Finally it can be told: The sad, sordid back-story of how I found myself applying for a job as a reporter at the offices of The Commercial Appeal while shirtless.
I'd promised myself that I was through with the whole accidental exhibitionist thing, but every time I think I'm all buttoned up for good, somebody rips the shirt right off. Me, usually. And since the blustery, bosomy wonder known to the world — yes, the world — as Shirtless Man was created for the Flyer's 1998 Summer Issue, and I'm piloting this week's Summer Issue "Flyer Flashback," how could I resist?
In 1998, I toiled most days in a windowless room in the Flyer offices, cold-calling potential classified advertising customers. I'd only just begun to do a little freelance writing on the side, and I was thrilled when I was asked to submit ideas to the editor for the cover of the 1998 Summer Issue.
Honestly, I was certain that nobody in their right mind would be interested in the idea I'd cooked up with my friend Jim Hanas, who had recently graduated from classified sales to a full-time writing position. I can still remember then-Flyer editor Dennis Freeland repeating a truncated version of the original pitch back to me: "So you just take your shirt off and go out and do things?" he asked, looking at me like I'd just stepped out of a flying saucer. "What kind of things?"
"Oh, you know," I answered. "Test drive cars, apply for a loan, try to get a job, buy a shirt, go to a topless club." Next thing I knew, I was on assignment and negotiating with a security guard at the Peabody Rooftop Party.
"You need to put a shirt on, sir," [the guard] says, sidling up to me.
"But I thought this was a party."
"It is a party, sir, but you need to put a shirt on."
"What kind of party is that?"
"It's a private party open to the public for a $5 cover charge."
"And I have to wear a shirt?"
"We prefer it."
"So I don't have to wear a shirt if I don't want to?"
"You need to put a shirt on, sir."
"But look at this sunburn I have here. Terribly painful. OWWWWWWWW! Jesus that hurts to touch it."
"I know how painful that can be, but you need to wear a shirt."
"Do I have to button it?"
"Can I just wear a vest?"
"You can just wear a vest."
"Do I have to button that?"
Shirtless Man was a surprise hit. I went on to write about the big boy's swinging European vacation for the Flyer, and to recreate the whole original adventure in a multi-page spread for a popular men's magazine that usually featured scantily-clad starlets. Rose McGowan was Maxim's cover girl for March 1999, but I was the hot topless attraction.
Sixteen years later, people still ask why Shirtless Man didn't have more Memphis adventures. First off, I'm genuinely uncomfortable being naked in public. Weird, right? But I also thought it was a one-time gag that wouldn't work once the public was in on it. So I took the soundest advice ever offered in the entire history of showbiz: Leave 'em wanting more pictures of the shirtless fat guy.
In spite of my earnest desires to retire Shirtless Man, he now has a life of his own on the internet. Memphis-based artist/photographer Jonathan Postal took a photo of me that was originally snapped in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and photoshopped it Zelig-like into historical scenes, alongside Abraham Lincoln, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King. It's a strange honor, but I'll take it.