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800 Words

Towels Optional

April 16, 2006|Dan Neil

I started going to the gym soon after I quit using cigarettes for weight control, so that's, let's see, 17 years ago. In that time I've spent many hours in men's locker rooms among my fellow male citizens, naked. This does not come naturally to me.

Of course, I am an awesome physical specimen--one can tell that by my muscular prose. But being naked around other men takes some getting used to. To begin with, we/they are a disagreeable sight. Men are hairy, spotty and wrinkle in ways and places that will positively put you off your sandwich. No painted horror of Hieronymus Bosch, no pitiless satire by Da Vinci, quite prepares you for the effects of aging on the male rump, which becomes inexorably more and more posterior with years until finally it lands on one's heels.

And if you think the south side of the plantation looks bad, the north side is even more of a landslide. I cannot be more specific but let me just say that if Anna Nicole Smith had marital relations with 89-year-old J. Howard Marshall and if she receives millions from the man's estate, well, she earned it.

Some men are more comfortable with nakedness than others, and careful observers--please, do not stare--will note a number of towel strategies being employed. There are the matadors, who, after drying themselves in front of their lockers and laying out their change of clothes, whip off their towels in a terry cloth arabesque and dress to beat the clock. To these men, I'd just like to say, thank you.

There are the Roman senators, who leave the shower with their towels over their shoulder or around their necks, and walk around air-drying and holding substantial conversations with other naked senators. I have trouble with small talk at parties at which I am fully dressed, so I can only marvel at these gentlemen's savoir-faire.

There are the post-traumatic shame victims, men who shower with their swim trunks on and wiggle into their underpants with the towel still wrapped around their waists. Their mortification becomes our--men's--mutual misery, and for anyone who feels so totally at odds with his own body, so consumed by embarrassment, may I suggest a Bowflex in the garage.

And then there are the men who have at last transcended it all. Older men. Pink or brown or hairy or snowy or prolapsed but most of all oblivious, they wander cheerfully around the locker room without any towel at all, like very large babies who have slipped their diapers. There's a delightful innocence to them, or maybe it's the decadence of age. They are beyond the stolen glances, the covert locker-room comparisons of tackle that younger men, being competitive sexual animals, cannot help.

Anyone who has witnessed this tottering, bare-assed geriatric romp in the Y locker room cannot help but smile when they hear the song "YMCA." While it is true you can, literally, "hang out with all the boys," the Y is the diametric opposite of gay. In fact, if Exodus International wanted to "cure" gay men, perhaps they should consider field trips.

I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't some psychic connection between age and nakedness. Whenever I have seen pictures of naturist retreats--nudist camps--they are always populated with wantonly pendulous retirees. Perhaps after a lifetime of tight neckties and stuffy suit jackets, skin rebels against clothing.

No, not gay, but it is the last male place. Here is the bleach-smelling sanctum sanctorum, the blue-tiled steam room, the rows of lockers, the open showers, the redwood sauna with benches imprinted by the hams of 10,000 sweating men.

No women allowed.

It's a curious thing to see men come into the locker room, undress, and sit down to watch TV in the lounge--alas, the towel is optional. And there they will sit, pale and pillowy and varicose, tuned in to Fox News. Wouldn't they be more comfortable at home? Apparently not.

Everything is coed now--clubs and rifle ranges and military academies--and that's as it should be. But plainly there is something about the male animal that enjoys its own company (no, not like that). Men want to be with men, to spend an hour or so relieved of the pressure to be enlightened in their thinking and inclusive in their choice of gender pronouns. Here the old formations hold sway: Flight attendants are still stewardesses, letter carriers are still postmen.

For myself, I don't much desire the company of other men, but then I never did. I rarely speak to anyone in the locker room, preferring to disappear in the mint-scented sfumato of the steam room And yet I appreciate the irony of the locker room: We are never more naked than when we don't have any clothes on.

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