He became legend on that very first day at the YMCA as he shed his sweaty workout clothes and strolled into the shower room, an older man with a gimpy yet confident stride, naked, with his ... his thingy swinging back and forth with the slow sway of his hips.
It was, according to those who saw it that day, a, uh, member of outlandish size. The other men in the locker room didn't know whether to look away or offer it a handful of peanuts.
And then, under the steamy water in the communal shower room, the very fortunate gentleman turned and asked trainer PJ Musilli, who was showering a few nozzles away, a question.
"Can you wash my back?"
Musilli hesitated. To put it mildly.
"I froze," he says. "I didn't want to..."
Other than the Kentucky Derby aspect of that scene, which took place a few years ago at the Briargate YMCA here in our village, it's a spectacle seen every day in men's locker rooms across the nation.
Naked old men.
Often not in the best of shape, they stroll without clothes. Sitting. Standing. Engaging in long discussions with each other. Doing push-ups. Or sit-ups. Shaving. Reading a newspaper. Watching TV, for crying out loud. Naked.
"At the downtown YMCA," says Mike Ray, the facility's one-time wellness director, "there was an informal club, a group of guys who called themselves FONG. Fat Old Naked Guys."
Under the radar
It's not — and we should be thankful for this — a topic that gets much attention. Television has dabbled in men's locker-room humor plenty of times, but seldom does it get down to, excuse the expression, the nuts and bolts: naked men chatting and behaving the same as if they were wearing suits other than the birthday kind.
A 2010 episode of the ABC comedy Modern Family points out the potential awkwardness, with gay Cameron and definitely-not-gay Jay, his father-in-law, changing into workout clothes for a racquetball game when their naked buttocks accidentally touch. Jay leaps away at the speed of light.
Jay: "Yeoowww! What the hell was that?"
Cam: "Our butts touched against each other."
Jay: "They didn't press. It was glancing."
Cam: "C'mon. With all the time you spend in locker rooms, it can't be your first moon landing."
Jay: "You have a name for it?"
Cam: "You got off easy. If it happens in the shower, we call it a splashdown."
For some, however, there is no awkwardness. None. They roam the steamy locker rooms as if they were strolling at the mall. Or the golf course. Or at home. Except ex-YMCA exec Ray has a theory about that part.
"I don't think their wives allow them to be naked at home," he says. "And they need to be naked someplace, so they use the locker room."
My own eyes have seen it. They still burn. As a YMCA member for many years — I dropped out perhaps a decade ago — I saw the older fellas, gents in their 60s, perhaps. And 70s. And even into their 80s. Naked and, seemingly, not aware of it.
One man used to stop me on a regular basis and ask what I'd be writing about that week. He was always naked. He'd ask what the City Council was up to. Why the streets weren't plowed in the winter.
Very chatty, he was. And nude. And most always with a towel around his ... neck.
And it isn't just a local thing. From websites far and wide come the tales of old naked guys engaged in seemingly odd behaviors. Sometimes, amazingly odd behaviors.
From ironmagazine.com, a bodybuilding site, comes this lovely holiday story: "I walk into the locker room last night to get changed and there was an old naked guy standing there. Not a big deal. They are in there every day. But this guy had a hair dryer propped up on the counter and he was bent over in front of it, and HE WAS BLOWDRYING HIS ANUS! I wish I was making this up. WTF is wrong with people?"
And from "Paynne," on the same website chat room: "I saw an old guy spray deodorant up his own a**."
"DrChiro" chimes in with this one: "The downtown YMCA had a big screen TV in the locker room. I walk in at about 7pm one night and there are about 10 naked old men (60+) sitting on stools watching 'Jeopardy!' It was wrong ... very wrong."
It could, of course, be worse. At our own downtown YMCA, until a major rebuilding and renovation project four decades ago and before women were allowed inside, older men did more things naked than watch TV or read newspapers.
"They swam naked in the big pool. In the middle of the day," says Ray, adding that the stories of naked swimmers were passed down at executive gatherings. "They'd just walk naked from the locker room and jump into the pool."
Such behavior seems to be limited to the older folks. Younger men — and for this story we did not peek into women's locker rooms, although there are indications that similar things take place there, too — keep their private parts, well, private. They wrap towels around their waists, not their necks.
The generational divide is reinforced, it seems, at the school level. Relatively few high schools today offer gym class or physical education classes, where previous generations learned to be naked and shower in groups. At some Colorado Springs high schools, the large communal shower rooms now are used for storage — filled with footballs, basketballs and volleyballs instead of, well, you know.
A sociologist weighs in
Jay Coakley is a retired, nationally prominent sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where his specializations are listed as "leisure/sports/recreation, social psychology and the sociology of aging." He grew up north of Chicago in the 1950s and says he and his pals often swam naked at the YMCA there. The shifting and more informed world, he says, has left its mark on younger people.
"We were all comfortable with swimming naked," says Coakley, himself now in his mid-60s. "I was raised thinking that privacy wasn't even an issue. There were us young boys and older men, all naked, and we didn't give it a thought.
"Today, since all the sexual scandals from the Catholic church and others, young men under the age of 30 are quite aware of the possibility of older men being perverts."
Today's older men lounging naked in locker rooms, Coakley says, are simply the products of a different time.
"We are comfortable being naked," he says. "[Older naked men] are not in the singles market or hustling for women. The whole notion of being either proud or ashamed of their bodies has been muted. With aging, your cosmetic concerns wane. The only reason we older men care about our bodies now is that we want them to keep functioning so we can skate or ski or work or play with our grandkids. We don't need to be that guy without the shirt in the ESPN Magazine ad."
Then Coakley chuckles.
"I remember leaping off the diving board, naked, at the YMCA pool," he says, "and instead of being worried about people looking at me, my only worry was protecting my genitals as I hit the water."
Coakley adds that his wife Nancy's three younger brothers "all learned to swim at the Denver Y — suitless."
There is no more naked YMCA swimming, of course. But there are very few rules covering the locker room. Just ask Laurence Zankowski, who recently moved here and joined our village's downtown YMCA. Brother of the Independent's CEO, he is a trainer and was a gymnast, and so has seen his fair share of locker rooms.
"The old guys are naked all the time, sitting around or standing around like old silverback gorillas. Maybe we should call them silverhead gorillas," Zankowski says. "It's like they're 7- or 8-year-old kids again, back at the old swimming hole."
And not always with a lot of self-awareness.
"The other day," Zankowski recalls, "there's a guy naked, parading around, talking on his cellphone, with a piece of toilet paper stuck between his butt cheeks — as he's conducting some kind of business."
Here's another story, from Steve, who asks not to be further identified:
"I'm with some buddies at the Air Force Academy last spring, working out. We go into the sauna when we're done. The rule is, you wear a towel around yourself even in the sauna. It's just the right thing to do.
"But we go inside and there's a guy sitting in there naked, sitting on his towel, and he's sweating like a pig. A big old guy. Really big. And he's just sweating like crazy onto his towel that's under his butt.
"After a while he stands up, peels the soaking-wet ass-towel off the bench, and then he walks over to the hot sauna rocks and WRINGS THE TOWEL OUT ONTO THE HOT ROCKS. His ass-sweat steam fills the room, and the rest of us run, I mean run, for the door to get out. Even today I think about getting that guy's ass-sweat in my lungs. I can't imagine that I'll ever go into a sauna again."
Author Stephen Fried wrestled with the naked locker-room thing back in 2006 in an article for Ladies Home Journal magazine entitled "Confessions of a Naked Man: Locker Room Vulnerability." An excerpt:
"I often hear wives bemoan the fact that they can't get their husbands to talk to them. They want to know what it would take to hear their men 'really open up.'
"...If you insist on knowing," Fried went on, "I will let you in on one of our manly little secrets. There's one situation where men truly and consistently talk a lot. And that's when they're naked, hanging around in the locker room."
A veteran downtown YMCA member, a regular since the early 1970s who also asked that his name not be used, opens the door into some of these conversations.
"Back a ways, some years ago, some pretty major conversations would take place in the steam room," he says. "It wasn't uncommon at all to overhear a lawyer or two and a judge or two settling a legal issue in there. Naked. We used to joke that as many cases were settled in that steam room as in the actual courtroom."
It's not always gentlemanly. A longtime Briargate YMCA member and trainer (also begging for anonymity because he still works out there) tells this lovely tale from a few years back: "I go into the shower and hang my towel on a hook right outside. A few spaces away is this big, hairy guy. All of sudden he turns off his shower, walks out and grabs MY towel and starts drying himself. It was the only towel hanging, so he obviously didn't bring one. He just grabbed the one that was there.
"And then, after he dries most of himself, he takes the towel, MY towel, and he starts flossing his butt crack with it, really working it back and forth like dental floss between his legs. And then he sees me looking and he says, 'Oh, is this your towel?' AND HE HANDS IT TO ME. What the hell do I do? I was just so stunned. I took it, and I had no other towel, so I used it to pat myself dry. Very gently. I got dressed still wet. I've never seen the guy again."
Mike Ray says he'd regularly hear talk of such clear-cut, locker-room etiquette breaches, but he never dealt with a formal complaint. Guys seemed to accept most any naked behavior.
"The naked guys would sit there for an hour, reading and watching TV and talking," Ray says. "They'd turn the TV to FOX News and just sit there, talking about the news. I always figured they were just in their comfort zone, a place where they feel a sense of belonging."
But maybe there can be too much belonging. Too much comfort.
"I have seen," Ray says, "an old guy, naked, walk over to the hand dryer bolted to the wall next to the sink, throw a leg up onto the sink counter, fire up the hand dryer and go to work drying his, you know, his stuff. I saw it with my own eyes."
Just like trainer PJ Musilli at the Briargate YMCA a few years back, watching with his own eyes as the stupendously well-endowed old guy turned in the shower and asked him if he'd wash his back.
What did he do?
"I was caught off guard," Musilli says. "He said he couldn't reach back there. I didn't know what to do or what to say. I panicked and said 'Sure,' and I very quickly threw some soap on his back."
Followed, one might joke, by a blanket. And a saddle.