Stay shirtless, my friends.
What are you looking at? Never mind, I know. You're looking at me. And, with a lusciously lumpy dad-bod like this one, why wouldn't you be? Besides, that was the whole point of this Shirtless Man fiasco, wasn't it? To be seen? To make my pale flab stand out, establishing the lean, muscular soul beneath it all — the fearless manufacturer of creative nonfiction? Truth be told, I was scared to death. Twenty years later, photographic evidence of my skinful romp across the pages of the 1998 Memphis Flyer's "summer issue"
still fills this considerable gut with butterflies.
Angry vampire butterflies zooming on meth.
What were we thinking? There was no real precedent for stunts like this. There was no Sacha Baron Cohen out on the road, erasing the boundaries between reality and satire. The Daily Show
wouldn't launch for another year. But there I was, finally discovering an application for my weird Theatre & Media Arts degree, standing in the offices of The Commercial Appeal
, applying for a writing job, as shirtless as the day I was born.
"Why?," you might ask. I certainly have, many times. After all these years the best answer I've come up with is also a question: "Why do people jump out of airplanes?"
In 1998, I toiled most days in a windowless room in the Flyer
's old offices on Tennessee St., cold-calling potential classified advertising customers. I'd only just begun to do a little freelance writing on the side and was certain that nobody would be interested in this cockamamie idea I'd cooked up with my friend and and fellow wannabe writer
. I can still remember the confused look on Flyer
editor Dennis Freeland's face as he repeated the original pitch back to me.
"So you just take your shirt off and go out and do things?" he asked, blinking doubtfully. Like his eyes might be undressing me against their will. "What kinds of things?"
"Oh, you know," I answered, making things up on the fly because I honestly hadn't thought that far ahead yet. "Test drive cars, apply for a loan, try to get a job, buy a shirt, go to a topless club." Next thing I knew, I was on assignment and negotiating with a security guard at the Peabody Rooftop Party.
"You need to put a shirt on, sir," [the guard] says, sidling up to me.
"But I thought this was a party."
"It is a party, sir, but you need to put a shirt on."
"What kind of party is that?"
"It's a private party open to the public for a $5 cover charge."
"And I have to wear a shirt?"
"We prefer it."
"So I don't have to wear a shirt if I don't want to?"
"You need to put a shirt on, sir."
"But look at this sunburn I have here. Terribly painful. OWWWWWWWW! Jesus that hurts to touch it."
"I know how painful that can be, but you need to wear a shirt."
"Do I have to button it?"
"Can I just wear a vest?"
"You can just wear a vest."
"Do I have to button that?"
It was really just one shirtless fat guy. Mother was so proud.
The original shirtless package spawned two sequels. Because I don't know how to relax I turned my honeymoon into a working getaway, and wrote about the big boy's swinging European vacation for the Flyer.
The whole original adventure was recreated in a multi-page spread for a popular women's magazine for men. Rose McGowan was Maxim
's cover girl for March 1999, but I was the hot topless attraction inside.
A paraphrased but very close to accurate note from my Maxim
editor: "Can you give us the same story but take out the philosophy?"
I couldn't. Which is to say I didn't really know what that meant. So wrote the thing and instructed them to cut anything deemed too philosophical, which they did. They also manufactured a fictional origin story — In the Maxim version I'd become shirtless because gas splashed on my shirt while filling up my car. Hated that part because this was always supposed to be a true story. Right down to the scotch and chocolate milk. But the check cashed.
I might describe "Shirtless Man" as my "Freebird," but, as it happens, I've also written exactly one song
that people ask me to play over and over again.
I'm a two-hit wonder!
But Shirtless Man's sordid tale of insecurity and sideboob, wrapped up in tragically fake machismo, has taken on a life of his own. A few years back he was reborn on social media when Memphis artist/photographer Jonathan Postal took a photo originally snapped in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and photoshopped it Zelig
-like into historical scenes, alongside Abraham Lincoln, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King. Twenty years after the eye-assaulting fact — after filling a wall with awards for investigative reporting, disaster coverage, consumer affairs reporting, beat reporting, feature writing, criticism, and blogging — it's a little weird that somebody always hollers out "Shirtless Man!" whenever I appear in any official capacity. Not that I'd prefer things any other way.
Traumatizing entire families since 1998.
I hadn't realized it was my shirtless anniversary until primo photographer Dan Ball posted a previously unpublished photo from the original adventure to his Facebook page. It's a great shot, considering the subject matter. And much to my surprise, seeing in a public space didn't induce the usual wincing shudder. In fact, I wanted to share it right away.
Maybe, after 20 years, I'm actually a little bit proud of that guy.
Also pictured, Workingman's Sideboob.