Naked in Portland

By Jerry Harp

When my brother-in-law Bob came to town a few years ago, my wife Mary and I managed to give him something close to the quintessential Portland, Oregon, experience in the 18 hours he was here. Mary took him for a walk through the rhododendron garden down the street from where we live, then together we took him to a sushi restaurant famous for its decent food and wretched service (people crowd the sidewalk waiting to get in), and Powell’s City of Books, which we left just in time to get stuck in traffic as the annual Naked Bike Ride went by.

Perhaps nothing bespeaks our city, whose unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird,” as unambiguously as our Naked Bike Ride. Actually, ours is one of many observances of the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), which takes place in something like a hundred cities around the globe, though ours is the largest by a substantial margin.  The conservative estimate for that night several summers ago was 8,000 participants.

Earlier, on the drive to Powell’s, we passed the Portland Art Museum, where the sight of naked people standing around prompted me to remark that it was probably the night for the naked ride.

“Do the police mind?” Bob asked.

I explained to him that they stop traffic so the riders can go by without interruption. That’s what they were doing outside of Powell’s that night, so we were stuck in a block of cars going nowhere.

Later, when I looked up the local WNBR website, I noticed that the police recommend that, however close to naked one chooses to be, participants should wear helmets and shoes. It’s very Portland to encourage personal safety while we’re working to subvert the dominant paradigm.

According to the website, the “general consensus is that the World Naked Bike Ride originated as a protest against society’s dependency on oil.” But the naked bodies also remind people of cyclists’ vulnerability. Every year there are multiple collisions between bikes and cars in our city, and usually it’s the cyclist who gets the worse of the deal. A friend of mine who was sent flying from her bike still deals with the pain years later. Around the time of this evening I’m remembering, a young man I knew was beginning to walk again after a repeat drunk driver ran into him.

When Mary, Bob, and I exited the Powell’s parking garage and found ourselves parked in the street, we opted to get out and watch the riders going by for the next 45 minutes. At one point I leaned over to Bob and said that I thought my Catholic training had prepared me for just such an event as this.  For college I attended a seminary run by Benedictine monks, and Catholicism for me has always had plenty to do with bodily experience — bread and wine, holy water, stained glass, incense, all the smells and bells of holy day Masses, and that strange figure at the front of most Catholic churches I’ve entered: the representation of a very fit, nearly naked body in a state of extremis, otherwise known as a crucifix. Of course, I’ve also inherited plenty of the squeamishness about sex and sexuality that has been woven into the tradition. Plenty of us are still trying to gain some kind of balance with regard to the human body and its desires.  The material world is where we live and move and have our being; you really have to turn the human body into an abstraction not to notice what a really erotic image the crucifix is.

The bodies going along Burnside Avenue past Powell’s were not in the least abstract; they shook, jiggled, sagged, and bulged in more ways than I can describe. That night I learned how adorable naked, middle-aged, fat men can be; they look like great big toddlers. Young and old, the revelers pedaled by; some were running, and others wore inline skates. Glowing rings twisted around torsos, necks, and wrists. Many had elaborate body paint. They kept going by and by, some of them shouting to the bystanders, “Take your clothes off too!” while one and then another of us muttered, “This is a lot of naked people.”

It took about ten minutes for the novelty to wear off, not that it was titillating to begin with. As that year’s organizer, Meghan Sinnott, said when I sat down with her for lunch, it really isn’t a sexy event.

After about 20 minutes, it all seemed commonplace. A couple young women on the sidewalk said, “Excuse us,” and we stepped aside to let them pass and join the ride. It hardly registered that they were naked as they disappeared into the crowd.

The WNBR is also a celebration of all bodies. As another website put it, tonight everyone has a beautiful body. The meanings keep accruing. Sinnott explained that a lot of people see the event as a wild and crazy night where they can go and get naked. “It is!” she said, but it’s also more than that. It’s grown into something bigger than all the planners’ ideas, larger than the sum of its parts. As its meaning has morphed, it’s brought in more people, and the more who attend, the more its meanings transform and expand. Stephen Upchurch, another of the Portland organizers, casts the event in terms of social transformation: “We can all do this really kooky, crazy thing together, and we can do it in civilization?…Like, wait a minute, the boundaries of civilization are breaking down just a little bit here…” The comment, from the documentary “Dare as You Bare,” discloses that the WNBR serves some of the same functions that Lewis Hyde associates with the trickster figure that shows up in multiple traditions across the globe. As he emphasizes in Trickster Makes This World (1998), the figure works to keep the boundaries and practices of civilization sufficiently permeable and pliable to allow for growth. Without the trickster’s disruptive energies, any community will calcify and die. We humans yearn for transformation, as it seems to me. As Mary says in one of her poems, “What I want is what I’ve always wanted. What I want is to be changed” (“To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” Incarnadine).  So the WNBR is a trickster event spreading disruption as it goes.

The night we watched the ride, the usual social conventions were palpably loosened, if only slightly, making it easier than usual to engage with strangers in casual dialogue. Two people I spoke with were young men, one African American and the other white, laughing about the conspicuous absence of black people — the Portland Naked Bike Ride, like the city as a whole, is very white. We didn’t solve any of our diversity problems that night, but at least we talked about it openly.

Another Portland organizer interviewed in “Bare as You Dare,” named Reverend Phil, speaks about the social dynamics of the WNBR:

“It’s just one of those things where if you don’t offer society a chance to blow off steam, if you don’t give them a release valve for any of these ideas, if you don’t try and encourage some degree of alternative thinking, then you are going to result in a lot of people going, ‘Fuck all that noise.'”

Both Upchurch and Reverend Phil, with their emphases on the loosening of social boundaries and the need for a release valve, speak fluently the language of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose Rabelais and His World (1965), explores how Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) was influenced by the medieval culture of carnival, with its stress on the abundance, fertility, and revelry associated with what Bakhtin terms the “material bodily lower stratum,” which includes those parts that the rules of civilization generally dictate that we keep covered, those parts most readily associated with the abundance and materiality of the earth and its endless cycles of death and birth. A well-known part of Bakhtin’s analysis is that the safety valve of carnival can serve a conservative purpose, allowing just enough release to keep the status quo in place. That is part of the risk. But the carnival spirit can also stir things up so they don’t remain settled, not simply and permanently so.

For Bakhtin the carnival spirit also erupts with regenerative laughter that loosens the customs of dogma and opens to the coming of the new, the unexpected, not a scornful laughter but rather the laughter of instinctual life:

“One of the indispensable elements of the folk festival was travesty, that is, the renewal of clothes and of the social image.  Another essential element was a reversal of the hierarchical levels: the jester was proclaimed king, a clownish abbot, bishop, or archbishop was elected at the “feast of fools,” and in the churches directly under the pope’s jurisdiction a mock pontiff was chosen.”

Before new apparel can be put on, the old must be taken off, and indeed disrobing was also part of the medieval carnival tradition.  The Naked Bike Ride allows for a disrobing that serves the reversal of the usual power relations as the police come out to protect public nudity and keep the clothed at bay. I’m reminded of a banner that some participants displayed at Auckland’s 2005 naked ride: “STOP Indecent Exposure To Vehicle Emissions.” It’s not the nudity that’s indecent, but rather the emissions of business as usual.

We fail to observe such times of reversal at our peril, though we also do well to recall that these events can tap into some pent-up and potentially destructive energies of the kind that Freud wrote about in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The short version is that the discontents of civilization arise from suppressing our more violent impulses and desires to dominate; if they don’t find some kind of safe release, they’re liable to emerge in dangerous forms, as Meghan Sinnott experienced when she was a Naked Bike Ride participant in 2008.  At an especially congested point of the ride, a truck began moving slowly toward her, and while she thought that surely this guy was not (as she put it) going to hit a naked girl, the truck kept inching forward and slowly ran her over. She escaped more or less unscathed, but her bike was mangled, so some naked friends walked her back to the starting point. That such aggressive energies even exist is reason enough to figure out how to channel and release them under controlled conditions; it also underscores the importance of helmets and shoes.

Sinnott knows well the complexities of human motivations and practices.  As a Sociology-Anthropology major at Lewis & Clark College, she wrote her senior thesis about Portland bike culture, even making use of Bakhtin’s ideas of the carnivalesque.  At the time she was not yet an avid cyclist, though she had an avid interest in the broadly comic worlds of clowns and tall bikes. “All of our events are like 1920s freak shows,” she says of life in Portland.  “We embrace it rather than make it the other.  We are the freak show.”

Her involvement in Portland’s Naked Bike Ride traces to her habit of volunteering all over town for a variety of causes: Earth Day, Ninja Café, Light Bar (which takes place in yurts and Geo-Domes), and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.  When she was the lead organizer for the 2013 bike ride, the Portland Art Museum reached out to her, offering to be the start location. The museum even had a special exhibit titled “Cyclepedia,” dedicated to the bicycle and its many forms. Although some stalwart WNBR purists said that teaming with the museum was selling out, Sinnott decided it would be a good idea to bring together people interested in different kinds of culture.  Having done some soul-searching about what it means for the event to lose its purity (if such was there to begin with), she has come to think that impurity has its own virtues.  The meaning of the ride continues to evolve.

One thing it continues to do is make the seemingly freakish and strange more familiar.  In one of the years that Sinnott was a participant and needed to use the restroom in the middle of the ride, she persuaded a friend to go into a bar with her; so these two naked women walked into a bar.  It sounds like the set-up to a joke, but the punch line is that nothing happened.  For the most part, people didn’t seem to notice.  A few muttered, “Portland,” and went back to their drinks.

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