We’re doing arms tonight, FYI.
(Originally published in the San Diego Reader, August 14, 2013.)
In a few minutes, Yoni Baker is going to take off all his clothes.
I will see him naked. I know it. He knows it. The camaraderie we established in the past hour over coffee has been replaced by an awkward silence as we walk across the parking lot of the Art Institute in Mission Valley. At the school’s entrance, he holds the door open for me, presents me to security, and leads me up the stairs to the classroom where, momentarily, I will see his bare bottom and his penis. We have known each other for two hours.
Fifteen or so students, all of whom look between 17 and 23 years old, straddle wooden art-horse benches, sketchpads open and propped on a vertical board in front of them. There are holes in the knees of their jeans. Some sit quietly, doodling or playing with smartphones. Some chat with their neighbors. A few are just getting settled. Almost all look up when we enter. Dzu Nguyen, the drawing and anatomy instructor, a young guy with a ponytail, jeans, and Vans, also looks up from the podium at the back. He greets Baker by his first name.
The scent of something beefy and garlicky follows us into the room, a reminder that the culinary programs share this building with art, fashion, and design. I sit at a table off to one side while Baker disappears into a back room with his duffle bag.
Etiquette, he has explained, requires that he undress out of sight.
A few minutes later, while Nguyen takes roll call, Baker emerges from the back room wearing a dark-blue robe that reaches down past his knees. He sits on a chair against the far wall and does not look in my direction.
The blinds on the windows have been drawn. At the front of the room, a spotlight stands lit beside a narrow stage. After roll call, Nguyen turns off one set of fluorescent overhead lights, emphasizing the pool of light.
“Okay, we’re doing arms tonight, FYI,” he says to the students, who have stopped talking. Pencils in hand, they appear ready and eager to draw. “This will complete our tour around the upper body. Are there any questions on the chest, torso, back, or shoulders?”
No one responds.
“Okay, Yoni,” Nguyen says from his station at the podium. He turns on an XM roots-reggae radio station that feeds into the room’s sound system. “Why don’t you give us some warm-ups.”
As Baker approaches the spotlight, he unties the robe’s belt. The quiet in the room is replaced with the sound of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.” Baker takes off his robe, lays it across his duffle bag on the floor, and steps up onto the stage. Naked.