I lived in Berkeley from about 1995-1999, and enjoyed the wackiness of it all. Moving here from a seminary town in Kentucky with a cross atop the municipal water tower, my wife and I experienced the kind of culture shock usually reserved for overseas relocation. We knew the red state/blue state thing was going on before it polarized the electoral maps. But the culture shock was eased by the fact that most of the people in Berkeley are pretty nice, and nearly all of them are passionate about their thing: whether it’s vegetarianism, no nukes, community organizing, gay liberation, advocacy for the lesbigay/transgendered/queer/questioning, the plight of migrant workers, advocating a recreational drug of choice, breast liberation day, home childbirth, or music or art or whatever it may be, these Bay Area folks tend to be zealous about it. Everything’s a movement in Berkeley; it’s where all the movements are born and where they all go to die.
I made my share of “Peoples Republic of Berkeley” cracks, and thought of the place as Berzerkeley. Watching the city council “at work” was always amusing as they thought globally and acted yokel-ly. I witnessed protests aimed at keeping NPR from continuing its work as a corporate shill.
And the punchline was always the Naked Guy. What better symbol could there be of the whole regional attitude than nudism in general and the naked guy in particular? Here was a guy who just went about his business as a UCBerkeley student, but naked. He didn’t write manifestoes or attach his actions to any available agendas. He just went around naked. As a sophomore in 1992, he attended classes naked. He went jogging naked. His behavior was vaguely connected with free speech and subverting the dominant paradigm, but he never got much more articulate than “What? I’m just a guy who happens to be naked. I do normal stuff in normal places, but naked.”
Hence the appropriateness of the name that stuck to him in the media: The Naked Guy. He sounds like a recurring character on the David Letterman show. And though his public statements weren’t especially clever, he had a kind of knack for symbolism and a good punch line: arrested for jogging naked, he was all set to receive a minor rebuke from a judge, until he showed up for his court date naked. That’s funny, in a Naked Guy (“What? I’m just going to court, naked”) kind of way.
But The Naked Guy had a name: Andrew Martinez. And he had a life and a history. And if you think of being naked in public as a problem (not to be judgmental or anything), it was not his only problem. he suffered from mental illness that took apart his life gradually, more markedly as he got older.
Last month, he committed suicide in prison in San Jose, California. He was in prison following a fight (battery and assault with a deadly weapon) in a halfway house where he had been living.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “after his days as the Naked Guy, Martinez spent the next decade bouncing among halfway houses, psychiatric institutions, occasional homelessness and jail, but never getting comprehensive treatment,” and quotes his best friend as saying that in these last few years he alternated between periods when he was his clear-minded self, and times when “his mind seemed to be commanded by an alien spirit.”
It seems so obvious to say, “In retrospect, his mental problems may have first manifested themselves back when he came to a college class without any clothes on.” Did that occur to anybody at the time? Sometimes, apparently, subverting the dominant paradigm is a cry for help. But the outlandish and symbolic cry for help went unanswered: it was considered a noble gesture of protest and empowerment by some, and a punchline for Berzerkeley jokes by others. I’m not recommending forced institutionalization for everybody who opts for dropping their laundry, flying their freak flags, or otherwise cultivating alterity and liminality. I am well aware that when the going gets weird, the weird get going. But I’m sad for the Naked Guy, sad that he was profoundly unfunny and died so unfunny a death at his own hands.