The sky quietly blankets the earth with soft, powdery snow. Outside the window, under the glow of orange streetlights, the air seems tinted an otherworldly purple. It’s early morning in late February: too early for people to drive to work, too early to rouse the kids for school, a perfect time for burrowing deeper under snug, warm bedcovers. I can’t sleep. Because my house sits on a relatively isolated stretch of this small town and because of the strange reflective quality that snow emits even at night, I’m stumbling around in the dark like a tipsy burglar, turning on as few lights as possible so as to not reflect light upstairs where my children sleep, and thinking about skin.
Skin is ubiquitous among all living creatures, barring flora. This is a misnomer, though, because fruits and vegetables have skin too – in the form of outer membranes more commonly referred to as peels. I would argue that plants and trees have a type of ‘skin’ too, protective, yet permeable outer layers visible to the eye and readily available to the touch, but I am not a botanist or a scientist. I am merely someone fascinated with the idea of skin: the vulnerable outer layer that is at once intensely delicate and undeniably powerful.
I do not think about skin in an “it rubs the lotion on its skin” way, though plenty of people do: cultures are built around skin, whether they realize it or not. Being tan signifies youthfulness in one culture, while being pale and unblemished signifies status in another. Opposing the mores of a dominant skin culture signifies another thing altogether. Traditions are built around skin: henna tattooing, traditional Japanese tattooing, the disc-wearers and neck-stretchers of Africa. Without skin and its inherent vulnerability, vampires, witches, werewolves, zombies, and a swath of demons and potential possessors would lose their terrifying hold on the human imagination.
I celebrate skin in all of its various forms. The irresistibly sweet-smelling heads of babies hold as much allure to me as the tender, fuzzy swells of late summer peaches. I love the waxy, rutted skins of ripe avocadoes as I do the sheen of beach-goers, golden, slippery, and a little mussed with grit and sand.
Growing up in Coney Island leaves an indelible imprint. Though I never got accustomed to being ogled – a primary motivating factor in my decision to leave the city for good – I was nevertheless fascinated with Coney Island’s fixation on the bizarre and the strangely beautiful. The neighborhood remade itself in the early part of the last century by capitalizing on the odd and grotesque. It also capitalized on the titillating aspects of exposed skin, touting itself as a place where everyday folks could shed their workweek concerns by joining a few thousand of their friends on the beach for shenanigans, mirth, and spontaneous intimacy. I’m sure this was a comfort to those crawling out from under the cover of Victorian propriety. Or maybe they just went there for the hot dogs.
Coney Island offered a broad variety of sensual delights, most memorably the beach and the food. Along the boardwalk, long Italian sausages roasted on fire grills, skins glistening. Cotton candy swirled in deep vats alongside racks of soft, hot, heavily salt-sprinkled pretzels, which were to be eaten with mustard, as de rigueur in the area. The list ticks off with a response much like those exhibited by Pavlov’s lab dogs: Mrs. Stahl’s potato knishes, corn dogs, franks, hot roasted peanuts and winter chestnuts, buttery popcorn, gorgeous globes of caramel and candied apples… Vendors offered beer in small, plastic cups; closer to Brighton, where the peninsula adjoins with mainland Brooklyn, they sold kvas, a heady, fermented dark elixir. None of this food was intended to be healthful or nutritious, but it suited the neighborhood’s aura: it was sinfully delicious.
The food recollection is inseparable from the skin it evokes. I call it ‘Beach-goers Nonchalance.’ When temperatures hit the high 90s with 100% humidity, the clothes come off, regardless of vanity or pragmatism. Hirsute elderly fellows with questionable fondness for Speedos intermingle with lithe, bikini-clad beauties; children coated in a paling layer of titanium dioxide feverishly dash between the water and their towels. Shrieks, laughter, and lustful stares abound; modesty retreats. I will never forget riding home on the B36 bus and seeing a lady walking down Surf Avenue stark naked save for a white men’s button-down shirt, flapping wide open. She was almost certainly high – oblivious, impervious, completely out of her head. But she strutted.
Skin: the great leveler.
The freckles, sunspots, moles, scars, and dimples accumulate over time, but they are really only decorations on the astonishing cellular constructions that are contained and nourished by the skin. All living things are held together in this way; skin is genetic common ground, but it is also something that makes us expressly unique among one another. I have a small blue elephant tattooed on my hip, a gift I gave myself on my 18th birthday. If I am lucky enough to make it to 40, I’m tricking my elephant out like Ganesha, so that I will never forget the humble and beautiful power of my skin.