Larry Fleischman recalls his pre-Miami life as hard and suburban. He lived in New Jersey with his wife and three kids. He loaded trucks in the evening, worked at a flea market on the weekends, and had a good job as an IRS collection officer during the week. He took joy in nailing doctors and lawyers. But something irked him.
"I always wanted to be nude," he says. "My kids knew it. My wife knew it. I wanted to exercise in the nude; I wanted to eat in the nude. People said, 'You're sick!' and 'You're crazy.'" Fleischman guessed they were right.
But on a recent Tuesday, as the nation went sick and crazy with primary fever, Fleischman roved Miami-Dade County's clothing-optional beach like a king rooster. The 78-year-old strutted across the sand, clad only in a woven palm hat stuffed with feathers and strung with Mardi Gras beads.
Some people here call him "Mayor." He has been on Miami's naked scene for decades — ever since he split with his wife and the government transferred him here.
In 1984, Fleischman spied a newspaper ad for a nude beach on Virginia Key. He remembers making the long trek to the secluded end of the key with a few dedicated nudists. They ate hot dogs, swam, and sunned in the buff.
Disaster struck in 1985, when the City of Miami took over the beach and kicked out the nudies. They survived underground, doffing their clothes at private gatherings and on a rented hotel roof. They took bus trips together — yes, naked. Fleischman drew odd looks at the office when he began pinning brochures for nude getaways on the IRS corkboard.
He retired just as the dwindling band of nudists discovered the abandoned stretch of beach at the north end of Haulover Park. In July 1991, the group claimed the plot. Relying on a Florida Supreme Court decision deeming nudity legal in some cases (as long as it's not lewd or lascivious), they took a stand.
Fleischman had nothing to do all day but hold the beach. "When police started harassing us, we got a [legal] opinion," he recalls. "We printed up a bunch of copies."
He also handed out propaganda and did his best to enlist members, recalls then-president of Florida Free Beaches, Shirley Mason. She decided to give Fleischman an unofficial title — one that's used at nude beaches in Los Angeles, Nova Scotia, and Wisconsin. "He was a real big help," she says. "So we made him mayor."
Issues arose, however, when Fleischman agitated a few local lifeguards by soliciting their girlfriends for sensual massages. "He got a little carried away," Mason says with a chuckle. So he was given a choice: Stop the massages or step down.
He stepped down.
The job, after all, basically entailed wearing a hat with the word mayor on it.
But Fleischman continued to burrow his way into the hearts of regulars as the lovable — if not overly amorous — Hizzoner, so the title never completely left him.
He cuts an impressive figure — almost as you might imagine Socrates — sinewy, balding, and bearded. His blue eyes shine in a hollow-cheeked face that projects a kind of ancient wisdom — a wisdom undercut by a shark tooth earring and a Pegasus tattoo.
Richly bronzed and nearly furry with white hair, he wiles away most afternoons rubbing down the shoulders of any lady who occupies the spare blanket he lays out alongside his small encampment.
High above him, a flag bearing his self-designed logo — two yins and a yang — flaps on a collapsible PVC mast.
"Years ago it just came to me," Fleischman says, pointing to a pendant around his neck bearing the same logo. "There's just something about threes. Man, woman, child. Body, mind, spirit. I've talked to many shamans who agree that this is a very powerful symbol."
His three daughters (yup, three!) know about dad's new lifestyle and, according to Fleischman, have no problem with it. Nor do his four grandchildren or his two great-grandkids.
He serves as the beach's self-appointed social chair. He's a go-between for swingers and fetishists, gays and straights. "It's like Baskin-Robbins," Larry says, rising to take a stroll. "We got 31 flavors."
There is little motion here, save the despised gawkers and photo-snappers who wander (clothed) in and out of a pair of distant thatched huts. Still, an Edenic calm pervades the scene.
Fleischman is the place's energy. Young hotties can't escape his enthusiastic welcome. Newcomers receive a business card: "I knead you," it reads.
Sometimes Fleischman bops and flops his way through a nude game of volleyball. (It can be a dangerous prospect, according to the lifeguard at post 27, who witnessed a man mangle his penis during a poorly timed dive.)
Off the beach, too, Fleischman remains quite active. He supplements his government pension and social security benefits with nude modeling for local college drawing classes.
Since his awakening at age 61, he has avidly competed in Senior Olympic sporting events around the state — bagging a sack load of medals. The javelin's his specialty.
Sadly his pole vaulting recently hit a wall when a new manager at Miami Dade College's north facility told him he would not be permitted to vault because of his age.
Naturally the mayor enjoys a healthy constituency. Take, for instance, Joe and Nancy Wikowski, who were overjoyed to spot their hairy good pal. "We love Larry," Nancy says in the selfsame New York tawlk Fleischman employs.
"He's great," Joe agrees. The nudist couple migrated to Larry's nearby condo complex after retiring from a savagely clothed life in Virginia.
Joe, a squat man with the city's unmistakable tough-guy features, recalls growing up in a lower-middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood not far from Larry.
"We didn't have childhoods," Joe says. "Times were hard. We had to grow up fast. Now we get to play around in the sand all day."
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Retirement for the Wikowskis is all nude cruises and sun. But, like Larry, they fear the hand of fundamentalists coming down on their naked little paradise like a hammer from God. "They closed up two nude beaches up there in Roanoke," Joe says, his sunny face turning cloudy. "Look at this beach; it's the only place you see people."
Fleischman concurs. All that flesh might as well be gold for the county's underfunded parks department. He pays just $48 for his annual pass as a senior. Casual visitors cough up $5 per day in parking fees. On the weekends, the trio explains, you'd better park before 10 a.m. Otherwise you can't get a spot.
Asked about his officially defunct unofficial mayoralty, Fleischman seems to appreciate the continued goodwill of his constituents. He likes being the un-mayor.
"It's a good entrée to meet people," he says. "It gives you a reason to walk around and talk to people. Otherwise I'm just a naked old man on the beach."