1993 was a magical year for me. And whenever I think of that year I think of the Naked Guy.
The Naked Guy — aka Andrew Martinez — was a 20 year-old UC Berkeley student who decided he had the right to go around naked in public. For an entire year he went to all of his classes completely naked. Turned out there wasn’t even a law against it — apparently because nobody had ever done it before. So it took a year before the authorities could find a legal way to force clothes on the dude. Still, the Naked Guy persisted with his nakedness until UC finally expelled him and the Berkeley cops started arresting him. In between he became a cause celeb and an “only-in-Berkeley” national news story. He was featured in countless newspaper and magazine articles, appeared in Playboy, and even got on several afternoon TV talk shows to expound on his “cause” before his 15 minutes ran out.
“Our purpose is to prove that people define normalcy in their own terms,” the Naked Guy announced at a Berkeley “nude-in” attended by dozens of naked supporters. Which hit the perfect note for Berkeley; a town that prided itself on its eccentricities and thumbing its nose at the “cultural norms” of mainstream American.
Telegraph Avenue had a “carnival” atmosphere back then. And the Naked Guy, strolling naked down the Ave, was just the most famous of the many side-show attractions. The Berkeley campus was Ground Zero for the festivities. Every day there would be street performers and street crazies and street theatre and soap box orators. And huge crowds would gather on the Student Union steps to enjoy the show.
Berkeley was at the peak of it’s self-belief and self-pride back then. 1993. And maybe it’s self-delusions, too. It wasn’t uncommon for people in my circle to say stuff like: “Berkeley is the center of the universe.” And nobody laughed or scoffed when they said it. There was a belief that Berkeley was on the cutting-edge, years ahead of the cultural curve. And there was some truth to that. Just look at things like the Obama presidency, gay marriage and legal marijuana — things that have only reached mainstream acceptance recently — but were commonly accepted in Berkeley 40 years earlier. It was from this vantage point that the Naked Guy, and his public nudity cause, was celebrated as a Berkeley icon. Plus, he was incredibly good-looking. He had a body that was regularly compared to one of those classic Greek statues. And seeing him walk by was like looking at an incredible beautiful animal. It was not only startling, but it was somehow aesthetically pleasing. And there was something inherently hilarious and surreal about the whole spectacle, too.
I had co-published four issues of the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar by that point. And was starting to think we were beginning to repeat ourselves and maybe the project had run it’s course. But when I saw the joyous ruckus that ensued whenever the Naked Guy hit the scene, I knew he’d be the perfect feature for the next issue. My partner B. N. Duncan was initially dead-set against the idea: “What does a naked person have to do with a calendar about the homeless street scene?” said Duncan. Because that’s how the calendar was primarily viewed back then: “the homeless calendar.”
“Well, ‘street’ is a fairly flexible term,” I said. “Street also encompasses street performers and street vendors and street theatre.”
And once Duncan got over his initial resistance, he jumped into the project with incredible enthusiasm and ended up taking many of the classic photos of that era.
When the calendar came out, Cody’s Books dumped a huge pile on a table. And we ended up selling 2,000 copies in a couple of weeks just in Berkeley at 10 bucks a pop (if you think that’s easy to do, take a blank piece of paper, put something on it, and try it yourself). Andy Ross, the owner of Cody’s Books, even said in one of the AP newspaper articles that “the calendar had that je ne sais quoi.” (I’m still not exactly sure what that means, but I’m pretty sure it means something good) It was especially gratifying, because we had scored a hit with an earlier calendar, but this silenced the nay-sayers that said we were just one-hit wonders. In fact, Duncan and I were an artistic force to be reckoned with.
Before we took the calendar to the printer I had a little chat with the Naked Guy. We always liked to ask people for their permission before we took their picture, and made sure they had no problems with us publishing their picture. We didn’t have to do this. Contrary to what many people believe, if you’re in a public place, anyone can take your picture and they can publish it anywhere they want, whether you like it or not. And your only recourse is to punch the photographer in the face and smash their camera. In which case, you’re the one who will end up in jail. But Duncan and I considered the calendar an artistic collaboration with the subjects. So out of respect we always tried to make sure we were all on the same page. The only thing the Naked Guy asked was that we didn’t put him on the cover. So instead, I put him as the centerfold — the “Tele-mate of the Month” — along with a couple of other shots
So when the calendar came out, I was surprised to hear grumblings from the Naked Guy that we had “over-exposed” him. An ironic accusation coming from a guy who walked around buck naked.
It was the first indication that I had misread the Naked Guy’s basic personality. Like most people, I considered the whole Naked Guy thing “zany” and “whacky.” Berkeley considered him a joke. But a good joke. And we were basically laughing with him. Thumbing our noses at convention. But I was beginning to realize that the Naked Guy was serious. With all of his talk about “social control” and “the CIA” and “revolution.”
During the course of doing the calendar, I had become a magnet for every extroverted exhibitionist, publicity-seeking, attention-getting, self-styled “Berkeley character,” all of who would sort of audition their act for me and plead with me to put them in the calendar. And I had assumed the Naked Guy was just another one of them, considering all the media exposure he had garnered. And I had assumed he had sort of a wink-wink aspect to his act. Turned out there was no wink. He was dead serious.
After that, the newspaper articles about the Naked Guy started to take on a decidedly un-zany flavor. He began leaving big piles of rocks on various street corners. “To be used as ammunition against the cops when the revolution comes down,” he explained. And then he ended up getting arrested for throwing rocks at the cops from the roof of the Chateau. Then there were stories about him getting locked up in the nut house.
The last time I saw the Naked Guy was around 1995. I was sitting at the steps on the foot of the campus by Bancroft when the Naked Guy sauntered towards me. He was wearing a big, tan sombrero and sandals and a bandana, and he looked like a character out of a Spaghetti Western. Or maybe the star of that “Kung Fu” TV show. He started in on this crazy spiel. Muttering at me, ominously. “You and your fascist, white, European, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, colonial, imperialist culture will one day soon collapse from the toxic poisons you’ve been spewing across the environment.” And etc. etc. It was like a caricature of every low-level Berkeley “radical chic” cliché that I’d ever heard. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Because it was so sad in a way. The Naked Guy could have had the town of Berkeley on a string if he had played his cards right. But here he was before me, in this obvious state of defeat and despair. I guess I mostly just looked at the Naked Guy as a walking, talking piece of performance art. And appreciated him on that level.
Finally he turned and walked off down the street. And it was like a scene in a movie, where the lonely hero walks off into the sunset.
* * *
Well, the Berkeley scene continued to sputter along. But by 1999 the newspaper articles were no longer about “those whacky Telegraph Avenue characters” but “What’s Gone Wrong With Telegraph?” Everything began “contracting.” And that was exactly the word that described. All the things that once worked were getting snuffed out, one by one. Duncan and I stopped publishing the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar in 2004 because we felt “the scene was no longer worthy of being celebrated.”
Everything came to a head for me in one terrible week, practically on the same day, in the summer of 2006. It was like a triple whammy: 1.) Cody’s Books (my main hang-out and social scene) closed. 2.) Loompanics (my main publisher) went out of business. 3.) And the office building (where I had lived for the last 9 years) got sold and all the tenants got evicted. I always wondered what my astrological chart looked like at that point. I’m sure it looked bad. Black black black. Then, a couple weeks later I got in a fight with some asshole at my vending table and he hit me over the head with a chair and perforated my ear-drum, and for 6 months I was afraid I had gone deaf in that ear. So everything was going from bad to worse. But at least I had my memories of my past glories.
Then I picked up the newspaper and the headline was: “Andrew Martinez, the Naked Guy, Dies in Jail.” He committed suicide, age 33, by putting a plastic bag over his head. So it was if, not only was my present life being stripped from me. They were even taking away my past.