The Naked Time

by Jeff

Do you have photos of moments in your life that make you cringe? I have a handful of them, particularly from my early 20s, when I was searching for a path out of Texas. I had moved beyond my flashy New Wave days of makeup and big hair into a strange hybrid uniform of 1940s suit vests, cardigan sweaters, giant t-shirts, over-sized jeans, white boxer shorts, and black wingtip shoes. In 1993, my last year in Houston, the real crime was my goofy Roman haircut. I’m not sure why I thought I could make such an unflattering style into something cool.

This can work if you’re rugged,

or a rock star,

but not as a nerd.

My fashion faux pas was a personal line in the sand against the rise of grunge and its impact on the local art and bar scene. After graduating from high school, I had no trouble meeting interesting, attractive girls from the art and new wave scene, but my artsy friends and I saw ourselves as perpetual outsiders, happy to avoid trendy clichés. What we didn’t realize was that by identifying ourselves as outsiders, we were fulfilling another artistic stereotype. At least this stance offered us a small sense of self-worth and dignity in an environment that felt increasingly static. The Houston nightlife included the new bar Emo’s, which catered to the trendy grungy/alternative music scene that was rising at that time in which the standard patron was an avowed fan of Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. On a typical night, the bartenders usually ignored me and my nerdy, un-inked friends, while the regular patrons were quickly served — reinforcing the message that we didn’t belong. This left us feeling invisible to anyone outside of our artsy circle, but it fueled our self-righteous resolve to reach escape velocity from the endless orbit of Texas.

One of the voices in my art circle to help formulate my dastardly Texas escape plan was Giovanni, a close friend whom I’d recently met in my painting classes at the University of Houston. My friendship with him was based on mutual respect and admiration, two artists attempting to out-paint each other in the U of H art program, combined with an overwhelming skepticism of everything we saw. This culminated with us convincing/challenging each other that the only real option to be an artist was to move to New York. If Giovanni and I had never met, I am certain that I’d have never had the courage to move to New York. As another major character in my comic book life of misfits, Giovanni looked art school nerdy — large black glasses, ironic t-shirts, paint-splattered army fatigues, all grounded by chunky Doc Martins.

One night, shortly before moving away, Giovanni and I went to eat at one of our standard Mexican food haunts. As we walked into the slightly run-down restaurant, the hostess knowingly flashed us a wide smile with a curious wink, bypassing the patrons seated in the front room as she escorted us through swinging, saloon style doors and into the private, back dining room — empty aside from eight boisterous women piled around a table crowded with empty margarita pitchers.  These women, appearing to be professional types in their late 20s to mid-40s, would have customarily ignored my friends and I even more than the bartenders at Emo’s, but tonight was different. As the hostess escorted us through the saloon doors, the women drunkenly looked up and enthusiastically squealed with laughter. Giovanni and I, unsure of what to do, half-smiled with embarrassment as we turned away to avoid the stares, awkwardly uncomfortable with the unusual attention as the hostess seated us across the room. Placing our menus on the table, she cryptically said, “Thanks for coming. Enjoy your meal…and have fun!”

While we snacked on the complimentary tortilla chips, the unusual attention continued as several of the women continued to gaze in our direction, drunkenly making eye contact and smiling. This unusual moment reminded me of an important lesson I’d learned from years of immersion in Star Trek.

In the iconic episode The Naked Time, in spite of knowing what is “right and wrong,” the crew begins acting irrationally due to a virus being spread throughout the ship. Spock has an emotional breakdown, Sulu runs shirtless brandishing a rapier, and Kirk lusts after his Yeoman (which honestly isn’t that out of character.)

As a kid in school, I would often recall this episode after I’d see a cute girl waving to me in the hall. Instantly, everything I had come to know as “right and wrong” would be usurped by a girl doing something completely out of character. Like The Naked Time virus being spread around the halls of the Enterprise, this would also cause me to respond out of character. I’d forget the hard-earned lessons of nerdom as my emotionless Mr. Spock persona was temporarily overwhelmed by the long-hungered for attention. Dropping my guard, I’d enthusiastically wave in return, smiling as the girl approached, but then be confused when she would walk past to approach her friend standing directly behind me. Inevitably, I’d be left feeling embarrassed that I could delude myself so easily, while also revealing such an obvious weakness to my peers and potential bullies.

At the restaurant, although the women sent us smiles, Giovanni and I remembered the lesson from those grade-school hallways. As the odd, drunken attention increased, Giovanni and I would turn to look at the empty tables behind us, certain that a worthier recipient was lurking just out of sight. Something had to be wrong.

Soon enough, as the women began bellowing out a slurred version of Happy Birthday to their friend Suzanne, the scene began to move in slow motion — the birthday song elongated into a long, low roar. Dramatically, the saloon doors slowly swung open as a new nerdy gunslinger entered the scene, and we had our answer to the puzzle.

We watched as a muscular oddball slowly sauntered into the room, and squeezed over his jock-ish frame was a tight, short sleeved, white button-down shirt, fully buttoned up to the collar. The shirt was accented with a pocket protector, over-stuffed with a variety of pens that struggled to stay in place due to his protruding pecs. He also brandished a pair of high-water pants, which were cinched up with suspenders to reveal white socks and black, chunky Doc Martin shoes. To top it off, he was sporting a Roman haircut, perfectly combed into place over a pair of cartoonish oversized, black glasses, taped with a Band-Aid in the center. He was also toting a giant boombox.

From the moment this “nerd” walked in, Giovanni and I became invisible to the office women. Feigning clumsiness while setting down the boombox, he introduced himself as he let out a few nasally guffaws before he pressed PLAY. Immediately, the Mexican restaurant music was overwhelmed by the recognizable voice of George Michael. The women jumped up screaming, singing and clapping in time as the “nerd” began slowly gyrating to the rhythm, lip-synching the words:

“I swear I won’t tease you

Won’t tell you no lies

I don’t need no bible

Just look in my eyes.”

The birthday woman Suzanne, quickly became the focus of his attention. After guiding her to sit on a chair, he coaxed her to slide his suspenders off his shoulders, then slowly unbutton his shirt, all while he continued moving to the beat.

“I’ve waited so long, baby

Now that we’re friends

Every man’s got his patience

And here’s where mine ends.”

Just before the chorus hit, he dramatically removed his glasses and flirtatiously placed them on Suzanne as he guided her to dishevel his hair while her friends screamed in glee.

“I want your sex

I want your love

I want your sex

I want your sex.”

As the song peaked for the dramatic finale, the nerd stripper jumped into the air and dramatically tore off his Velcroed, high-water pants. This final move revealed dorky, white boxer shorts, which elicited ecstatic screams of laughter and applause.

During this spectacle, Giovanni and I sat uncomfortably in silence — slowly eating enchiladas and afraid of the humiliation of escaping from the room through those saloon doors, but also horrified by what we were witnessing. The clothes and style we wore as empowering signifiers of nerdom and potential escape had been reduced to a lame joke during a three-minute song.

Afterwards, the excited women were loudly laughing and hugging the stripper, as he roamed the room to gather his nerd gear for another job. Unsure of what to do next, the experience left Giovanni and I both humiliated and flattered by the initial mistaken identity. We realized that the women must have been excited that they’d gotten a special “buy one nerd stripper and get one free” deal, they just hadn’t expected to get real nerds in the bargain.

Later, after the shock had worn away, I realized that in spite of the flurry of unusual attention, we had successfully avoided the seduction of The Naked Time virus. Years of exposure in those Texas school hallways had finally made us immune.