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Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The Perils of Public Nudity Part 1: What It's Like to Shower Alongside Hairy Hippies, Elderly Women and Old Classmates
I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who enjoys the occasional trip to a nudist spa. I asked her about it at one point and, as with anyone who visits such places, she said, "Everyone there acts like it's no big deal beacuse it isn't a big deal."
Her favorite spa is frequented by people ranging from old men to mothers and daughters. It's not uncommon to see people of all creeds, sexes, races and backgrounds lounging in its pools and enjoying a soak. Having grown up in an average Protestant household here in Portland, I was intrigued by this strange world where people romp around naked and it supposedly isn't uncomfortable, weird or kinky. My friend has no problem with dropping her towel at these places and relaxing alongside shriveled elderly guys and young women alike.
I kept her anecdotes in mind when I found myself at the Oregon Country Fair last July. I woke up that Sunday morning, the last day of the festival, completely filthy. Worse yet, I had tripped and fallen in a ditch the night before while walking to my campsite. My back was sore and I smelled like a dirty hamster cage. About 100 yards from my tent there was a single shower for rent. The price for 5 minutes? 10 bucks. Then I remembered a place where I could bathe inside the Fair grounds. It would cost me some cash as well but there wouldn't be much of a line or a time limit. Better yet, I knew there was a steam room that might help with my aching back.
"The Ritz" looks like a Native American long house on the outside. A giant totem pole reaches up to the sky near the entrance. Behind it, an old wood-powered boiler heats a large, black vat of water. The Ritz sits toward the back of the fair grounds near the "Volunteers Only" section. I rolled through the main gates right when they opened and rushed over.
Only a few people were waiting and I was so eager to get clean that I neglected to read a sign out front describing the Ritz's rules and policies. I figured I'd get a small shower to myself. Nope. After removing my shoes and checking in my bag, I turned around and discovered a hundred people, all naked, either lounging around a fire pit or showering in a series of open stalls. They ranged in age from 18 to 80 and, surprisingly enough, there seemed to be an even ratio of guys to gals.
I remembered my friend's views: "this isn't a big deal." I'd already paid my money and I wasn't about to spend the day grimy and sore. I found a cubby-hole, took of my clothes and went looking for an open stall with soap in hand. There's a clear, unspoken rule in the Ritz. It's OK to look but not to stare. I kept my eyes up and found a spot next to a hippie guy and an old woman. They, and everyone else, went about taking a shower as if they were in their own homes. As I was smearing shampoo into my hair, two undergrad girls rolled up to the stalls across from us. They giggled but tried to stay focused on the task at hand.
I was surprised to discover that all of these bathers weren't hitting on each other and that no fully-clothed pervs were sitting in the corners enjoying the view. Instead, everyone behaved like people in a swimming pool. They kept their distance and focused on themselves or their partners. After I cleaned up, I headed to one of the steam rooms. Inside, a dozen or so nudists were staring into oblivion. Someone started a chant. Figuring I'd get bored, I felt the need to bring along a graphic novel. As I flipped through a copy of Superman: Red Son, I felt like someone was looking at me.
I glanced up and there, across the way, was a girl I went to high school with. Our eyes met and her face went white. She grabbed a towel and quickly made a break for it. "Huh, " I remember thinking. "She has a giant star tattoo on her right shoulder? She always struck me as more creative than that."
A month later, I ran into her at the Stumptown over on SE Belmont. After chatting for a bit, I worked up the nerve to ask her about the incident in the steam room. She denied that it was her. "I have dopplegangers," she said with a smirk. "We all do, at least a few. That must have been one of them. Plus, do you think I'd be so lame as to get a friggin' star tattoo?" I thought about it but wasn't about to ask her to reveal her shoulder, then and there, in the middle of the coffee shop.
No big deal, right?