The Skin I’m In: Yet Another Reason I Was Never Cut Out for Baywatch

Given the unrelenting bleakness of the winter of 2015, it’s no surprise that May 1 will come and go without a viable beach day on the coast of Massachusetts. At this rate, July may get underway before Gloucesterites once again savor the charms of Good Harbor—most of all, the heady feeling when one slips past the “Residents Only” sign, the fee kiosk, and a queue of overheating Cherokees stuffed with lax bros from Peabody. A potent mixture of self-congratulation and Schadenfreude, this feeling never fails to make me swoon.

Compounding my general impatience to hit the beach is a worry that seems to afflict me alone. It is rooted in my modest knowledge of science, as well as the habits of my fellow citizens. To wit:

1) The high temperature on May 1 could register, technically speaking, as colder than the dark side of a newt’s ass. Nevertheless, the Ultraviolet Index, which measures the strength of the sun’s rays, may peak at almost 9.0. This is roughly the same number it will reach on always sultry August 1.

2) Many residents of Gloucester project a rather laissez-faire attitude when it comes to sunburn. That is, even though they will have packed the Grand Caravan with six kids, four folding chairs, two sets of Paddle Ball, and a cooler the size of a magician’s trunk, they will leave the sunscreen at home. In fact, the only sunscreen they’ll have at home is an ancient two-ounce sample they once picked up, mistaking it for a travel size tube of Aquafresh.

This combination of factors means that, once the droves do come to Good Harbor—exposing their delicate, winter-pale skin for the first time—it is certain that most will poach themselves scarlet.

I can vividly recall the first beach day of 2012. It was only mid-March, but the mercury was holding steady at 80 degrees when I arrived at Good Harbor in the late afternoon. Cresting the dunes and observing the scene below, I was reminded of a favorite painting by Hieronymous Bosch: “An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell.” Often hanging on the nursery walls of evangelical Southerners, it depicts the damned lying about in states of undress, their skin tinged an angry red by Lucifer’s sulfury fires. The only difference is that, in Bosch’s version, these individuals are quite conscious of their doomed condition; their postures indicate a certain writhing agony. In contrast, the Good Harbor beachgoers seemed either oblivious or simply unconcerned. They moved only to shoo a pesky gull or to apply a fresh coat of Crisco.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

[Good Harbor, March 2012]

I have a neighbor named Al, a retiree and a native of Gloucester, who exemplifies this insouciant approach to sun protection. He spends all of his daylight hours in his sizeable vegetable garden, perhaps the most fecund quarter of an acre in the city. And each day he conducts his efforts in nothing more than a pair of fraying denim shorts whose cut is so brief and yet so roomy that little is left to the imagination. Al happens to be blessed with a manly tunic of hair on his torso and arms, good for at least SPF 20 by my back-of-the-envelope estimates. Yet he always burns savagely on his first full days outside. After a few weeks, he has developed a mahogany carapace that, in addition to functioning as a UV barrier, deters mosquitoes, horseflies, and the fangs of your lesser snakes. Last July, I asked him about this technique. Thrusting his head from between the vines of a summer squash, he replied with perfect matter-of-factness: “Just like seasoning a cast iron pan.”

When I go to the beach, I am generally more circumspect than most Gloucesterites—indeed, more than most people with albinism. I favor the early morning or late afternoon shift, when the light is gentle and golden. Moreover, I drag along a garishly striped umbrella that could shelter an entire Bedouin caravan. Steeped in shadow and the sea breeze, things can get a little chilly, so I end up wearing a long-sleeved shirt and—sometimes—a towel over my legs. Suitably mummified, I am free to plow into a novel or perhaps to enjoy a nap untroubled by the specter of an uneven tan.

I do not pass judgment on my lobster-toned neighbors. Nor do I shy from the sun for the usual reasons: a melanoma scare or visions of future wrinkles and liver spots. Rather, it’s that I have absolutely no faith in the capacity of my skin to protect me from harm—and a corresponding impulse to avoid offending it in any way. For the same reason, I’ve never considered a tattoo for myself, despite my self-consciousness at being the only ink-free man under sixty at my gym. I’m aware that this may sound a little kooky. But the mistrust arises from two decades of betrayals, circumstances when my skin was my worst enemy.

The first and most painful treachery came to pass during the summer after my freshman year in college, when I was working as a camp counselor in the deep woods of western Virginia. One morning in the shower, I noticed a small red bump at the lowest, dangliest point of my scrotum. Initially, this wasn’t particularly concerning. The deciduous Southeast is home to all manner of spiders, flies, and biting insects of which New England is blissfully unaware—for instance, the noble chigger, a species of mite that likes nothing so much as the moist, clement depths of a college boy’s underpants. I assumed I had a few days of awkward scratching to look forward to—but nothing serious. This outlook changed the following morning, when I woke up with a hot, leaden sensation between my legs. Visual inspection revealed a testicular pouch the size, firmness, and hue of a ripe mango.


[Pretty much]

I was driven posthaste to the nearest emergency room and subjected to a series of medical examinations, which included vigorous palpation of the affected region, as well as an exceptionally unpleasant ultrasound. The technician was an older woman with ropy forearms and a smoker’s cough, and as she varnished my balls with conductive gel, the following exchange took place:

Her: “They say scrotums get this big on chimpanzees.”

Me: “Yeah?”

Her: “Mm hmm.”

Ultimately, I was diagnosed with high-grade cellulitis, an aggressive skin infection that I must caution you against Googling. But, amazingly, this was the least harrowing phase of what turned into a six-month cascade of horrors. I will not recount them all here. To do so would require a waiver indemnifying The Clam for trauma inflicted on its readership. But I will say that, at my lowest point, I considered whether surgical castration might be a sensible plan of action. Instead, the doctors opted for a cocktail of antibiotics, fungicides, and ’Nam-era defoliants, capped by an intensive course of topical steroids that left my scrotum as soft and smooth as a flapper’s chemise.


[One of my specialists, Dr. Kilgore]

It turns out that all sorts of cysts and nodules can grow on the human epidermis, and I have been beset by most of them. Indeed, if I were to wake up tomorrow morning with something truly bizarre germinating from my shoulder—a tiny cartilaginous bust of Jimmy Durante, let’s say—I would not be the least bit surprised. Still, when that first beach day arrives and I am stuck beneath my giant umbrella, I will inevitably feel a pang of envy. A flush may even come to my wan cheek as I watch the scantily clad masses frolic in the surf and sun—imperfectly safe, but perfectly comfortable in their own skin.


Go West Young Clam

Oh those heady, happy moments before we were informed the beverage cart had run out of vodka.

Oh those heady, happy moments before we were informed the beverage cart had run out of vodka.

Well Clamicitos, we’re off on our great westward adventure. Our flight out was fairly uneventful with the exception of discovering the luggage box on KT’s Pathfinder is exact height of the lowest horizontal structural supports at Logan central parking. “Are we scraping?” She asked. Yes, we were scraping.

For this Clameditor the flight was particularly enjoyable. I myself flew on a fairly heavy schedule from about 2000 to 2013, at one point obtaining enough miles on American so if they ever broke into commercial space travel I would have been business class to Mars. This timing means with the increased security protocols following 9/11 I have been subjected to every bit of TSA security theater as it’s evolved.

First there was the “turn on your laptop” phase which was always sort of loony. What was that supposed to prove? Then the “s” on your boarding pass concept, which meant agents were supposed to single you out for additional scrutiny (we would just hold our ID over that part to fool them.). There was a thing for a while where some of the x-ray bins for your stuff had red electrical tape marking, also designed to “randomly” select folks they’d pull aside. When I saw one of those at the top of the stack I always found an opportunity to let the person behind jump ahead while I checked my pockets one last time. “Have fun in Guantanamo, sucker,” I’d think.

Once, flying out of Benton Harbor Michigan, they handed me a red plastic card and said, “you’ve been selected for additional security, please present this to the TSA officer as you enter the terminal,” which you have to admit is just…beautiful in a way. In the meeting where they dreamed that up apparently not one person thought of a way for terrorists to potentially spoof that system. Amazing.

Terrorist 1: “Achmed, they have given you the red card! For sure now the infidels will find the cantaloupe-sized lump of semtex hidden in your carry-on when you dutifully present it to the security agent at the gate! We are ruined! Whatever shall we do?”

Terrorist 2: “I am sorry, but I can think of no other way around this problem but to hand the agent the card as instructed. What other options could there be?”

I should note here that Benton Harbor Airport doubles as the regional bus terminal. I’m not thinking this was the TSA A-Team on this one. Seriously, after a year of this crap flying once a week at least I could have been hired as a consultant to Al Queda on how to avoid airport security simply because I’m not fond of being groped by random frumpy people in ill-fitting uniforms. I sure somewhere someone is into that, I don’t judge, it’s just not for me.

And let’s not forget the shoes.In the past you spent your time outside the gate trying to pick the security line most full of people with slip-ons rather than the one with that goth chick sporting 19 eye Dr. Martens and piercings with enough collective metal to build a working toaster. You did a lot traveler profiling, actually: “Oh, that dude? He looks like he hasn’t flown since his honeymoon to the Poconos in 1963. Don’t get behind him, he’s got a metal hip and a pocket full of lucky silver dollars. That Indian lady in the sari and flip-flops who’s already got her laptop and plastic bag full of shampoo out? Get behind her, she knows the score.

But you know what? Something changed over the past few years my flying has diminished. At Logan at least you can leave your shoes on now. And the laptop stays in the bag along with the toiletries. Wow. It’s a whole new world. They did a hand screen for explosive chemicals which always makes me nervous because in Gloucester you never know what you’ve touched on a given weekend: a creosote-covered piling, diesel fuel, taxidermy chemicals, whatever the hell is that keeps soft serve from melting at the beach. I always worry at the hand screening.

But it was fine and we wound up on the plane and ready to wait a full half an hour on the runway in record time.

So here we are now in Los Angeles. LA and Boston are truly antipodes. Opposite sides of the country, opposite climate and about as different a set of cultural priorities as you can imagine. In our Beloved Hub it’s generally OK to be a blotchy unkempt smartypants in a shitty Subaru, whereas in LA they put up the velvet rope at Starbucks if you’re trying to get a latte with last year’s haircut.

The Clam/Flying Car crew on this little voyage fully expect to be treated as malformed hunchbacks on this trip, even though we charitably rate as “average looking” back home and even in spite of the fact every one of us went to Marshalls and picked up a couple of things. We shall do our best.


The Clam Goes to LA

The Gloucester Clam is going on a FIELD TRIP TO LOS ANGELES this upcoming week. It’s mostly for the Botox that Jim desperately needs. We’ll be sure to give you some dispatches from the field. Stay Tuned.