Portland, Naked City

World Naked Bike Ride

I inadvertently bore witness to the World Naked Bike Ride yesterday. For those unfamiliar, it’s exactly what it sounds like–once a year, exhibitionists and jaybirds from across the city gather, strip down, and ride their bikes through the streets of Portland. And I had the worst possible introduction to it:

Driving back from visiting my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew in Hillsboro (a suburb on the far western edge of Portland), I took a wrong turn, and wound up driving through Hawthorne (the low-rent hipster district) where traffic was touch-and-go–er, “stop and go” let’s say. I don’t want to think about touching.

Traffic would move forward a block or so at a time, then halt for 30-45 seconds. I reached the main drag; and so too did he–a naked bicyclist so hairy that if he were to bathe in Rogaine even once, upon emerging, he would likely and immediately thereafter get tagged with a tranquilizer dart and captured by one of Portland’s many Bigfoot enthusiasts–which is, yes, also a thing around here. I mean, we’re talking a man-shaped shag carpet on wheels; and each time traffic would stop, sure enough, that hairy asshole (and I mean that on two levels) would come peddling up the sidewalk and into my accursed sight lines.

For 15 minutes, this went on. The most startling aspect of it to me was not that he was so cavalier about “letting it all hang out,” let’s say, or the fact that I almost rear-ended someone while trying desperately to avoid eye contact with his…rear-end, but that everyone else along the street seemed so accepting of his presence as to hardly notice that a living fur coat was bicycling in their midst–even the parents around made no attempt to cup their hands over their children’s eyes, or otherwise shield them from the NSFW spectacle. It’s as though such behavior is not so much tolerated, but expected in this city.

I’m obviously a fish out of water bison out of pasture here, and the Midwestern brand of squeamish modesty with which I was raised is clearly embedded in my psyche in a manner completely foreign to most Portlandians. Perhaps, in time, my sensibilities will change–I cannot say for certain. What I do know, however, is that in just under a year of living here, I’ve concluded conclusively that “Keep Portland Weird” is possibly the most redundant slogan in all of Modern American English.

As I’ve said before, this city is in no danger of being anything but thoroughly eccentric; in fact, I think it’s fair to say that if the fate of the Earth hinged on Portland’s ability to conform to American standards of societal normalcy, the world would likely then burn up in a blaze of indie bands, hemp sandals, and bird tattoos. And I’m strangely okay with that–not the total destruction of our planet part, obviously, but the unabashed caution-to-the-wind, balls-to-the-walls (or “to-the-bicycle-seat,” I should say) brand of living so often on display here. Still, maybe “weird” isn’t the best way of describing it.

One of the most memorable lectures I attended in college was about the difference between nudity and nakedness: In short, “nudity” is a purely visual phenomenon wherein someone has disrobed in part or in whole, but either way, in plain view; “nakedness,” however, is far more–it is not physical but emotional, for to be naked is to cast aside not simply clothing, but pretense and inhibitions. It is to have not merely your anatomy, but your personality and your very selfhood on full display, and unfalteringly so.

Portland has nude bicyclists, yes, as well as the most strip clubs per capita of any city in the nation–yet for neither of those reasons do I now say “Portland is a naked city, not a weird one.” No, the “weirdness” is simply a matter of perception propagated by former outsiders like myself who move here unaware that the only primary societal norm of this place is to live with every part of you for all to see–even if that means looking like a streaking yeti on a ten speed. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

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