You can leave your hat on
By James Thorner
ST. PETERSBURG TIMES
MIAMI BEACH - Splurpp. Splurpp. Splurpp.
A man squirts a puddle of suntan lotion, rubs his palms together and goes to work on the Rubenesque calves of the 50-something blond.
Her face goes all dreamy as the suntanned hands of this 30-something Javier, Marco or Philippe knead that soft spot behind the knee.
Magic fingers inch up the fleshy thigh that jiggles, wiggles and squiggles. He reaches the border where the bathing suit should be, but there's no bathing suit.
The woman had dropped her suit when she dropped onto the towel at Miami Beach's Haulover Beach. The masseur's hands proceed to unknot her naked gluteus.
Her bare derriere is just one of hundreds similarly disrobed on the quarter-mile of clothing-optional Florida sand.
The fragrance of coconut oil reaches my nose. Time to drop the paperback and study the scenery. How often do you visit one of the few beaches that lets you shed all your threads?
You've got the sunny blue sky, the gentle waves, the soft sand. But everyone seems to be slathering lotion, grazing on chips under umbrellas, cut off from the world with headphones.
No kids build sand castles. Almost no one's in the surf. There's not even a pitiful Frisbee to break up the monotony.
There are enough private parts on display to fill a newsstand of adult magazines. But from under my umbrella, I've reached an unexpected conclusion: Haulover Beach is boring.
That suits Shirley Mason just fine. As a "beach ambassador," she and husband Richard have spent 14 years battling the notion that Haulover is a Sodom and Gomorrah of the sands.
Mason is a full-figured mother of 55 who stations herself under a canopy on the strand. Richard, 71, usually stands at her side dispensing cards describing Haulover "etiquette." (Among the tips: It's rude to gawk.)
The Masons are the chief cheerleaders of beach nudism and, like other ambassadors, they wear turquoise safari helmets with orange bands to set themselves apart amid the crush of flesh.
Back in 1991, the Masons stuck a sign in the sand on north Miami Beach -- "Beyond this point you may encounter nude sunbathers" -- and almost dared Dade County to object. They reasoned that there were 8,600 miles of coastline in Florida. Why deny nudists a measly quarter-mile of sand?
"People are surprised because they think nudity must be sex, that people are fornicating on the beach. And that's not even close," Shirley Mason says.
Richard Mason credits the ambassadors for helping make Haulover a respite from the body beautiful obsessions of South Beach. You can have flab and it's just fab.
"When you come to Haulover, you can almost hear Peggy Lee singing, Is That All There Is?" he says.
You've got to pity the studs looking for love on Haulover. As any veteran beach-goer could tell you, it's just about the worst place to score.
Haulover is a friends beach. It's a couples beach. But it's a surprisingly tough pickup beach. Women, some stripping publicly for the first time, are quick to activate their sleazeball early-warning systems.
A percentage flock to the hassle-free zone, another name for the gay end of the beach. It takes up the northern tip of Haulover, demarcated by a pink lifeguard tower.
Yet, the studs try mightily. Moussed, depilated, toned, they come, usually singly, scoping out women on their towels.
They try flattery: "You're in nice shape. Do you work out?"
Or camaraderie: "Are you a nudist, too?"
And this oldie and not-so-goodie: "Haven't I seen you here before?"
A single guy plops his can in the sand and pulls out a pair of binoculars. He initially trains them on pelicans offshore. After a minute, the only wildlife he's scoping is human.
If there's a one-man social committee on Haulover, it's Larry "The Beach Mayor" Fleischman. You spot him hundreds of feet down the beach, reading the Miami Herald on a chair beneath a wind-whipped Buddhist yin-yang pennant.
A deeply tanned 70-something, The Mayor wears a straw hat rakishly spiked with feathers. It covers a bald head with gray tufts on the side.
Larry specializes in offering massages to naked young women. Many of those naked young women specialize in turning Larry down.
He was a beach ambassador, but they booted him to protest his unstoppable need to knead. For 14 years, he has come to the beach almost every day.
It's Friday afternoon, a relatively slow beach day. Two young blond women arrive, unfurl their towels and peel off their bikinis.
Larry's a tenth of a mile away, but before one of the women can reach behind to lotion her tattooed back, he's making a beeline across the beach. Stuck under his arm is the coiled blue masseur's towel.
They're on their back sunning themselves and barely look up as Larry makes his pitch. The brush-off is blunt: No thanks. Not interested. Within a minute, he's retracing his footsteps.
"People think he's a dirty old man," Richard Mason says of The Mayor, like himself a Korean War-era veteran. "I couldn't handle the turndowns."
On Saturday morning, the parking lot near Haulover is filling.
The couples start arriving. Trudging across the sand, loaded down with gear, they leave little to chance. There are coolers, umbrellas, chairs and rolled-up magazines.
Maybe it's the lack of kids and teens. Maybe it's reluctance to strut one's stuff. Maybe it's umbrellas with built-in drink holders and the attention paid to "rehydrating." Lethargy hangs over the beach.
The ocean might as well be contaminated, for all the swimming that goes on.
But before noon, you can barely walk without stepping on someone's towel or blanket. Several thousand people blanket the beach, part of the estimated 1.3 million visitors a year. Outside the clothing-optional section, the sand is almost empty.
If you want to hear ocean murmurs, don't come to Haulover. Condo construction guarantees the rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers and hydraulic engines. Projects such as Trump by the Sea -- yes, that Trump -- replace what used to be a strip of tacky 1950s-style motels.
But as long as middle-aged couples desire somnolence in the sands and nudity without the naughtiness, Haulover appears secure.