-A without soon having their crispy chicken sandwiches dissolving in our stomachs. And a visit to Greensboro was never complete without at least one stop at Stamey’s barbecue.

This trip was different.

In Richmond, we dined out with Nick’s old friends in new restaurants. I even nibbled a pig's ear (though I had to be prodded into it). We went to Bill’s Barbecue, but only for the limeade. In both cities, we gave the Krispy Kreme “hot light” the cold shoulder. Given all the recent uproar, we didn't even consider Chick-fil-A.

But then there was Stamey's. For years, my brother-in-law Larry had been trying to convince me that Country Barbecue, also in Greensboro, is superior to Stamey’s. And for years, I’ve smiled and nodded and completely ignored his advice. Stamey’s, for me, was the comfort food I looked forward to most on my Greensboro visits. So why risk your comfort on something unknown, especially at a time when you need that comfort the most (or think you do)?

On this visit, however, we took Larry’s advice. On our way to visit Larry and my sister Nancy, we picked up sandwiches for everyone from Country Barbecue. And you know what? Larry was right. Their North Carolina-style chopped pork barbecue sandwiches are better than Stamey’s.

What was different this time? The "environmental cues" that caused us to seek comfort have mostly faded now, and good riddance. Seriously: Why did we need comforting? Nick has a close group of fabulous friends in Richmond whose company I greatly enjoy. I have a huge, wonderful family in Greensboro that I love, and who love me and Nick. Sure, my mother has dementia, and that's painful to watch. But she's also still quick on the draw. When being ushered to the bathroom by a nurse's attendant at the memory care facility where she lives, my mother turned to Nick and me and said, "Better watch out, she'll make y'all go next!"

Nick and I have learned to enjoy our hometowns for what they offer now, rather than begrudge them for what they didn't provide years ago. And we're hungry for new experiences, which are the opposite of tried-and-true 'comforts.'

Don't misunderstand. Comfort food, on occasion, truly hits the spot. But does it comfort you? Or does it just keep you in the past and actually make you feel worse? What I've grown to learn, thanks to my most recent trip "back home," is this: Comfort food can be like a friend who pats you on the shoulder--while reminding you just how miserable everything is.