I opened my eyes and saw two young teenagers peering at me at a distance of about fifteen feet, their necklace chains dazzling in the blinding morning sun. An instant later, I realized with a jolt that the nude white dude they spoke of was me.
“Watch out, he waking up!” one of them cried, and they tore off out of sight in genuine terror. I sat up hazily and looked around. I was in a tiny park somewhere in New York City—a few wooden benches, some trees, a drinking fountain. Beyond, the world bustled, honked, and shrieked. Whatever extremely drunken notion had inspired me to abandon my clothes the night before, the logic was lost on me as the glamourlessness of my situation slowly dawned. I was completely naked except a pair of dirty socks—no money, no Metrocard, no cell phone, just a wailing headache.
I cobbled together a plan of action—first, find some clothes; second, figure out where I was; third, find a way back to my friend Seth’s apartment in the East Village, which was home for my six-week stay in the city. But how to find clothes? I sifted glumly through a pair of trashcans at the center of the park—no pants, no sheets, no newspapers, only a giant pizza box. I wrapped the thing around me and ventured out of the park to the crowded sidewalk. Shoppers, students, and businessmen streamed past without even a curious glance. Naked people, I soon discovered, are simply not given much credibility when they appeal for help from strangers on the street. I stopped an enormous man walking a tiny dog. “Listen,” I said, “I know this sounds crazy, but last night was my birthday—well, today is my birthday, but we celebrated last night—and, well, I’m naked now. Can you help me? I need some pants. Do you live around here?” The guy wheeled spryly past me, dragging his little dog, which began to bark at me furiously as though outraged by my nakedness.
Mutts aside, it was like being given the Silent Treatment by the whole damn world. Everyone burrowed into their headphones as they passed me and looked dead ahead. I couldn’t even get anyone to stop long enough to explain my predicament; instead, folks clamped cell phones to their ears and said things like, “Wait, I can’t hear you, there’s a weird naked guy trying to talk to me.”
In the peripheral attentions of people rushing from one place to another, I registered no differently than any other skinny, bald hobo dressed in dirty socks and a pizza box, who, if engaged, would probably ask for eight bucks or want to discuss aliens, secret gamma rays, and C.I.A. plots. Speaking calmly and sanely only seems to amplify your deranged vibe when your outfit comes from Sbarro’s.
Shopkeepers shooed me away from their shops. One actually waved a broom. “Go home!” he said, as though I was a stray cat. I tried my luck at the entrance to an office building. “Look,” I said to the security guard, “I’m in a ridiculous situation. If you could fish something out of the Lost and Found for me, I’d be hugely grateful.”
“We’re not in that business,” he said.
I felt like I was going mad. Soon I’d forget about pants; I’d only be concerned with C.I.A. plots. “Come on,” I pleaded, suddenly desperate, “I’m just a regular person. Okay, a regular person who happens to be naked. Man, help me out! It’s my birthday!”
A squad car pulled to the curb and I raced over. The officer on the passenger side rolled his window down about three-quarters of an inch, wary, perhaps, of pee. “We can arrest you or you can get out of here,” he said.
“Please, sir, don’t you have a blanket in your car, an extra towel in the trunk, anything at all? Please help me out.”
I saw then that he was eating a slice of pizza; in the same moment, he took a closer look at what I was wearing—this seemed, somehow, to cause great alarm. His face darkened. “I can arrest you, buddy, that’s all I can do.”
I retreated back to my bench in the park, ashamed, frustrated, and depressed. My self-identity was shifting. I felt like the kind of person who gets drunk and ends up naked in a park with just their socks on, which I now was. I didn’t know what to do. Getting naked is easy, but getting un-naked, I'd discovered, not so much.
My friends were all at school or at work; I couldn’t barge in to their offices like this. Their cell phone numbers were all stored on my cell phone, I didn’t know any of them by heart. The only numbers I knew were ones like the request line for the crappy alternative rock station I always listened to at home in Michigan, or my grandma. I imagined how that collect call might play out. “Hi Grandma, no, everything’s fine, I just lost my cell phone. Listen, quick favor. Go to Kinko’s, okay? Kinko’s. It’s a copy shop. Ask them to help you create an e-mail account, I need you to e-mail some of my friends in New York and tell them to come meet me somewhere. Yeah, e-mail. You know. Okay, look, at Kinko’s they’ll know. E-mail. No—‘E!’ As in ‘Emperor’s New Clothes.’”
Grim reality sank in. The only solution was to somehow make it to Seth’s apartment building and find a way to get in. I was at the lowest tip of Manhattan, a few miles from 13th Street and 1st Ave. No cabbie was going to stop for me. The subway felt out of the question. I’d have to hoof it.
It was a long walk. After a dozen blocks, I got sick of holding the pizza box awkwardly around myself and pitched it. The breeze felt good. I started singing out loud a little. No one seemed to notice me or my nakedness. In Ann Arbor, where I grew up, it was a tradition each year after the last day of classes for the college kids to run a nude midnight romp through town called the Naked Mile. For a youngster, the night was always full of marvel—who knew that private parts came in so many different shapes and colors and sizes? But what I loved most was after the race was done, the way naked folks kept milling around town for hours, naked at the ATM, naked going into Taco Bell, naked tossing a frisbee, like it wasn’t no thang. All those naked people made me—the clothed one—feel like an oddball. Clothes, and taboos against nudity, seemed, for a moment each year, absurd. Striding up Broadway, flopping about, nakedness made sense to me. It was my birthday; I’d wear my birthday suit if I goddamn pleased!
At last I made it to Seth’s apartment. After an hour on the front stoop, his upstairs neighbor came home, recognized me, and let me inside the building. Soon I had on a pair of fresh boxers, sweatpants, a t-shirt, and clean socks. It felt both a tremendous relief and a strange, fleeting disappointment to be back in the land of the clothed. I ordered a pizza.
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found Magazine, a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author of a book of personal essays, My Heart Is An Idiot, and a collection of stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. His documentary film, Medora, about a resilient high-school basketball team in a dwindling town in rural Indiana, aired recently on PBS’ acclaimed series Independent Lens.