“We cannot jolly ourselves into feeling safe when there is a catch in our throat and a racing heart that tells us something here wants us to hurt.”
When I was a child we lived close to a large park. It was a popular place. It had swings, a highly exciting whirly bird contraption that spun people around, picnic tables, a basketball court and a BBQ area where teenage boys would try and blow up their Lynx deodorant (*cough*2000’s*cough*). The most notable feature of this park was a long, winding, walking track that followed a river. It was a gorgeous, relatively secluded track. The trees were high and there were rocks big enough to jump over if you had the mountain-goat urge. There was also a man. We called him ‘Nudie Man.’ Cute name right? He was thought of as a harmless joke. He would walk through the underbrush a few metres from the track, naked, his clothes gripped in his hand. He was never too close, but never far enough away.
Sometimes he would just walk. You’d turn a corner and see him, and if you were twelve, like my friends and I, you’d shriek and run laughing in the opposite direction. If you were twenty, like my sister, you’d set your mouth in a grim line whilst grabbing your little sister’s hand and lead her away with bigger steps than she was used to. Occasionally, the man would seek you out. It could be a Sunday afternoon, a time made for playing games in the water; swinging off tree branches and seeing who could made the biggest splash. You never knew how long he’d been there for. He was silent, and still. He would watch. Watch until someone noticed his unclothed presence and then the shrieking and running would start, an uninvited adrenalin rush on a sunny afternoon. Other times, he wore a coat. It was a cliché tan trench coat, ironic and unsettling. If there was a game on at the basketball court he’d show up, quiet and waiting, perhaps drawn by our laughter. The laughter of children playing. Once you’d noticed him he’d open his coat and once again, naked. Parents knew about him, teachers knew about him, police knew about him and they’d sigh and advise us to stay away and be careful. We weren’t sure what that actually meant, when we’d never sought him out like he’d sought us, but we nodded our heads and agreed, because it was just a naked man, right? Nudie Man. A joke. Harmless.
Except that he wasn’t a joke, because we stopped going to the pond and stopped playing basketball. I stopped walking alone through my local park and when I did walk along the track with friends, we were quiet, subdued. Our park had been stolen by a danger we couldn’t quite understand, and our loss wasn’t really interpreted as a loss. Especially by older kids, who would scoff at our fear and accuse us of being scared of something that would never happen; Nudie Man wasn’t ‘doing’ anything, he was just walking around naked. Or standing there naked. Plus we probably wanted to see a real-life penis anyway. We were over-reacting.
One afternoon I took my brother’s Rottweiler for a walk to the park. He was an overly friendly dog, more inclined to fawn over strangers than protect me from them, but he looked intimidating and my mother told me I’d be fine. I breathed in the tall trees and the singing birds, I felt safe. I didn’t know what to do when I saw the photos, placed carefully along the track, a rock in the centre of each one to keep it there – to keep it visible. The photos demonstrated very clearly that at least one child hadn’t thought of this man as harmless. I shook as I walked home, filled with shame and fear. It was agreed that the danger was real now, the scale had tipped from harmless to harmful and we were exhorted more vehemently to avoid the park, or to only be there in the presence of adults.
The problem with this recollection is that the perpetrator was guilty all along, there was never a point where any of his behaviour was harmless. Yet, the adults in my life at that point in time taught me that a certain amount of uneasiness was inevitable. We were taught to be comfortable with discomfort, that the distortion of power was just the way the world was.
Nudie Man had a cute name, it was designed to take away the fear and make him an object of laughter. We cannot hide danger behind a name constructed to help us feel safer, a name that tells us we are wrong and there is nothing to fear, no one is being hurt. Reverse racism and reverse sexism are such names now, they try and tell us that there is no danger, and if we’re careful we’ll be fine. Personal Responsibility. Except people are careful and they’re still dying. Hate is behind these names just as it was for Nudie Man. We cannot jolly ourselves into feeling safe when there is a catch in our throat and a racing heart to tell us something here wants to hurt us. Something in our world is very wrong. Hate isn’t innocuous. We’ve just been told so many times that we’re overreacting and calm down, it’s just the way the world is, because after all, it’s harmless, isn’t it? It’s not as if people are dying.