Last Eden

Black's Beach
  • Black's Beach
  • Image by Erik Hanson

Black’s Beach. The “world’s largest nude beach” as it is commonly billed, it may come as something of a surprise to many San Diegans, is officially—legally, technically, formally—a non-nude beach. Clothing is not optional; it is required. A $20 citation could be dropped in your lap the minute your buns or boobs or booty are exposed. I had heard it had a shifting legal status, but not until I checked into the matter did I find out that, despite the fact that nakedness is everywhere in sight there, nudism has been banned since 1977.

I decided to have a look around and last February wandered down there early one morning, smelling the bright air. I walked the several miles along the strand, an outpost, without portable toilets or facilities, a flat beach below a 300-foot cliff, lovely but when I arrived, except for a handful of surfers and sandpipers, it was empty as an echo.

There is no accounting for just where you are, first of all. Above loom the brown parasailing heights of Torrey Pines Cliffs, below a pirate’s cove of a beach lies open to what has to be the most dramatic surf, crashing wave upon wave, I have ever seen. The beach, about two miles long, is bounded at the southern side toward La Jolla by a natural outthrust of cliff — this is where the surfers go, having thunder-bounced down the precipitous (30° slope) cliffs, wearing body gloves, matte-black Thermoflex wet suits, and carrying their Xanadus and Rustys and Hauns — and is unambiguously marked at the northern extreme by a futuristic anchor ball, heavy and sunk into the sand, painted purple with gay-awareness ribbons and other mystic symbols, and reading with unmistakably lurid lettering, “Welcome to Black’s Beach.” An area set back somewhat and overgrown with sea grass, this is generally denominated the gay area.

Cliffs beetling overhead, one of which actually looks like the facade of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., are awesome. Along the beach below, huge boulders of soft sand-stone with their irregular weathering, Eocene period, if my college geology stands up, are pyrographed with various names and initials: Va. Beach, B.L., Leila, Pike. I chatted with several young surfers who, having threaded their way down the tall cliffs, were munching rice cakes and power bars for breakfast as they got ready to paddle out. One kid from San Francisco, who said he loved Gray Whale Cove and Montara up there but had long wanted to try Black’s, told me, not without laughing surprise, that San Diego professional surfer Brad Gerlach actually surfed naked. I was rather fondly hoping, apropos my contextless questions about nudity, that they were asking, “Who’s the nerd?” and not “Who’s the perv?”

“Butts and buttes,” I thought, suddenly seeing at a distance a fat, totally naked, out-of-sjiape 'man in a white floppy hat —'' my first customer, not buying — walking at a rathtr fact clip in the other, the gay direction of the beach. Meanwhile, I walked down to test the water (56°, the surfers had judged with scarily accurate authority). Black’s, in terms of both water temperature and sun, is never stultifyingly hot or murderously cold. The beach, with its flat, spoon-low shelf that allows for perfect waves, not as wild as the surf farther down at Windansea Beach, is comparatively hard and pewter-black, with no dunes or anything like sugar-deep sand. Sandpipers with needles for noses race up and down. Midges and maddening no-see-ums breed in the humid piles of green kelp.

Nakedness, in all forms, fit that world, it seemed to me. And I began to wonder, was California itself, widely known as “the Nude Beach Mecca,” closed to sun worshippers everywhere? Not at all. There are opportunities for nudists all over the state, but not many — something like 91 in all, I hear—and they range from coastal enclaves in Monterey and Santa Barbara to nudist parks in Lake Tahoe and Santa Cruz to clothing-optional zones everywhere, from Deep Creek Hot Springs in San Bernardino County to the Mad River Fish Hatchery in Northern California.

But the fact of the matter is, in terms of nudity, Black’s Beach is off limits and illegal. And yet it is allowed. Or a better way to put it, it is overlooked. No, ambivalence exists everywhere in relation to the place. You can’t be naked, but they permit it. Signs on the cliffs above admonish against anyone walking near the apron, not only above (“Unstable Cliffs, Stay Back”) but below as well (“Overhanging Cliffs Can Fall, Danger, Keep Away”), yet on a sunny day it is a beehive of activity on top there, with everyone, kids included, running about everywhere. “Why is this thus?” I asked, with Artemus Ward. “What is the reason of this thusness?”

More equivocation. There is no official access to the beach and yet to the left of the gliderport a steep set of stairs, quaquaversal and makeshift, thanks to a certain Steve Simms and a five-year effort of his, leads down to the beach from a precipitous height. The grade is so steep that a descent, after a slippery rain especially, gives it the myocardial equivalent of bungee-jumping. Most people use the so-called Broadway Trail, with zigzagging walkways and fragile handrails. Surfers commonly take the Goat Path, however, almost always on the run, straight forward over the nose of the clif£ usually on the run. In other words, no one’s allowed there, stay away, danger is everywhere. So naturally there are regulatory signs for the scofflaws.

No alcohol on beach, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

No dogs on beach, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

No glass containers

No beach fires (except in barbecues)

No sleeping overnight

My favorite sign on the cliff heights, God’s — or maybe Bob Barker’s — reads, “Walking only in daylight. Light was [sic] not provided because it may disturb the sensitive animals." In the meantime, your crazed, idiotic, screaming, hypersucral son or daughter could be doing a Greg Louganis right off the great knob out front there, straight into eternity. There, next to it, is another sign, “Dogs Prohibited." Admissions! Prohibitions! Permissions! Admonitions! These are the conditions! It all reminds me of the story of the tourist traveling in Maine who came across a fork in the road. On one road is a sign, saying, “To East Vassalboro.” On the other road is another sign, saying, “To East Vassalboro." Scratching his head in bewilderment, the tourist suddenly sees a Maine native standing at the intersection, walks over to him, and asks, “Does it make any difference which road I take?” And the man from Maine, with a characteristic shrug, replies, “Not to me it doesn’t.”

The alternative access to Black’s Beach, monstrously inconvenient, is to drive three miles north to Torrey Pines Beach, park, and then double back, taking the long walk south — or park somewhere at La Jolla Shores and walk north along the beach.

Another man soon appeared. He was in his late 50s and wore nothing but eyeglasses and one of those great knob-metal watches with a complicated dial that gives its owner a lot of trivial information about lunar life and the subdivisions of eternity. He was short, and his name was Lamont. (Giving out only first names is, I soon came to see, a general rubric in nudist circles.) He was in good shape and had a rumpled smile as he regarded me (censoriously?) wearing shorts and shoes and only a dark blue rugby shirt. What weird Boschian fact am I confessing by admitting my ' ryes were drawn almost magnetically, and this happened time and time again in the case of others, to his penes? It was done swiftly, not to study it, but almost as if this were the center of his being, the key to the door, put it any way you like, a handle so to speak by which the larger vessel alone could be lifted. I experienced this oddly for the first time with Lamont who, with folded arms, told me he was Just out for a constitutional.

A couple walking at Black's Beach

A couple walking at Black's Beach

I explained I was curious about — “investigating” seemed hostile — aspects of the nude beach and nudity and asked if he could answer a few questions, but he said, “This is only my third time down this year. I’m over from Harbin Hot Springs. Oh, lots of people come down later. I’m told. During summer, I mean. It’s so early now, you see. And cool.” He seemed nervously private and a bit rushed. “And I’m meeting some friends down the line here,” he giggled. “I don’t have reasons for much that I do, to tell you the truth. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I moved here from Syracuse. Paradox, paradox.” He said he could hook up with me later.

Trying openly to inquire about nudism, it began to dawn on me, was not going to be easy. Prurience, even priapism, or what is inevitably taken for such, if not an unprepossessing persona in the first place, is not in most cases an encouraging one. I realized to approach women down there would make me look suspicious, if not unwholesome. Gay men would think I was hitting on them. And single men of whatever sexual persuasion were not down there, I concluded, to give interviews. Weren’t questions themselves rude — nudism’s something you do, not discuss, right? (And I would soon come to see, if never quite understand or be able to explain, that nudists, at least the ones I encountered, were among the least inarticulate and ill-defined people I think I’ve ever met. But when you come right down to it, who in the world wants to explain anything?)

I sat down on a rock, thinking with amusement of the sun-simple and to me clinically moronic magazines about nudism from the 1950s I had seen in smoke shops as a boy — I used to buy pouches of Model tobacco in the seventh grade and deviously smoke pipes under my front porch — with titles like Sunlight and Jolly Jaybirds and Beachball, always hideously didactic the way only naturists can be, and all probably published in Sweden. I squinted at the beautiful beach and the waves rolling in and San Diego’s perfect weather. When I had some time earlier, I had done some basic homework.

Nude use of Black’s Beach, I had read, had been condoned by the San Diego City Council in 1974, a particular period, I later learned, when there was a great burgeoning of that activity in the local area and especially in Southern California. Stop in at the gliderport sometime and, if it’s still there, look on the wall at the huge photograph of Black’s Beach, taken in 1975 from a helicopter, probably on July 4, showing literally miles of nudists, thousands of them, buck-naked all of them, smiling, waving, swimming, gamboling, leaping about, and needless to say (to add that archetypal nudist verb) frolicking! There were even nudist parades. In 1972 the Chad Merrill Smith decision of the California Supreme Court “both recognized and altered social attitudes,” writes Lee Baxandall in World Guide to Nude Beaches and Recreation, one of the seminal nudist handbooks, “declaring that public nudity, not intended to be lascivious, was not, in fact, a sex crime.”

Not until 1977, that is. After a bitterly fought, narrowly lost — by one vote, they say — citywide referendum. Black’s Beach was declared illegal as a nude beach. Bras up! Bums away! Victory for the bluenoses! And yet there is another rule. Curiously, it prevails. To know it you had to listen, as Sigmund Freud once said he had to do to understand his patients, with your “third ear.” Basically, the rule is that, because the passed law is not enforced, if you are far enough away from other people so as not to cause offense, nudity at Black's Beach, if not acceptable or officially sanctioned, is at least overlooked. Legal recognition in the face of it seems gratuitous. Surrounding cliffs pocket the beach, so to speak. No houses, no residential areas are in sight. Go naked.

A man with a haircut like a dauphin, completely naked and holding a sheaf of circulars, walked over to me and with a big smile handed me one. “Enfree,” it read, “Tahanga Research News: distributed as a free leaflet, at beaches & universities. San Diego, Ca. Reprint freely!” It was a single sheet, almost like a college syllabus, listing, along with various conundra, six or seven calendar activities, to wit:

25 Feb. (Sunday): bisexual brunch, 11 a.m. Twiggs Coffee, 4590 Park, S.D. 220-0584

8-9-10 March: Leatherfest, San Diego

3rd Wednesday: Spirit dance [queer spirituality], 7 p.m., U-U Church, Hillcrest, S.D.

Bi-Etiquette: Q. At a Chinese meal, should a bi person be given one fortune cookie or two? A. None at all, since bisexuals already have more than their share of fortune.

Activities for everyone!

I had not only met my first ideological nudist, but, luckily, he had approached me. Abel, who introduced himself, was not shy, not at all; but he betrayed, without trying to hide it, a sort of wistfulness, and he seemed, along with his humid handshake, snail-soft. “We have two newsletters,” he said, “this one” — he waggled the copies of “Enfree" (as in “Olly Olly,” I wondered?) — “and the ‘B.B.B. Newsletter,’ for ‘Black’s Beach Bares,’ as in B-A-R-E-S, a common pun of the ’20s, as no doubt you are aware. It’s an old nudist joke.”

“Like the one about the two nudists seeing a pretty co-religionist,” I said, “and one says to the other, ‘Damn, she’d look great in a miniskirt’?”

Abel laughed and sat down. “Exactly. And you are — ”

I introduced myself and mentioned what I was doing there, seeing as he was the town crier, and he began to expatiate with a bit more enthusiasm than required on the history of the Tahanga Research Association — “with offices in La jolla,” he bowed.

“I noticed you even have a bulletin board on the beach,” I said It was a signpost, really, on which a few wet fliers were attached, that stood sentinel where the trail opened onto the beach at the bottom of the main cliff.

“For what’s up. You know. Lectures. Meetings. Events.” He paused. “We play horseshoes. A group of older guys. They’ll be down here later. Very approachable.” He got up nervously and walked around, speaking as if to his own pygal-shaped impression in the sand. “There’s quite a lot to do here actually.”

I was thinking, “Leatherfests?”

“Oh, and of course, volleyball.”

“I saw the net,” I said. “What is this thing about nudity and volleyball?”

He laughed.

“It seems to be the icon of, what — the nude spirit, would you say? The symbol? There are magazines. Tourneys, I’ve heard. You see it being played in practically every photo in the World Guide. Internationally.”

“You’ve read Lee Baxandall?”

“I have it up in my car.”

“You come prepared,” he said. “Did you know that, next to the Kama Sutra, it’s the book most commonly found in bookstore bathrooms?”

I didn’t ask how he knew. And then he sat down again, twitchily, folding his arms.

“You should read Nude and Nature. It’s a quarterly. I don’t miss it.” He gave a long sigh. “Volleyball is democratic — to answer your question. It’s cheap. It’s easy. You don’t need a lot of skill. People bounce. What do I know?” He peered closer and was craning his neck toward me. “Don’t mind me. I wanted to see your lobes. Long lobes indicate healthy adrenals.” He folded his arms like a flower, looked up at the thin sun, leaned over, and sighed again. “February’s not the time to be here. It’s the winter light, even in San Diego. Bright. Too white. Not sunny yellow. But to tell the truth,” he added cryptically, “1996 is not the time to be here.”

“Meaning?”

“This beach was a legend once,” he said, waving a hand to and fro. “I mean, it was mobbed. In the ‘70s? Absolutely. And on weekends, even at this time of the year? No question. No-o-o question. But during summer? Puh-leeze, don’t even ask! Blanket touching blanket. Openness. Free pot. Parades.” And he was correct. In the California section of the World Guide was a full-page color photo, taken on this very beach, showing a mummer’s parade in full swing of young, happy, freewheeling, body-painted nudists — body-painting, I would later learn, was once all the rage here— all traversing Black’s Beach en masse and holding signs reading, “Total Tan Is Terrific,” “We Love Mother Nature,” and even “Thank You, San Diego, for Eden.”

“It is a sign of the times,” said Abel, dolefully. “Look around. This place is in serious decline.”

As we talked, haltingly, about Abel’s way of life (“I’m in between jobs”) and philosophy (“I’m a pantheist”) and presidential politics (“Who’s running, Huckleberry Hound?”), I couldn’t help noticing the sporadic entrance from various places of a lot of single men, almost none accompanied. Filtering onto the beach and staking out what I believe in office parlance, regarding workstations, is called the “glue position.” It called to mind, for some reason, what I remember once reading about the actor Peter Lorre, who apparently had a neurotic quirk about his position in the space around him, when, for instance, sitting in restaurants, he would have to situate himself in special ways in order to feel comfortable.

Speaking of which, I began to feel like a idiot out there in the sun, clothed, like Dr. Livingstone, crow-trodden and pale. Was it shame — the “ignored emotion,” according to Rycroff’s Critical Dictionary of Psychology, “the Cinderella of the unpleasant emotions.” I was certainly not unaware that shame and guilt are mechanisms built into the firmware of the body that monitor our involvement with each other. (Erich Fromm linked shame to separation.) But who that’s aware of his body isn’t alert to the sense of a defective self? Fred Astaire was ashamed of his hands, which were positively huge and simian. (He always said it was his reason for going into film and not classical ballet.) Susan Hayward hated her nose, Joan Rivers her elephantine legs, Lana Turner her eyebrows. Richard Nixon was assless and had long, flapping feet.

Alan Ladd was too short, like Jimmy Cagney and Tom Cruise. Denzel Washington, who wore baggy pants in Devil in a Blue Dress, has a massive bum and apparently has a contract clause that the dirigible cannot be filmed. Andie McDowell, I’ve read, is ashamed that her hair is too curly. Michelle Pfeiffer is on record as saying that she thinks she looks like a duck. Dustin Hoffman, who has an extremely weird body, walks like a spaz. Imelda Marcos has a moon-desperate face. Romanian viper Elena Ceauçescu, who had the ugliest combination of parts in the entire history of the female species, refused to be photographed in the presence of a pretty woman, the breach of which prohibition got you instantly executed.

No, even though it seemed to me normal to have — even to encourage — a personal reticence about nakedness, which, under another light, who knew, was even a form of grace, and while I felt sure that in almost every context of nakedness, at least for me, shame was pretty much inevitable, even if shyness was only shame instructed by fear, I was down on that beach as much to examine my thoughts and opinions about nudity as I was to observe Black’s, still while I felt uncomfortable about being clothed, I refused the alternative.

“Naked man,” I counted. “Naked man. Another one. There’s a couple, with kids. And I see a woman. Or is that a man? Everybody’s arriving.”

I offered the comment, while pointing out that it had nothing to do with disapproval, only topical interest — along with the fact, not unsettling but nettlesome, that Abel kept mentioning I had a very firm deltoid muscle — that they all seemed heading toward the north side.

“To the gay area, yes,” said Abel, shrugging. “But I’m bisexual. And a voyeur, too. Voyeurism is normal. There’s something erotic about voyeurism, yes, but isn’t it done all the time? Take looking. People will watch everything, and they do, right? But just call it voyeurism” — he hooted low, for drama — “and watch everyone deny it. I laugh,” he said sadly. “I only laugh. I can only laugh.”

Sex in nudism, I was certain, played a big part in it, even if in subtle ways. I could feel Abel’s libido energy but finding it harmless suggested walking in that direction just to have a look and maybe talk to somebody. He quickly agreed and, picking up his sheaf of circulars, said he wanted to pass them out. As we walked, I felt oddly and prissily egregious next to Abel and the other naked men and few couples — virtually no women — sitting around on blankets. Shakespeare suggests that it is our eyes that govern the definition of whom we love. (Konrad Lorenz places it deeper in the brain.) Black’s Beach indeed has much to do with looking — and, I felt after a few visits, strategies to reduce shame.

The predominance of men there, the exclusivity of the one sex, reinforced the idea, certainly among promenading tourists, of which I suppose I was one, that much of Black’s is gay and off limits to single women, at least women who in going there wanted to be left alone. With two important exceptions, I encountered almost no women, no single women certainly, during all my visits to that place.

A certain illicitness adhibited to the men, single, in couples, some in small groups sitting on blankets down by the lavender welcoming ball. The comparative grassiness there added camouflage. Some people had told me that sexual acts had been performed right there in the open at times. I saw a lot of men, some lithe and handsome, many fat, none old, standing around and just looking, at discrete distances, posturing, often with the turnout stance, as they say in ballet, sort of theatrically freeze-posing the way Elvis and Tom Jones did back in Las Vegas with a sort of kitschy drama at the end of songs. I thought of these guys as Kinkoids, duplicates of each other, and recalled the lines of Robert Frost:

“Give us the life that the movies show us.

That the party in power is keeping from us.

A world where ask is get

And knock is open wide.”

You felt narcissism. A hairy guy named Larry, who looked like a Chia Pet — I never knew a Larry, except for one friend of mine, who wasn’t gay — said, as Abel offered him a circular, “The atmosphere at Black’s changed just when the council rescinded the legality of the place in 1977. Regulars like me are bold, all right? We are only exerting our freedom and asking for nothing more than our just due, Mr. Magoo. Our just due and Tippecanoe! We’re outlaws. Pariahs. Get me? We’re acting outside the law. That’s what we’re doing now, standing right here. But see that passing Jeep? Rangers. They couldn’t care less.”

Black’s reputation is smudged, according to several people I talked to in downtown La Jolla, younger people having coffee at the Pavilion, who, 20 years ago, I assume, would have been kicking around down at the beach but said they now rarely bothered logo down there — maybe once or twice in the summer, on July 4 or Labor Day perhaps. Many considered it a place for perverts, even homeless people, droolies. They said there were drugs at the beach, lots of acid. And there were deaths on the cliffs. One or two a year. Or was that just talk? New-Age hippies held drum circles down there, I was told. Percussion rituals. Hoodoo-meets by moonlight, I gather. What, calling on Manitou? Summoning ghosts? College kids and families in La Jolla to swim and get the sun almost always went to Windansea Beach and La Jolla Shores. The unsavoriness of Black’s Beach always elicited a certain kind of smirk.

Ambling back from the far end of that area, Abel, who casually invited me (“no strings attached”) to a lesbian and gay S&M meeting in Hillcrest at four o’clock that very same afternoon, “just to check out that side of things" — “and guess what street it’s being held on?" he asked. “Riiiight! Normal!"—at one point stopped dead in his tracks, self-consciously turning away. “See that couple, with the kids?” I looked ahead to a group of three or four standing by the volleyball net. “Last week they claimed I was staring at their kids — you know, out of line? Which is absolutely ridiculous. I think I'll head back the other way. But what about four?”

I thanked him, no, I said, wished him well, and paused at the net to talk to Bart, a florid-faced fellow, fully clothed, who was selling soft drinks (illegally) from a stacked cooler. A regular, he was so sunburned, almost ultraviolet, that he literally looked parboiled, as though he had been the victim of a nuclear attack. Here I was introduced to two Black’s Beach regulars, Shona, a 30-year-old blonde semivoluptuary and painter who, although born in Spain, had lived here for nine years, and her 45-year-old husband, Carlo, a Gordon Liddy look-alike, short and bearded, and their two little girls, Marguerite and Lolita, who were both wearing clothes, but, I was told, only because it was too cool. Wearing an out-of-date bandeau around her hair and shaved below, Shona, who was easily the prettiest woman I would encounter on the beach, took the nudist’s novel line that only naked did one feel free.

“Europeans find nude beaches — or free beaches, as we say — perfectly natural,” said Shona. “Doing your own thing. It’s groovy.” For a minute it was the ’60s again, and I was listening to the Cowsills. “We police ourselves here," Carlo chimed in. “We come, we see people — say, they’re clothed — and we tell them, as we sit down, ‘If this feels too close, let us know, okay?’ Hey, live and let live.” I couldn’t help noticing as I asked my questions that her husband drew closer to his wife somewhat guardedly. Did I make them self-conscious by being dressed? It seemed unnatural, their diffidence, and paradoxically proof of the insecurity their nakedness belied.

I am convinced that nudity is, in one sense, actually a way of hiding, of being covert, of disclosing nothing, nothing whatsoever, nothing but sameness, and, curious as it may sound, it has nothing to do with revealing at all, but rather quite frankly and unequivocally masking. Aren’t we in fact more generic when naked? No coordinates, no clothes. Your class level is disidentified. A nudist going to such a beach becomes a body, not a personality. This-ness or thatness in terms of personhood becomes irrelevant. You are man or woman only. Dissolved. Didn’t Andre Malraux write perspicaciously in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, “Essentially a man is what he hides”?

For John Berger in his treatise Ways of Seeing, nakedness acts in a sense as a confirmation of unadorned reality in the onlooker and, because of that, provokes a very strong sense of “relief.” He says, “We do not expect (a naked person) to be otherwise, but the urgency and complexity of our feeling breeds a sense of uniqueness which the sight of the other, as she is or as he is, now dispels. (The unclothed person is now) more like the rest of their sex than they are different. In this revelation lies the warm and friendly — as opposed to cold and impersonal — anonymity of nakedness.”

Our relief, as he would have it, is the confirmation of the familiar. We are grounded, as it were, and a catharsis of sorts takes place. “At the moment of nakedness first perceived,” observes Berger, “even an element of banality enters.” Which is a long way from vamping.

I asked Carlo what he did for a living — a question most everyone on that beach abhorred for reasons I cannot say, although many occurred to me — but he was very forthcoming, as others were, about former times. He wore a ponytail. He had been born in New Hampshire, had once been a seminarian, and was hugely endowed. I asked if he still went to church, and, looking at Shona with risible eyes, he turned away and snorted with derisive laughter. I turned the conversation back to Black’s Beach. Taking off his sunglasses, he said, “I remember when you could not move on this beach, it was so happening. There were 39 trash cans — I counted them once — from one end of the beach to the other. And, man, trash was picked up then. We had beauty contests. Volleyball. Frisbees. Everybody had a smile on. You did what you want. No John Law; he wasn’t necessary. Body-painting. Swapping.”

“Swapping?”

“Food, you know.” He laughed. “What? Girlfriends, too. Wives. Pot. Hey, whatever your thing is.” It was suddenly 1967 all over again, decade of headbands, the smiley face, and Arlo Guthrie hair. And I dug it. I could grok it. Yeah, man, I can get behind that!

Tim, a blond muscular guy of 33, born in Colorado — he looked like Don Meredith — was an unmarried carpenter who lived in San Diego. He also wore shades and, spare and strong as a ship’s tophammer, was extremely well built and tanned and had a hummingbird tattooed on his right pectoral. “I’ve been coming here for, I don’t know, about two and a half years. Yeah, I’ve been to other nude beaches. Hippie Hollow at Lake Travis in Austin, Texas. Parts of the Panhandle.” He seemed surprised that I wanted to know anything about this and I could tell by his forks-of-the-creek monosyllables there was nothing of philosophy to do with his desire to go naked.

I noticed, crucially, that like everyone else down there, he had no book. I thought, there all day, with nothing to read? Think of it! I’m not talking about a set of Tolstoy or A.N. Whitehead or the Brown and Blue Books of Ludwig Wittgenstein, mind you, but not even a magazine? A copy of the Reader's Digest? I changed the subject. “How do you regard — do San Diegans regard — summer?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t it always summer here? Is June, July, and August particularly different down here on the beach?”

“More like July, August, September,” he said, rolling over to shake the midges settling on his buttocks. “June is really gloomy.” He smiled over at Shona, which I interpreted as his putting paid to our chat.

I walked on and met a grumpy old man, toothless as a cobra, but when I tried to talk to him, he angrily waved me off. The Westins, a 70-year-old couple, wouldn’t say anything but “Just enjoy the sun. We do,” and clammed up. Another overweight man, a Faroukian with a bad case of belly-sag who looked like a salesman from Sid’s Carpet Barn, momentarily lifted up the earplug of his Walkman and said, “Can’t talk. I’m catching The Mort Report. You for Utah? The Runnin’ Utes?” Doubtful, my friend. Doubtful.

But here were only men. Where was Conchita Montenegro? Hedy l.amarr? Louise Brooks? Dagmar with bosoms till Tuesday? Mink Stole? I began to feel that even Arsinoe III or Marjorie Main would do. Any woman. No Gibson Girl, no White Diamonds model, no, I wouldn’t be that lucky. No tall goddessy, utterly self-contained Amazons, with no more need of men than Saint-Gaudens’s Diana, high on the tower of Madison Square Garden. I only wanted a plain Jane, jolly and unupholstered, to put me in the picture about female nudity.

A small group of folks, stretching, self-absorbed but friendly, yawningly blasé, all watching as Carlo and Shona’s children ran sillily in circles, introduced me on another day to a woman named Karen, 30, a UCSD graduate student working on her M.F.A. in drama, who lived in La Jolla and had the pretty, pert face of the Starbucks Coffee mermaid.

“I know those people, but not well,” she confided to me, referring to this group, as we sat down to talk some distance from the others — she kindly offered me a sip from her bottle of Evian water — “although I’ve been coming to Black’s for 11 years. My parents used to come down here in the ’70s. I like nudity. I’ve been to many nude beaches. After college I traveled to the Balearic Islands, Ibiza, Mykonos, even to Germany, some lake in Berlin, the name slips my mind.” Her breasts and body were pale but shone in the hot sun.

“I rarely come here now.” She sat to attention and looked at me. “Want to know why? There are no solo females. Notice? When you do see women here, you see them as part of a couple, for safety. I could see you were earnestly trying to ask questions. No problem. There are still rules here at Black’s. If someone complains, you have to put your clothes on. You know? And you can always call a ranger. It’s just not the place it used to be. No, it may seem antisocial. But when I come here, I want to be left alone.”

“Like Garbo.”

“Like me,” she replied, closing her eyes and smiling. “This place in many ways is a zoo. The American idea is that if you’re nude, you’re open for business. When a man tries to approach or solicit me, I play a deaf-and-dumb woman. No response. No eye contact. But tell me, why should this be a problem, unless women still have to suffer responsibility for their sexuality. Think about stereotypes of women. It’s damned frustrating. I remember seeing a BBC program once about nudity and art. ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,’ ” she quoted. “‘This determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed, female.’ Amazing, huh?

“But even single men down here at Black’s Beach, many of them, want only to be left alone, too. Want to know something? Never once when I was abroad, in four different European countries, have I ever been approached. But here? Naked, by dint of being exposed, you’re supposed to be ready for promiscuous sex.” “You mean, if a woman comes down here alone, it’s what, Suddenly Last Summer?"

She burst into laughter.

“Not quite. But did you see that kid just walk by, scoping me out — circle around way out of his way? Tourists who come here must be shocked. For a lot of guys, to walk through Black’s Beach is like a dare. Checking out nudists. Gaping. Gawking. It’s like a goddam stockyard.”

It was Sunday, and by noontime the population of the beach had grown. I wondered, did strollers see this strip as the sex center and entrep6t of Gomorrah? Couples, families, tourists, surfers, teenage girls-in-twos walked by all day, moving in herds, a good many of them, like fearful cows that seemed to sense a gathering storm.

“The peeking-over-the-fence syndrome,” I said.

“Exactly. Which is why, trust me, I don’t feel comfortable here and don’t bother coming here anymore. Today was an exception. I had to get out of the house. There used to be the ‘Black’s Beach Sheet,’ and I will never forget one thing it said, ‘No Romeos, please.’ I have always felt extremely awkward about myself, anyway, how I look. I don’t know, maybe I think the sun helps — but at what cost, you know?”

But I was thinking of Margaret Atwood on this problem and the vulnerability of women in general. “The Female body has many uses. It’s been used as a door-knocker, a bottle opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreaths, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads. It sells cars, beer, shaving lotion, cigarettes, hard liquor; it sells diet plans, diamonds, and desire in tiny crystal bottles.” But you know what? It can’t be left in peace, not here, no sir, not at Black’s Beach.

“There’s a lot of sexual tension here,” said Karen. “I don’t care what’s said about nudism being wholesome and all. People have this thing on their minds. Notice, even the questions you ask puts people on edge.”

“Because of sex?”

“People don’t have good answers, for one thing. But I’m talking about men hitting on women. This idea that prudery is the mainstream of traditional nudism? I say bull! Although I’ve heard the Elysian Institute in Topanga Canyon is like, I don’t know, the real thing. Did you ever hear of the Swallows Sun Island Club? It’s a San Diego nudist park, in El Cajon. Campsites, restaurants. It’s asexual, I’ve heard. No single men allowed. Same with the Camping Bares. Their logo’s a real bear,” she said, laughing. “They hike and camp nude. It’s supposed to be the real thing. Notice I’m shaved? Maybe you didn’t. All Turkish women are denuded. The Japanese consider pubic hair obscene, when exposed, I mean. I’m interested in pure sun and air, the ocean, not some jerk coming up to me asking, ‘How’s the water? Got any suntan lotion? Which way is the water?’ ”

Two men enjoying the sun at Black's Beach

Two men enjoying the sun at Black's Beach

“You’re asking one of my own questions,” I said. “Is nudism about sex or not? Does nakedness pander to the concept of lust or prevent it? Is it natural or perverse? I’m only asking because on the many days I’ve come down here, watching all the gymnosophists and nature mystics, I remain convinced that, with few exceptions, most human bodies, as such, are better viewed through a diffusion lens.”

“To most people? It’s about sex.”

“What if you’re nude,” I offered cryptically, “and not naked. You know the distinction Kenneth Clark, in The Nude, said that to be naked is simply to be without clothes, whereas being nude is a form of art.”

Karen agreed. “And not simply an object.”

“Cool media,” I said, leaning back. “Elegant. Like Rubens’s Judgment of Paris. Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Manet’s Olympia. But even they could be considered, I don’t know — kinetic. Sweatily enticing. As opposed to static objects of lust, I mean. In non-Western art, Persian, Indian, nakedness is never supine. Or horizontally suggestive.”

I recalled John Berger’s aesthetic distinctions.

“To be naked is to be oneself.

“To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.

“To be naked is to be without disguise.

“To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.”

“Nudism, at least the way it goes on here, is not about nudism,” I said, “but nakedness.”

“To most people,” said Karen, “I’m telling you, it’s about sex.”

“Which means exhibitionism,” I said. “And so shame. Don’t they go together?”

I continued.

“Shame cannot appear until a child understands guilt, according to Donald Nathanson in his book Shame and Pride. They go together, too, don’t they? Feed each other? The other day, while I was watching six or seven grown men, all naked, playing volleyball, it occurred to me that what they ignored, I mean, their entire threshold of tolerance, depended upon the extent to which they were willing to disallow private need for communal acceptance. Nathanson points out that the more you come to know about shame, the less trivial seems comedy.

“When I see all these Dionysian, Prussian-hearty, glee-clapping attempts at joy on nude beaches, why does it seem less real to me than any actual joy I’ve ever observed? Or that they even seem to feel? Ever notice that all those books purporting to be about ‘the joy of something or other — sex, cooking, Yiddish — are really only attempts at reducing the shame of something?” “And you’re saying?” “Nudism is as much about repression as it is about sex, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Repression’s about sex,” said Karen. “And can lead to deviant behavior. Whack-offs. There’s a great distrust of men down here. Distrust and circumspection. Want to know something? They probably think you’re gay, making all this up about writing an article on nudity.”

She flagged away a cloud of midges and turned over on the blanket, facedown. Her white skin made her look more naked and fragile than someone tanned, in the same way that a wisp of underwear gave someone a more provocative body than someone merely naked. Tanned bodies are, in a sense, clothed and seem much less lewd or libidinous than does pale nudity. A healthy sunned body, in that it seems seasoned, seems sexless and only hedonistic. I’ve always thought all those tanned, half-naked women on the Riviera were sporting a fashion more than going naked. Karen said, “I’m not even a nudist. I’m certainly not an exhibitionist. It’s simple, really. Some people just like to take their clothes off. Low key. Swim naked. No alcohol. No creeps around, lust solitude and sun.”

I was glad to hear that as I sat there watching clothed people — el otro campo — stroll the beach, all watching the nude people, the nude people watching the clothed people, and everyone looking up through the clouds at intervals watching an F-14 overhead, and slowly I began to ponder another facet of nudism.

Why, if it wasn’t sexual, did it have to be communal? Why are nudists so driven to be together? If all my life I had always thought of nudism — all that phony claptrap about nature, when finally it was only sexual — to be the physiological equivalent of wall-mottoes, wasn’t it because at bottom it was all about being a horny little devil? Weren’t there anchorites and cenobites, hermits and ascetics, solitaries in short, who were nudists? People whose act of disrobing was also a shedding of passion, of vanity, of lust, of the worldly and the fleshly?

I knew that the Quakers years ago often went “naked for a sign,” in accordance with the 20th chapter of Isaiah. And antinomians in general considered nudity as a representation of primeval innocence before the Fall, as well as an emblem for the “naked truths” of the Gospel. Swedenborg’s own interest in sexual efficacy was aligned to his belief that “nakedness corresponds to innocence.” Didn’t William Blake and his wife often read Paradise Lost together, naked, in their garden? And hadn’t the doctrine of Nareism conjoined the practice of nudism to the liberation of female sexuality? Wasn’t this altruism? Goodness? Innocence? Why was this no longer the case? What had transmogrified in places like Black’s Beach?

Why did the narcissistic always seem to prevail? Was the sexual aspect the only aspect of the undraped? Or given the nature of man, was this a naive concept to hold? I could easily imagine in one of these pursuivants of pure nature and Edenic need a compulsion for humility! And I concluded that if there were such people, as doubtless there were, we would never see them. They’d be alone in the hills of Vermont or in Epping Forest or in the Schwarzwald, like St. Anthony, naked by a stream, on their penitential knees, holily in their birthday suits and wishing only for enlightenment.

But Karen was a solitary. And so were Abel, Lamont, the West ins. Cobra Tooth, and Farouk with the earplugs. For all their exposure, it seemed, nudists found it difficult to be intimate. Unwilling to discuss it, perhaps they were unable to, hadn’t the vocabulary for searching or unpleasant questions. Who, furthermore, wouldn’t be fed up from years of cartoon inquiries? My only hobble was born of the fact that I have always thought that the body was basically less important than the mind. A nude mind on a nude body, no matter how beautiful, was to me a beggar on horseback.

Not that a relentlessly out-of-shape intellectual is any better. And as I watched the various naked passersby, men invariably, some with toploftical airs and dandified, others as dumpy looking as their wagging weenies, many with vagabond insouciance, most of them alert, to what?—other bodies, the economy of contact, strangers in the night, etc. — I considered the many reasons, several unavailable to me, a person might want to appear publicly naked: love of sun, psychic exposure, craven bonhomie, self-adulation, romantic pre-Adamism, the hope of a sexual liaison, etc. And what was the mystery among nudists at Black’s that nobody swam?

“I’m Bike,” said a thin 50-year-old-man with skin the color of celluloid. He was speaking to Karen. He had no body hair and showed the animated face of Bernie Keebler, the cookie elf. He sat down next to us sideways, in a sort of epicene way, like the Copenhagen mermaid. “And this is Dale.” He indicated a balding but amiable-looking nude companion in ratty thrift-store thongs, who had a scar (“surfboard accident”) of 98 stitches down his arm.

“Are you from San Diego?” I asked.

“Rancho Peñasquitos. I’ve been a nudist for most of my life. Ever hear of the Sexual Freedom league? A 20-year-old today can hardly believe that at one time nudism wasn’t allowed, and, try this one on, at Black’s it isn’t, okay? But I’ve been there from the beginning.” He boldly saluted and, giggling with exaggeration, said, “The Struggle.”

He had a lot of inappropriate laughter, of the peculiar tee-hee sort, like James Dean had in Rebel without a Cause. “Arrested in 1965. Agitated in L.A., San Francisco, up and down the coast. You name it. I’m also involved, thank you, with the BBC, Bare Buns of California. Know of it? Male. Gay. No big deal.” He was speaking mostly to Karen. “I’m a Libertarian. What I actually am is an anarchist. You know what bothers me? Nobody ever thinks of the subtlety of eroticism. The delicate side. We’re not just meat.”

I asked Dale, “Have you been coming to this beach long? As a nudist?”

Dale nodded and said his parents had often brought him to Black’s when he was growing up as a youngster in the Solana Beach area.

“Which is rare,” Bike piped in. “A second-generation nudist is very unusual.”

I leaned over, past Bike’s open lap, and asked him, “What exactly is the subtlety of eroticism?”

A long, strange pause followed.

“Is it that you don’t like me?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Or you dislike nudists?”

“I believe in nudism, not a communalism of vanity, flash, or buttocky need,” I said. “Why to be naked with yourself is there the concomitant buffleheaded need to go bouncing around and playing volleyball, strolling on the beach, hiking in the buff with others? Nudism in its more overreaching aspects seems to me like some yahoo sitting next to you in an airplane and within minutes showing you photos of his baby. I don’t contest the simple, open-hearted desire to sit under a hot sun or go swimming naked, but why the compulsion to join? Isn’t it ludicrous, furthermore, to join a club or society of nudists for only a short time only to have to go put your clothes back on again to reenter the sartorial world? Isn’t it somehow like a masquerade ball, where, although you may go dressed in multicolored fun as Dorothy or the Wizard, you eventually end up back on a black-and-white Kansas farm?

“My opinion, Mr. Bike? I’m all for free body culture and outdoorsy, Teutonic heartiness — Freikörperkultur as they say in Germany—but where’s the logic in having to get together on mud flats, beaches, seashores, resorts, islands, sky farms, spas, reserves, forests, coves, state parks, clubs, waterfalls, cruise ships, lodges, lakes, campsites, bluffs, hills, and hot springs trying to make another world?” He leered at Karen. “Do you agree?”

She put on her blouse. I asked Dale, “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m with an airline.”

I looked at Bike. “And you?”

A strained pause.

“I’m—crazy,” said Bike, looking mutely away. I waited. I was beginning to get agoraphobic. “I’m bright. I’m talented, I’m personable, I’m observant. I’m educated, all right? So everything’s fine, I go for an interview, boom, I never get the job. Result? Six hundred dollars a month on SSI. I get depressed in my apartment, so I come here, it cheers me up. I don’t want, how should I say, any connotations. Whatever that means. I’m been coming here since the year one. It’s my sanctuary. It’s my home, in a way. It’s a city. Want to meet the Mayor, Al Spencer? Or the Mad Professor? Or the 90-Degree Man?” He giggled. “We have nicknames.” He smiled. “I enjoy—" He shrugged. “Meeting people.”

“Meeting people,” he said. “Talking. Taking a walk. Life.” He giggled and, drawing in the sand with a finger, began to whistle “Love Me, Love My Pekinese” from Born to Dance. He beamed at Karen. “I enjoy an intentional community. I enjoy” — he surveyed the beach, both ways — “sex. Do you know the expression jack-off? Well, I’m going to a jack-and-jill-off tonight at Miramar. Want to come?”

I laughed. “To experience, what was it — let me see — the subtleties of eroticism? Wasn’t that how you put it? The delicate side?”

He giggled and wiped his arms. “I always say, if you’ve got it, bump it with a trumpet.” “But don’t you read?” I asked him. “Where’s your book? Have you ever thought that maybe you’re depressed, not because you’re a nudist, but because, at least you seem to imply this, you spend your life on a sex trail? That what you consider a cure is in fact the symptom of a greater problem? Me, I’m just not that interested in bare buns, jill-offs, nudism, liberation struggles, and a life of beach balls, volleyballs! Why would a person make a vocation out of sex?” “I love a total-body tan” — he took refuge in the gracefully idealistic phrase nudists often use by way of an explanation of their behavior — “and who knows,” this to Karen, “I might get lucky down here.” Karen stared past him. A black frost descended. He smiled at Karen, who looked at Dale with his scar, who looked at me, who looked at Bike and his frowning clownishness and rumpled hair and muscleless shoulders, and we sat in silence. A plane roared loudly overhead. Bike got up, wiped sand off his hands, wished us goodbye, and, with Dale in tow and something of a wistful, rainy-day expression, walked away, naked as Godiva, bum-boating along on those bare buns of California, agitated, often arrested, turning only once to shout, “I love sun!” before continuing his ski ran-donée up the beach. Along with Bike and his buttered buns, holding hands in a linked pilgrimage, following a trail to the horizon, went old Lamont and snail-soft Abel with his bowl cut, Carlo the Hung, Shona the Queen of Corona, hairy Larry and hardy Tim with his hummingbird, Karen the pale and shaven isolato, bethonged Dale and his scar, even me with my own buttoned-up non-disclosures and long lobes. And I was thinking, one’s body is one’s autobiography. The archaeology of the skin. “The only thing that matters in one’s personal story,” wrote Cuban poet Severn Sarduy in his Christ on the Rue Jacob, “is whatever has been ciphered on the body and there continues to talk, to narrate, to simulate the incident responsible transcription.” Perhaps he was correct.

Nudism as confession.

I remember reminding myself, as I sat there on Black’s Beach, later to check on some lines from John Donne’s “Ecstasy” stirring at the bottom of my consciousness, and when I returned home I did. They went:

So must pure lovers’ souls descend

To affections and to faculties

Which sense may reach and apprehend.

We show what we are in the hope we are accepted, we are forgiven, we are absolved. The body is a necessary alloy of the soul. So is elemental nakedness an attempt, modestly, at seeking innocence? I wanted to learn that, to feel that, not so much not to forget it, as to believe. Natura naturans: the soul elemental, the creative force. To know ourselves is not egotism but the gateway of all virtue. Maybe it all applied here, on this sandy stretch of beach north of San Diego, in this Garden of Earthly Delights. The greatest paradox of them all may be that nothing is further off from self-knowledge than introspection and nothing more remote from wisdom than pure intellect, as perfect an example of the counter-factual as possible, with the single exception, perhaps, of Black’s Beach.

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