Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Adventures of Shirtless Man

By Christopher Davis

JUNE 8, 1998:  For the record, Flyer staff writer Jim Hanas is a nutless wonder. This whole “Adventures of Shirtless Man” fiasco was his idea, but he didn’t have what it takes to pull it off. Still, in the great tradition of nutlessness he has sought to mastermind the operation – to live vicariously and see the world through my shirtless eyes.

“Great hat,” Hanas says to me, John Cale wraparound shades hiding his tea-stained eyes. “Now take off your shirt.”

“The imagination is a powerful thing, Hanas – use it!” I growl back.

“Come on, take off your shirt and let me see the package…”

“I’m taking my personal photographer Johnny Taylor with me; you can see the pictures later.”

“Take it off, man – I just want to see what the story looks like.”

“I’ll tell you what the story looks like. It’s tremendous, tremendously white, freckled in some places and covered in thick black hair in others. The skin around my cavernous navel is transparent so you can see what is going on underneath, and from that lint-filled abyss, long spiral arms of scar tissue reach out like the cooling rays of a purple sun.” It’s a helluva machine that can go from 34 to 43 in under three years, and those raw purple scars are a proper decal, the only tattoo fitting a sailor who has brought the equator to himself.

“My tits sag like a Nutbush granny’s,” I scream, “and their hideously pink adornments are impossible to describe without resorting to the dreaded calculus. Put a fishing hat on top of that,” I said, “and that’s what the story looks like, Hanas. That’s the terrifying truth you are turning loose in the world, and though I have, for God knows what reasons, agreed to be complicit, I will not be held responsible!” In the silence that followed I could hear the bastard blinking, and from that humid silence, oppressive and all-powerful, an ugly physical law arises – a reporter has to eat, and a fat reporter has to eat fat. I do the only thing I can. I show him the damn story.

“Memorial Day weekend is coming up, fast, and shirtless men will walk among us,” Hanas says in the barely decipherable slurred-yet-staccato monotone he always adopts before grabbing you by the ears and stuffing a theory down your craw. “Become that man, Davis. Find out what moves him. Be the shirtless man. Make papa proud.”


Photo by Daniel Ball
I have known shirtless men, I have supped from their kegs and called them Buddy, Big Dollar, and Brother-Man, but I am not one of them and I never have been. I was the kid who quit the team if he got picked skins, and could no more suddenly become a shirtless man than I could suddenly become a Puerto Rican. What does the shirtless man want besides a cold beer, Pamela Lee, and shiny hubcaps? I had not a clue. Things were going very badly. I called my photographer 20 times on the cell phone with no luck. I tune my car radio to the classic rock station and – Bingo! As Bob Seger croaks that line in “Strut” about, “Respect[ing] her butt…” it occurs to me that the shirtless man is a working stiff, a rough-handed clock-puncher with a heap powerful work ethic. I need to get a job and fast. Stripping to the waist, I point my vehicle toward Union Avenue to seek employment doing the only job I know how to do.

There is one very good thing about Memphis’ favorite daily newspaper The Commercial Appeal; they have a kick-ass air conditioner. It’s downright cold inside their building. I ask the lady in classifieds where I need to go to apply for a job.

“What?’” she exclaims, all saucer-eyed.

“I am a journalist, and I wish to write for your little publication. Could you please tell me where to apply?” She never blinks. The sight of my naked torso has caused some kind of paralysis in her, aphasia too, I suspect, as her words, though appropriate, are only arrived at through a combination of careful thought and excruciating spasms.

“Just … go straight … back … … back…………that way.”

The human-resources office is empty, but through an open door to the left I can see a man of about 50, sportily dressed in striped broadcloth with a maroon tie that hollers out “understatement!” He strokes the sides of his meticulously manicured beard and converses gravely with an entity I can neither see nor hear.

“There is a shirtless man in the office,” he says to whomever the hell he’s talking to, and then he fidgets in silence listening to the inaudible response. At length he comes over to me and brusquely asks if he can be of assistance. The office is frigid, but he is starting to sweat.


“The beach is not a store, sir,” the store detective said.
Photo by Johnny Taylor

“I would like to apply for a job here at your little publication,” I say, sporting a broad smile and a winning attitude.

“We only accept applications in the morning, but you can take an application home with you,” he says. His face is turned toward me but he focuses his eyes on something across the room, like your sweetheart does when she says she still loves you but feels compelled to date other people. I try to enter his line of vision.

“I’m a journalist, and I would be interested in writing for your little publication.”

“You are a published journalist?” He asks incredulously, averting his eyes again – ah, the foxtrot.

“Published? Sure, all the time. I have my resume in the car. If I bring it in, can I get an interview?”

“I don’t think we have anything open, but send some writing samples to the managing editor….”

“What’s her name?”

“Just care of the managing editor…” I smell the fear on him. He is terrified. I try harder to make him look me in the eye, but whenever I move, his gaze shifts elsewhere.

“So there is nothing I could do to get an interview today? Even after you see my resume?”

“That would be impossible.” His face is red behind the salt-and-pepper beard, and his veins are popping out. A little more and I could push him over the edge.

“So, as the human-resources director – or whatever it is you do – do you have any advice for someone like me, who hopes to someday write for your little publication here?”

“No,” he says. And that is all he says.

“My name is Chris Davis.” I beam, extending a hand. “Remember it.” He takes my hand and shakes it but he never says another thing.

All things considered I thought the interview went smashingly. Anyway, they would be fools not to hire me. When I start my car, Mr. Seger is again on the radio begging somebody to “turn the page.” “Yeah!” I cry aloud, cranking the volume to 11. With my first mission mostly accomplished it is time to, “Par-Tay!” My photographer is still nowhere to be found, which is an ass-aching shame because when it comes to matters of ladies and liquor he is a wealth of assistance.

God bless the black velvet mini-dresses of the world, and God bless The Peabody rooftop parties for giving them a place to come together once a week and make all those tanned stems look better than a bucket of Pirtle’s chicken. God bless the preened co-eds, and young professionals who fill those dresses and God bless the hair-gelled boobs in Dockers who try to have sex with them. The elevator at The Peabody is packed. Black Velvet to the right of me Black Velvet to the left of me Black Velvet behind me – like an adolescent dream come true. All the ladies are looking and their lads are getting pissed. Not a word is spoken. Nobody exhales.

When the elevator doors open and we all file out, I am immediately accosted by a uniformed man with a badge. Security uniforms have gotten so good I can only judge Fuzz vs. Rent-o-Fuzz by the gauge of the mustache. This one is pencil thin, so I presume he’s rented.

“You need to put a shirt on, sir,” he 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?”

“No.”

“Can I just wear a vest?”

“You can just wear a vest.”

“Do I have to button that?”

“No.”


Shirtless Man checks out the new Beetles.
Photo by Johnny Taylor

The next day, while driving down Poplar, I spy my photographer walking east. He isn’t wearing a shirt, and he looks bad. “I’ve been working this beat a week now, Davis. Where the hell have you been?” he whines.

“Shut up and get in the car. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Want some Scotch and chocolate milk?”

“Put that away, you want us to get busted right here? Where is your shirt? You are going to blow my cover.”

“But I thought we were supposed to be the shirtless men?”

“I’m the shirtless man and you are my photographer. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the mall.”

“Davis?”

“Yes?”

“I’m scared.”

Wolfchase Galleria is a beautiful monster, a sprawling cathedral to the almighty dollar. My photographer suggests we enter through Sears, and I agree. “As your photographer I advise you to stick close to the power tools,” he whispers desperately.

“Don’t be a coward. We are going to drive straight through to the heart of this beast.”

“I’m scared.”

“On to the food court!”

“I’m gunna check out the barbecue grills,” my photographer stammers. He is seeking camouflage.

“Give me the cell phone,” I say, “I’m calling in some reinforcements.” While I dial the phone, my photographer inquires as to the whereabouts of men’s shirts. Hanas answers the phone. “Hanas, I need some backup here quick, my photographer is in this with me up to his eyeballs. We are both shirtless in Sears Wolfchase, and we need a cameraman out here, pronto.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he groans.

“We are in automotive now and we are headed toward men’s wear.”

“Gotcha.”

“Pronto, I say!”

Click.

We scramble down the escalator, and into the land of affordable blue jeans.

“Look at all the sales!” my photographer squeals, throwing up his arms in delight. Before we know it, a store detective cleverly disguised as a parrot-head is upon us. “Well, it’s not like they are breaking any laws.” He mumbles into his walkie-talkie. He too has a pencil-thin. Slick as any salesman, he says, “We are going to need to help you boys into some shirts quickly.”

“Can I put my shirt on before I buy it?” my photographer whimpers.

“Sure you can,” he answers, smiling with the malicious calm of a man who believes he has the upper hand. “Sorry to do this, but you are making the customers nervous.”

Nervous indeed! He’ll think nervous when we come back in ski masks and bandoleers, wearing layers and layers of fabric with deep pockets designed for the express purpose of shoplifting small pets and pocket calculators.

“Haven’t your customers ever been to the beach?” I bellow indignantly.

“The beach is not a store, sir.”

“But a chest is still a chest?”

“I’m from the beach, sir, and the beach is not a store.”

“What’s that you say?”

“The beach is not a store.”

“The beach is not a store?”

“No, sir.”


Shirtless Man visits the King.
Photo by Daniel Ball
“Well, as long as that’s straightened out, I suppose I can buy a shirt.” I choose a sporty number and head to the checkout. As the currency is being exchanged my photographer makes a desperate move – he snaps a picture. I am sure our cover is blown, that the store dick smells the joke and knows it’s all over him, but that is not what happens. The dick tenses up and starts to twitch. His voice cracks when he thanks us for our cooperation. He is scared, let me tell you – scared. With the flash of a bulb, we are no longer merely shirtless men – in that twisted, suspicious store-dick brain we have become ACLU terrorists toting 30-kiloton lawsuits and pocket pipe-bombs, or worse yet – we just might work for Sears. The dick in the Hawaiian shirt fears he is being judged, and like all men in that position, he fears he is found wanting.

Our cameraman is waiting in the parking lot. It’s Dan Ball. For once in his nutless life, Hanas cared enough to send the very best. Dan is a stand-up guy, and he always wears a shirt. His pictures are all fuzzy, but I would trust him alone with my fancy new lady friend – and that is saying a lot for a cameraman.

“Drink this water, it’s caffeinated,” Dan says, handing out a couple of bottles. “H.Q. said you guys might be in a bit of trouble out here, so I floored it. Where are you headed next?”

“Topless bar,” I say, “cameraman’s choice.”

“Cool,” he says coolly, hopping in his truck and turning the ignition. My photographer and I strip away our new frocks and are off again.

“Davis?” my photographer whimpers. “I’m scared. My girlfriend says they have big bouncers at those clubs, with blackjacks, and she says they aren’t afraid to use them. Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

“When I was a kid of about 6,” I tell him, “my paternal grandparents lived on a hill in Malacoff, Texas. At the foot of the hill was a musty little general store I frequented often to inspect the volumes of unwrapped pornography they kept on the bottom-most shelves of the magazine rack. I would stare at those pictures for hours, unmolested by the ancient woman who kept the place, then buy a pack of gum and leave. One day my grandparents bought me a giant black cowboy hat with a beautiful feather band. When I put it on I felt invincible. So invincible, in fact, that I no longer needed the encumbrance of even the sheerest tank top.

“I marched my new hat down to the general store in all my shirtless glory to look at those wonderful pictures that made me shiver in a special new way. I had just picked up a copy of Jugs when the decrepit old proprietress walked over and took my naked shoulder in her cold spotted hand. ‘Developing young ladies should wear a blouse out in public,’ she said, then crept away, leaving me to play among my shattered fantasies. I tried to look at those naked beauties in the magazines, and feel that special way again, but I couldn’t. My joy was gone. That is why we are doing this, Taylor, old chum – now follow that cameraman.” My photographer blows his nose and puts the hammer down.

The topless bar is a bust. We get there between shows, and it is empty except for some guy in a glass booth programming the light-show, getting everything titty-perfect for the holiday crowds that will pack the place in a couple of hours. There we are – my photographer, the cameraman, and me – three men and four nipples, waiting in the lobby of the club for a busty hostess who would never come.

“We could come back later,” Ball says grinning.

“I’m scared,” my photographer whimpers.

“No,” I say. “We won’t be welcome here. Dress codes are strictly enforced. To return here, like this, would be vainglorious, and foolhardy. You are both dismissed. Get your pictures to me by Tuesday or none of us will get paid.”

If you show a small child the picture of a man dressed only in dungarees, and what the good Lord gave him, and then ask the child what he or she sees, the child will claim to see a man. If you introduce two photos, one of a fellow in a swank suit-and-tie combo, and the second of a man wearing only his trousers, the child will claim to see a man, and a shirtless man. Confused by the fun-house mirror of fashion, the child will see a lack, where there is no lack. The merely trousered man requires no qualifiers to his manhood, and is not, in fact shirtless, but skinful. The child’s harsh assessment reflects the ugly bias of a doomed race of hypocrites who invariably look and see the cup half-nekkid.


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