We arrived at the beach around noon, and everyone there was as naked as a the day they were born, except for the lifeguards – a pair of theatre geeks who were belting out show tunes, flailing their arms at the crescendo, all the while old hippies and young hipsters sat bare-assed behind them, damning the clouds and rain, beckoning the sun to come again … the whole of Gunnison Beach was brimming with booze, wild laughter, Queen tunes and the kind of free love and jubilance that defined the ‘60s.
Earlier, we hopped on the ferry at Pier 11/Wall St. in Manhattan and zipped across the east river at the bottom of the canyon of steel and stone and madness. The harbor winds whipped and playful tourists rushed to the bow of the vessel to snap photos with Lady Liberty and the buckling Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The sun was still shining when we headed out into the Atlantic towards Gunnison Beach, New Jersey, and the naked bodies – but as soon as we docked the black clouds came and so did the creep.
Yes, the creep. He wandered the beach, shorts hanging half off his ass, eyeing everyone from behind the darkness of sunglasses, prompting the hippies to glare at him like the drunk at a party who’s only there to cause trouble. The half-naked beast would veer off into the distance, but periodically arrive again, stalking the margins of the lot, like a wolf on prey. … Oh well. The hippies quickly ousted him and soon the clouds were off the sun again. The fat raindrops of an earlier sprinkle were a distant bad memory and the music and laughter erupted once more, so I decided to get naked with the rest of the crowd and keep inking copious notes onto my Carnet Journaliste notepad:
JUST TOOK OFF MY TRUNKS. AN ODD, YET CAREFREE FEELING HAS TAKEN HOLD. TWO 30-SOMETHING LADIES JUST ARRIVED – BOTH SOCIAL BUTTERFLIES, STRIKING CONVERSATIONS WITH FELLOW SUNBATHERS, JUST THERE. … I DON’T THINK MY ASS HAS EVER GOTTEN THIS MUCH SUN BEFORE ... I CAN STILL SEE MANHATTAN IN THE DISTANCE. RIGHT. THIS IS NO PLACE FOR THE UNDARING, THE PURITANICAL. I CAN FEEL A PULSE OF LIBERATION HERE. I CAN DETECT THE AROMA OF GOOD WEED SOMEWHERE, AND MAYBE I’LL PARTAKE. BUT NOT NOW. TIME TO BLEND. …
I decided to take a dip in the ocean and on my way to the shore scan the scene for more creeps or maybe any out-in-the-open sex or playful necking, but I didn’t see anything like that – just fun-seeking freedom lovers knocking back drinks in red plastic cups calling for their neighbor to “turn it up! … I love that song!”
When I got into the water the waves crashed hard on my body, knocking me down on the surf. With no shorts to protect my naked ass, I instantly felt the sting of jagged rocks and broken seashells on my skin. Behind me, as I rushed to stand before the next barreling wave, the lifeguards were still singing, and couples, holding hands, sauntered and smiled and waved at each passerby. You could feel the freedom in the air and even a sense that your self-criticisms are not welcome here.
My colleague was still back on our staked spot, tanning, so I stood there in the ocean for a moment, with my back to the Atlantic, and watched life unfold before me, all the while wondering if people even know who the Lenni Lenape are; that New Jersey and New York City and further north still is their ancient homeland. What do they, the Lenape, think of this place? I thought. About what it’s become and what goes on here? …
“Indians were cool with being completely naked most of the time, right?” a man asked me recently at a Brooklyn eatery.
“Were!?” I exclaimed.
“Well, you know what I mean. Back then,” he backpedaled. “I didn’t mean to suggest you guys are no longer around.”
“I think you’re suffering from Type-2 Acute Stereotyping Syndrome,” I said. “I’ve got some medication here in my pocket that’ll fix that shit. … You’re actually not looking too good, now that I think of it.”
The jackass seemed to get my drift and moved to another part of the place to hide in the shadows with his shame and crooked skull, so I sat there, proudly – one down, I thought, a couple million more to go.
Back at the beach, the liquor had taken hold of a few heads and the white people were as red as lobsters. The creep had come back and sat by his belongings, rubbernecking all the while. A young couple noticed that things were slowly getting out of hand and decided to pack up and leave. My colleague and I decided it was time to do the same, but not because madness was erupting. No. Gunny Beach was, in fact, becoming more high and animated. Earlier, people seemed to be mostly interested with tanning and sipping a beer. Now, it was obviously turning into a full-fledged social event.
But the shuttle to the ferry was about to take off, so we needed to pack up our things and head for the road. When we arrived there was no shuttle, but people were still arriving, pulling towels and umbrellas and 12-packs out of their trunk. “The shuttle was here but it just left,” a man in a white van said. A park ranger in a cruiser was parked by the curb and we inquired if he knew when the next shuttle would come.
“It’s our ride back to the ferry, and it’s the only ferry that’ll take us back to the city,” I said. “Otherwise we’ll be stranded here!”
“I mean I can take you, but I’ll need to check you bags,” he said.
“Um, it’s OK,” I responded with an obvious delay. “We’re probably early. Another one should be along shortly.”
The fuzz seemed to catch my drift. Right. We declined his tentative offer because had he checked our bags things would've gone terribly wrong. The day would’ve ended with arrests, or at least a confiscation of our weed and a “OK, now be on your way.” But he didn’t seem to care; the day was growing late and he looked like a man at the end of his shift. So we caught a ride with an off-duty park ranger driving a civilian sedan. On the ride back to the dock the ranger asked us what we thought of Gunnison Beach.
“It’s calm,” I said. “Not at all what I’ve read online. …”
“Well, last week we had a suicide party, a domestic violence incident and some men masturbating on the beach. People think that because it’s a nude beach there are no rules, but there are.”
“Right!” I clipped. “I think I saw one or two guys out there who were looking for trouble. … By the way, do you know who the Lenni Lenape are?”
“… OK. Here’s your stop,” he said.
We hopped out of the car and joined the crowd of folks waiting for the ferry, which hadn’t arrived yet. About fifteen minutes later the vessel cruised into the dock, picked us up and soon we were back on the water, charging toward New York. We ordered a pair of drinks at the bar and went topside to feel the spray of the ocean breeze and eye the ships coming in and out of the harbor. I thought of the hoards of people centuries before who came up this very route for the first time, and then were documented by hoards of other newcomers who, by then, had documented themselves. I thought of the Lenni Lenape and imagined them standing on the shores of Gunny Beach watching each ship come in, saying to themselves, “If we’re not documenting them, then who is?”
Centuries later, here in New York City, I continue to have run-ins with folks who respond with “Who’s that?” whenever I mention that their family’s Brooklyn home, their old Queens neighborhood, even the famous nude beach in New Jersey, is on ancient Lenni Lenape territory.
Now, about my sunburnt ass. …
Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, has a Master of Arts degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in New York City.