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The Naked Truth About Money

Where do you keep your money when you don’t have any pockets?

August 23, 2000

Where do you keep your money when you don't have any pockets?

I once saw a naked Belgian accountant carrying nothing but her purse. I had been passing through France when an editor for my radio program, Marketplace, telephoned with an oddly incomplete assignment. The mayor of a French seaside village would be expecting me at ten the following morning. The normal set of follow-up questions were met with suspicious pauses and dissembling.

“The story? You’ll figure out the story when you get there.”

I felt like Robert Mitchum’s character in the noir classic Out of the Past, who tells a cabby, “I think I’m in the frame, but I still can’t see the picture.”

Cap d’Agde was just a couple of centimeters away on the Michelin map. I parked the car, grabbed a bag with a tape recorder and microphone, and then saw the sign: “Nudité Obligatoire.” Obligatory nudity, no ifs, ands, or buts.

I was in a town, population 20,000 in the summer, where no one wears clothes. It was not a nudist colony in the traditional sense but rather an entire nudist city. I swallowed hard, for when in Rome…

The interview with the naturist quarter’s ranking official was memorable. There was no air conditioning in the mayor’s office, and the Naugahyde chairs seemed to belch rudely when brushed by my bare thighs. In the nude superinarché, shoppers skated clear of the waste-high frozen-food section. In the one-star restaurant, diners with cloth napkins stretched primly across their loins enjoyed a three-course seafood lunch.

Here was the real horror of the situation: French health and safety regulations allowed me to be naked, but not the waiters, bank clerks, or shop assistants. You haven’t seen a French waiter really condescend until you are sitting there in the altogether trying to order the crudité. I am not ashamed of the human form, but it was all so incongruous.

But the most perverse moment for me was changing money in the naked financial institution, Banque Dupuy, Perseval. It was like my recurring nightmare: I stand up to do my solo and find the rest of the orchestra is in black tie while I am wearing only a black tie.

My challenge was figuring out how to “cover” this story. As the saying goes, there are a thousand untold stories in the naked city, but I was desperate for just one with a business angle.

A roly-poly pair of naked elderly folks nodded politely and offered the pleasantry used by German hikers when they squeeze past you on a narrow mountain trail. A jovial Brit in a tank top and no bottoms ominously asked if I wanted to try my hand at boules.

In the midst of this, I became increasingly aware of a cramping in my right hand. I had been tightly clutching a wad of French bank notes and franc coins since entering the place sans trousers. It was the call of the elusive business angle: how does one run an economy in a place without pockets?

I began my inquiries. A T-shirt vendor suggested the old credit card in the shoe trick, only I had left my Reeboks back in the car. Merchandising and innovation proposed another solution. I could purchase a rather jaunty round-the-neck, hermetically sealed money holder, now available in three designer colors.

The vendor pointed with his chin at the striking sight of a woman striding confidently down a path to the shops. “Now that is where you put your money,” he said.

It was the Belgian accountant with her purse. When I say naked, that is not entirely true. She was wearing a wide-brimmed raffia sun hat, golden earrings, and golden sandals. She proved to be less eager than I for an interview about where to put money. I managed to get from her the Belgian part and the accountant part and not much more.

She knew exactly what to do with money, unquestioningly. It was not just her profession; she was probably born that way. Nor was she about to discuss it with the likes of me. My lack of savoir-faire in these matters must have been plain to see. She vanished into some shops, leaving me standing there with my microphone dangling.

Chastened, I strolled down toward the beach to sort out my notes. At the edge of the boardwalk, the white heat was taking its toll on a group of naked volleyball players. The rest of the beach was packed cheek-by-jowl. For a passing moment I felt queasy forging into the crowd, unprotected as I was. Then reason prevailed. Who would notice one more pair of buttocks in a crowd this size?

Reason failed. No less than ten thousand people stopped what they were doing and watched intently as I walked from the sidewalk down to the cool sand at the water’s edge. I had no idea why I was worthy of such scrutiny. Was it my tan line? Or my “skeptical reporter” tattoo?

One tends to look inward after a near-death experience like this. It wasn’t so much the embarrassing stares on the beach. It had something to do with the Belgian accountant. She had judged me as unworthy; I could feel it.

What kind of question is that, what do you do with money? It was an opening line that was doomed to fail with someone like her, someone who appeared to have the knack. I didn’t intuitively have the knack, and somehow I would have to devise a way to acquire it. The idea of a pilgrimage would not gel for several more years.

Adapted from “Squandering Aimlessly” by David Brancaccio. Copyright © 2000 by David Brancaccioi. Used by permission of the author.