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Friday, October 23, 2009

Naked Coffee and Springfield, Virginia

I barely knew what was going on in Springfield, Oregon this morning. The closest I've gotten thus far to hanging out with my parents has been a short phone call doing a quick usability study on a software program I might be working with in the near future. (Which means that yes, my mother is, for the most part, my litmus test for software or projects that I work on. If she can't figure out how to use a software program or new product, then someone needs to work on the UI.)

Anyway, fast perusal of the news boards this morning netted me the fire that woke myself and T up this morning in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, as well as the Odd News of the Day. And suddenly I realized that one of them was a little closer to home.

See, I grew up with wide picture windows and a lack of pretense of wearing clothing if I was staying home alone. Heck, most of the time in the summer, when I lived in Fremont, the morning sun in the living room would heat the house to the approximate temperature of a brick pizza oven, fired with the coals from Hades and topped up with a wee bit of brimstone. (More if the cat had found the tortilla chips and devoured the whole bag. Again.)

See, I tend to be a little less than cognisant when I wake up the morning. Part of that is due to the recurring insomnia, part of it is just not being able to gain full consciousness until a cup of coffee is down my throat and I've peered around the edges of information to get my brain geared up for the day. Peanut butter on toast, a massive mug of coffee or thick Irish tea, and I can theoretically move forward. That isn't to say I have a set schedule - the routine is the same regardless of wake-up time in Tokyo, London, Johannesburg or Mumbai. I travel well.

What I don't do well is recognize that other people might be around when I wake up. Which is fortunate that I live with my roommate, since our morning rituals mostly involve nods and grunts. And our kitchen window looks out onto a backyard of grass - at eye level. We live in a basement, and while it allows for a certain dark, cool atmosphere that's heaven during the summer, it also affords a bit of privacy.

But I never, ever think much of walking around inside my house in whatever state of dress I might be in at the time. Even if I was wearing an old kimono with a fine patina of wear around the sleeves or a pair of Hello Kitty swim trunks, I'm in my own house. Being at home is generally the place that you can let your hair down. I knew this walking around my parents' house in Springfield, Oregon, the home of the Simpsons, the home of the hippie. For the lack of a better pretense, Springfield was the final landing point of Ken Kesey and the occasional crash pad of Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Curtis Salgado, and other minds of the 1960s and 1970s. It was also not too far away from Veneta, Oregon - home of the Oregon Country Fair, where both boobs and schlongs paraded in abundance during four or five days of festivities.

Yes, many Springfields have a long and fine history of walkin' around nekkid. Even Benjamin Franklin's later years involved a fine tradition of meandering around the house without any clothes on. Indeed, the man who gave us Poor Richard's Almanac and the basis for a vast store of the American governmental processes had a habit of standing in front of his windows, fully nude, balding pate exposed and straggling white hair dangling off his paunchy, white, pasty American colonial back. While drinking coffee. At the window.

With this, one might find that one of the original colonies might tolerate the idea of a man, standing well within his own kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee in the darkness of a morning, waking slowly. Most of us make coffee in the clothes we sleep in - so what harm if the things you happen to sleep in are the cells of your own skin?

Not so in Springfield, VA. Most definitely not so if you happen to be seen as an overzealous cop's wife walks through your front yard and ogles you through the kitchen door and window as you paw your eyes awake and make coffee, and decides to call her husband.

All reports about the incident say two things - Eric Williamson was naked in his kitchen making coffee, and a neighbor walking her son to the bus stop gasped in horror as the male form swayed in the kitchen, carbonized coffee particles swirling in a cup, banana and coconuts hanging free.

Also, the woman making the complaint was, officially, trespassing. That is, walking through the front yard of the residence she complains about, close enough to see through the front window.

Which makes the complaintant a peeping tom, and prosecutable as a sex offender herself.

Now, ironically enough, this is Springfield, Virginia. It is not Springfield nowheresville. The idea of a naked male form is not only available on the Internet, it's close to Washington DC, where much of the greater art of the nation is arrayed in public museums. Much of this is comprised of naked men.

Also, from the eyeballing of the property in Springfield simply off of Google Maps, this property is set back from the street. At the time of the night when it's dark, peering right into someone's kitchen, as they wake up, is not only mildly creepy, it's downright offensive.

The thing about this case that rubs me the wrong way is simple - the house, a rental, shared by multiple individuals who are commercial divers, is sited in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and across the street from a bus stop. A mother walking her son to school across a yard is one thing; seeing someone in there who's making coffee in his flipflops and nothing but, then calling the police for "indecent exposure" is quite another.

From every viewpoint of the camera that I was able to see, Williamson is far enough away from the street, hidden behind curtains and walking around in his house, ten feet away from any window. Williamson, the father of a five-year old girl, has reason to worry; the accusation of him "flashing" could label him as a sex offender in the neighborhood, even though the accusation comes from someone with their nose pressed up against the glass. The accusing mother, on the other hand, has the title of "pillar of the community" (which, in most cases, means an interfering busybody with pretensions of power and status).

It's entirely possible that Williamson knew that people were out there, knew that kids walked to school, and still went downstairs naked for his coffee, knowing he was flying solo in the house, figuring that the curtains would cover him. It's a risk.

But at the core issue here is not the sanctity of the children passing by his house nor the anger of the parents who choose to cut through his lawn, then act frightened and bully him out of the neighborhood. It's about personal property rights.

I live in a house that is shared with a family of four upstairs. There is a child of the age of three who lives there. I do not intend to display myself for the world to see, but as a resident of my own house, in my own yard, I own my right to privacy. I won't do the electric slide wearing nothing but a thong in the backyard but the idea that I should be able to lie out in the sun in a privately hidden area with nobody else around without worrying whether I'll be arrested for having no clothing. If I am on my own property or living space, rented or owned, I have a right to expect privacy not just from the public but from voyeurism of any kind.

Therefore, if the three-year old who lives upstairs from me is running free, turns and sees either my roomie or myself stumbling to the bathroom through the open basement kitchen window and reports this to his parents, I do not have any control over that child's exposure. The bathroom is five feet from my room. Two nights ago I heard nothing but rampant monkey noises combined with a tribal drum beat in a steady house rhythm, thumped against the top wall for a good thirty minutes, punctuated with primal scream therapy at atonal and irregular harmonics. Compared to me meandering through my own kitchen in a pair of boxer shorts, I'm not entirely sure the exposure of the naked form counts as a Big Bad. The failure of parenting strictures, education, and a child's witnessing of a parent's violation of boundaries doesn't justify any hypervigiliant judgementalism masquerading as good parenting.

Williamson's accuser probably saw a really good way to get noisy single males who live together in a house out of the neighborhood, away from a cheap rental. She probably found a way to embroil the bitter conflict into a serious note, and she managed to hit a single father in the place it could hurt him most with the suggestion that he might be a sex offender.

More is the pity. I truly hope Eric Williamson fights the charge and wins. I hope he sues the woman for trespassing, for slander and libel, for false accusation, and for lewd behavior. I hope he finds a lawyer who is willing to go to the mat for him and go after the Fairfax County police department, and settle. I hope that he requires a full public apology and demands a review of the officer whose wife called him in. I truly hope that this incident, in short, never remains with Eric Williamson.

The interesting thing is, Williamson's entire experience was the same routine millions of people do every morning - in a state of dishabille, begin one's day. But this smells and feels like an attack not on the Man Next Door Who's Always Naked, but rather a man who was simply living his life among neighbors in a suburb that didn't accept them.

In part, this is why I wonder sometimes about the city, and whether living in the urban environment has shielded me somewhat from the anger I would feel living in a smaller town or urban area, being accused of indecent exposure. No longer is that a quiet nudge from neighbors who casually say, "If you must, drop a kimono in the kitchen or close the blinds."

Eric Williamson, a single father, separated from the mother of his daughter, has to now look constantly over his shoulder for the police. His relationship to the people around him has been compromised simply because of the accusation of a vain, overbearing woman whose sole contributions to the neighborhood have been the forced exodus of people different from them.

I do not understand why Williamson's accuser has not been arrested for voyeurism. I do not understand why she has not been charged with trespassing. I understand that she is married to a responding police officer; and that the appearance of police harassment and misconduct is rampant all over this.

However, Williamson will never get that vindication. He's been accused of a sex crime. And from now until the end of his life, that will haunt him.

The woman who accused him should be placed in the limelight. She should have a full face. She is -not- a victim. She is someone who accused falsely, and the police force of Fairfax County, Virginia, should immediately disclose all information, including her relationship to the officers in charge.

This is misconduct. This is slander. And even if Eric Williamson has been found to be guilty of improper conduct with a rubber chicken and a latex glove on his head in full view of the public inside his place of residence, it is not the responsibility of the government to legislate the personal behavior of individuals within their own homes. Williamson is entitled to personal privacy as much as my grandfather is entitled to walk through his home wearing a pair of whitey-tighties and carrying a .357 to scare potential intruders (aka, coyotes that make it over the wall).

Frankly, Fairfax County should be hiring lawyers right now. Williamson has moved from the place of residence, and he's smart. Even if he is found innocent, his reputation and his personal ethics have forever been impugned. In an age when sexual crimes carry a stigma that follows long after the crime's resolution (and in many cases, deservedly so) the accusation of sexual misconduct is nothing to toss around lightly; and the woman who so accused him should be held to the same, if not stronger social stigma if her accusations merely turn out to be bald-faced lies.