The Darkies


Remzi Ari has tan armpits. They match the rest of him— a melting, chocolate brown of a tan— meticulously singed by the sun as he lies, for a certain span of each day, with his arms stretched up alongside his ears. Sometimes he’s spread eagle, his naked, Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oiled self splayed out like a mesmerized citizen of ancient Egypt worshipping Ra. Other times he’s sitting upright, cross-legged, munching on peanuts and sipping a beer.

He’s hands-down the tannest person on Robert Moses State Park’s nude beach. And it’s no accident.

“To get this kind of tan,” says Ari, 43, “you have to work on it. To get this kind of tan, you have to do things step by step.”

By the last week of April, he’s preparing himself. “I use a reflector and sit in the parking lot of the beach if it’s not too windy,” he explains, happily baking in the 91-degree high-noon heat of an “ozone warning” summer day. “Two days later, after my face gets red— it has to get red— it peels. I go into the shower and use a facial scrubber, and I shave. Then, a few days later, you come back to the beach— shaven, because if you come to the beach with a beard, you’re wasting your time. Twice a week, you have to do that scrubbing.”

For the summer, Ari, a native of Turkey who lives in East Rockaway and has been tanning on this beach for eight years, plants himself away from the water, up by the dunes where he says the dark gray sand reflects the rays more efficiently.

He sits on a black blanket covered with towels, and he sleeps— usually fresh off his night shift as a maintenance supervisor at Kennedy Airport— and sunbathes, for up to eight hours a day. He keeps a turquoise hand mirror nearby to monitor the evenness of his facial tan.

He applies his tanning oil with precision. “I start with my face first, because I don’t want hair from my body to get on my face,” he says. “And if I put it on my legs first, I have the sand get on my face.” He makes sure every inch of himself is covered with oil— even his scalp— and he often doesn’t wash it off at the end of the day. “You can wipe this off— you don’t have to take a shower. It keeps your skin so moist. I sleep with it on. It gives you a tan overnight, because it keeps your tan darker,” Ari says. He never wears sunscreen, staying away even from cologne and after-shave because “it blocks you.”

To accentuate his color, he gets a manicure every two weeks, a pedicure once a month and a haircut every six weeks. He has his teeth bleached every other month and gets his back waxed twice a year. He leaves his thick chest hair alone, though.

“For females,” he says. “They love hairy chests.”

Although they don’t all love his tan. A woman he was recently having a fling with said she didn’t want to sleep with him anymore because he was getting too dark.

“I don’t want to be with a black man,” she told him.

Ari told her goodbye.

Only Skin Deep, But It Has Layers

Fueled by media images of tan, sculpted bodies, status seekers all over the Island cultivate their skin like perfectly manicured lawns, flaunting their tans like racy cars on the Southern State or cell phones on the LIRR to somehow stand apart from the suburban heap. Whether you truly have status or not, it’s a way to say to the world that you do— to ensure that neighbors know you have enough leisure time to lounge in the sand all day long, or that you’ve been able to vacation in the Bahamas.

For some of the beach’s tannest, many of whom happen to be of Mediterranean descent, getting darker may be a way to bring out their own ethnicity. It colors you a lovely shade of olive in a world where black is oppressed and white is white-bread. It’s a point of pride to accentuate your own color, to wear it like a badge, to proclaim “I can’t burn— I’m Italian-Sicilian!” as one 20-year-old on Jones Beach says. And it’s a way to attain the perceived beauty of darkness that society still dictates— through tanned, muscular models— while knowing that you’re safe as a white person underneath. It’s a way to have it all.

“My mother showed a picture of me to someone and they thought I was black,” laughs Jodi Becker, an extremely dark 30-year-old cell-phone retailer from Oceanside who regularly soaks up the rays on Long Beach. “My fiancé thought I was Puerto Rican when he met me— and I’m Jewish!”

Some people must be listening to the dermatologists of the world, though. Walk down any beach looking for severely tan folks— it actually takes longer than you’d think to find them. Almost every beach-goer is armed with an umbrella and some kind of sunscreen, and most look either vaguely tan or downtown-pale— a sharp contrast from 20 or even 10 years ago, when it seemed like every other person on the beach was oiled and cooking.

Ari says that getting dark makes him more attractive. Talk to the serious tanner and you’ll find that his defense is not a unique one. “I feel better, I look better, I get energized from the sun,” says Karen Levine of Flushing, who spends weekends baking with her husband, Michael, for seven-hour days on Long Beach. Once she almost reached the point of sunstroke. And Michael says he stayed in the sun so long one day this summer that he was seeing stars. But Karen downplays the risk. “Something’s gonna get me. Butter’s no good for you, the detergent we use.”

Which brings us to yet another motive behind getting leathery. With every ounce of zero-SPF oil smeared onto their faces, with every turn in a lounge chair to keep in perfect line with the sun, with every daytime appointment cancelled so as not to miss a day of tanning, the sun warriors are proving a point. They’re giving a big middle finger to the skin-care experts and the sunscreen industry, to the not-so-successful attempt of fashion gurus to make us think that pale, china-doll complexions are where it’s at. Like sex partners who forgo condoms and bikers who fly down back roads without helmets, hardcore tanners are saying “enough.”

“I smoke, I’m in the sun, and you know what?” says Carol Silverman, a 49-year-old sun worshiper on Robert Moses Beach. “I’ll go from something unrelated. But if it happens, at least I’m happy tan while I’m alive.”

Tanorexia and Its Discontents

Jodi Becker of Oceanside is so addicted to getting color that she’s resorted to lying to her fiancé, Bobby Wolin, a plumber, about how often she sneaks off to the tanning salon.

“I think it’s sick,” Wolin says from under his screen of SPF 8. He’s sitting about a foot away from her on Long Beach, and looks like he’s been dragged here. “It’s a disorder. It’s like anorexia. She thinks she’s pale.”

“He thinks I’m obsessed,” Becker says, stretching out on a lounge chair and looking slightly annoyed. She flicks a bit of sand off of her knee with a long, manicured nail that’s painted white. “I feel healthier when I’m tan.”

St. John’s professor of sociology Frank Biafora likens the tanning-addicted to bulimics and anorexics. “The nature of an addiction is an uncontrollable impulse to continue doing a behavior that is known to be self-destructive,” he explains. “Like with bulimia— you are sickly thin and you look at yourself in the mirror and think you’re fat.” So, just like the relentless shots of ultra-skinny women pushing diet foods and fueling the anorexia frenzy, the tan ones spawn a disease of their own.

“They call me tanorexic,” Carol Silverman says, stretched out in her red-and-white striped canvas chair at Robert Moses. “I always think I’m too pale.” Her blond hair is pulled back off her face, and her skin, covered only by a black flowered bikini and an oil slick of Banana Boat SPF 4, is browned to a deep chestnut color. A pack of Salems rests at her feet.

Silverman, a special-ed teacher from Islandia, is in the sun for up to nine hours at a stretch in the summer, when she only works part time. She splits her visits between Robert Moses and, when the jellyfish are particularly bad, Hidden Pond Park in Hauppauge, where she lays by the pool and is famous for keeping her body in perfect alignment with the sun.

“They call me the human sundial,” she says.

She used to be so hardcore that she’d stretch out on a foil blanket, but now her only prop is a reflector, which she uses in the spring to jump start her tan. She’s only had sun poisoning once, on vacation in Florida, when her eyes swelled up and she felt nauseous. It kept her out of the sun for a day and taught her to “be careful.” But she still doesn’t use any sunscreen higher than 4.

“My daughter says if she ever gets skin cancer, it’s because of me, because I made her go to the beach as a girl,” she says, holding up a key-chain photo of herself, dark as night, with her 25-year-old daughter, milky as Scarlett O’Hara. The daughter wears sunblock 45 and jibes her mom for inviting wrinkles, leathery skin and cancer.

“I tell her, ‘Look at yourself,’ ” her mom says. ” ‘You look like a pale-face!’ ”

While Silverman isn’t so leathery yet, her skin-cancer status remains unknown. She has never been to a dermatologist.

“If you look, you find,” she says.

Why the Sun Is a Bitch

Let’s do a quick review of what we know: A tan is your body’s response to ultraviolet light, which comes in three forms— UVA, UVB (the most harmful) and UVC (mostly filtered out by what’s left of the ozone). Skin darkens when you tan due to an increase in production of a compound called melanin, which is produced by the skin as protection against future UV light exposure. But a suntan does not prevent skin damage— it is skin damage. It’s pigment cells permanently injured.

UVA and UVB rays can cause aging of the skin, damage to cellular membranes and to DNA, a weakening of the immune system, cataracts and three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, which grows slowly and has a high cure rate; squamous cell carcinoma, which can spread and be fatal if left untreated; and melanoma, the most dangerous form.

Lisa Kelly, a dermatologist in Westbury, says she’s even had patients who continue to tan after being diagnosed with skin cancer. “There are still some who are ignorant about it, who think, well, it’s not going to kill them,” she says. “I really don’t even like to treat the tan ones, because you’re only battling the sun.”

Although most beach-going sun worshippers say they shun tanning beds because they’re “unnatural,” “unsafe” and “scary,” indoor and outdoor tanners share the obsession. An employee at the South Beach Salon in Oceanside says she knows of many clients who bake themselves both at the beach and in the tanning beds.

“People go in there, like, every single day,” she says. “There are some people with very fair skin who tan every day and they think they’re going to get darker. Then we have people with olive skin who leave here black. They come here every day because they think they’re going to lose their tan.”

At a salon she used to work at, she says she was fired for turning away business when she advised a 14-year-old girl with sunburn blisters on her face to come back when they had healed. And at her current job, she frequently sees people who tan without using protective lotion. “They could care less,” she says.

There was a time when the tan was not so revered. As far back as the 18th and 19th centuries, medical science blamed the sun for drying up the body’s essential fluids. And class prejudice did not favor tan skin— something that belonged to the working class— ensuring that pallid, plastercast complexions would be protected under umbrellas and awnings and hats and elaborate swimming costumes.

A change came in the 1920s, when writers and artists began to paint the sun as a positive source of health and vitality (D.H. Lawrence deemed pale people “fishy and unhealthy”), taking cues from the sun worshippers of ancient Egypt and the Incas and Mayas. Since only those with enough leisure time could follow the trend, tan became a marker of class and glamour. Tanning quickly became a sport, and was touted by health experts as a cure for just about anything. By 1944, The Journal of the American Medical Association was endorsing the sea-and-sun cure for everything from the common cold to tuberculosis.

But when sunburns became a mass malady, chemists were pressed to come up with ways to let sunbathers block out harmful rays. In 1943, PABA, a synthesized complex string of molecules, was introduced. In the decades since, knowledge of the damage caused by the sun, combined with the depletion of the ozone layer, has spawned better sunscreens (PABA-free, because it’s since been shown to cause allergic reactions in some), a general awareness of tanning’s connection to skin cancer and even a current belief that sunscreen could encourage exposure, increasing the risk of cancer. It’s also prompted the division of America into two types of people: those who are afraid of the sun and those who are not.

Once Burned, Twice Shy

I know the memory of tender burns had on thighs, face, back and neck as a child with red hair, ivory skin and a confetti of freckles on my nose. I had an incredible yearning to sunbathe, covered in baby oil (which I once attempted, to disastrous results), aiming to achieve the neat shade of mocha reached by fortunate friends.

I was always the pale, fishy outcast. So for all my mom’s efforts to lure me into the shade of the beach umbrella and douse me with sunblock 15 before I joined my pals, there were plenty of days when I wriggled free— and wound up blistered and lobsterish and getting bathed in cool, strong tea that evening so the tannin could soothe my skin. Now, many lessons later, I wear hats and sunblock 30 and stick umbrellas in the sand. I get pointed at as an example of what the tan people don’t want to be.

“She needs some sun!” says a dark Patricia Collazo of the Bronx, tanning on Jones Beach with a pal. “She looks like milk!”

“If there were two girls sitting at a bar and one was white and one was tan, I would go to the tan one,” says a bronzed, nude pal of Ari’s.

Inspecting my vanilla tone with a sideways glance, Ari says, “I would say, sad looking.”

My arm is stretched out before me like a roll of wax paper, held up to Ari’s for comparison, to make him feel even darker, as I am asked to do by every tan person I interview. He puffs his chest out and grins.

Michael Levine says he feels pity when he sees pale people like me. “I only feel bad that you can’t get tanner,” he says. Levine, 44, and his wife, Karen, 45, from Flushing, prop themselves up in two chairs at Long Beach all summer near their plastic Little Tikes wagon, used to haul stuff onto the sand.

Karen, a production worker in Manhattan’s fashion district, looks like she’s on a serious mission as she leans back in her chair, coffee-brown stomach displayed to the sky, eyes closed. She opens them to explain, “This is our job on the weekends.”

When they were first married 17 years ago, they had a contest to see who could get darker. “She won,” he says, still obviously not over the defeat. The contest appears to be ongoing, with both of them starting out each tanning season in the middle of April in Queens’ Cunningham Park. Once on the sand, they lather up with Bain de Soleil Orange Gelee, regularly spritzing themselves with a water bottle to help reflect the sun. Occasionally, when they feel they’re overdoing it, they’ll resort to Hawaiian Tropic Number 8 creme.

Michael, in optical sales, explains how tanning comes before all else during the season. “Two weeks ago we had a wedding on a Saturday. It was the first nice summer day. We didn’t go. Her stepfather’s granddaughter is having a bat mitzvah in Illinois in August. We turned it down. We’re anti-social when it comes to the summer.”

Just across the Jones Inlet on Field 4 at Jones Beach— where the under-20 set jams together, blasting radios, flexing post-adolescent muscle, running in and out of the water and sneaking beers from coolers, I search for smartly jaded teens amid a sea of kids who have never known an AIDS-free world or a sunscreen-proof summer or a cigarette ad on TV. I find only one.

“I used to like tanning when I was younger, but then my grandmother got skin cancer,” says a 20-year-old, tongue-pierced woman from Massapequa. She won’t give her name because she’s an erotic dancer, but explains that this summer she’s forcing herself back into the sun because, in her work, a nice tan is a necessity. Still, she’s covered in SPF 30 for protection. The leathery older set, she says— like her great aunt— looks “disgusting.” And she fears for her friends, who use baby oil when they lay in the sun.

The rest of the young beach is pretty tan— tanner overall than the rest of the beach. It’s as if skin cancer has never been discovered. “I’m actually a tanaholic,” says Chris Greco, 26, an auto-body worker from Elmont who says he’s in the sun at least twice a week for five to six hours at a time, combined with twice-a-week visits to a salon. “I haven’t been here in two weeks and I feel pale white right now,” he says, a bit of panic rising in his voice as he stretches his lithe, deeply tanned body onto a freshly shaken blanket.

Every group I visit (and there are only groups here) appears to have a tan leader— someone whom the others point to when I tell them what I’m looking for. “He’s obsessed,” they’ll say, or “She’s here every day.” But a group of teenagers from Whitestone all fit this bill. They’re all slathered in Coppertone Gold with no SPF protection. No one seems fazed.

“I never put anything on,” brags Brian Diminich, 18. A couple of them admit to occasionally putting sunblock 36 on their faces, just to avoid blistering and peeling. But the others don’t find it necessary. “I don’t really care,” says Colleen Morris, 17, when asked about the risk of skin cancer and wrinkles. “I feel sick when I’m pale.”

Confused and lightheaded from the sun, I abandon the field of tanners, and the young woman’s words rattle in my brain as I plod across the rest of the wide Jones Beach fields. Sick when I’m pale. Sick when I’m pale. I feel like I’m crossing a desert, my face hidden safely under the brim of my hat, my sundress covering my stomach and legs. But then I realize something shocking with a reluctant stab of joy: My arms, exposed by now for hours, sunscreen 30 surely wearing off, are turning quite a lovely shade of gold.

A Poison to Call Your Own

Those who are not afraid come in many different forms: the quasi-dark ones who work with a low-grade sunscreen like SPF 8 or 15 and are careful not to burn; the tanning salon regulars who never set foot on the beach because they don’t like sand; the clueless, who fall dead asleep with no lotion or oil but a magazine lying across their stomach.

Then there are the truly obsessed. And I’m starting to understand them.

They take calculated risks, knowing that cancer lurks, daring it to get them. They wear seatbelts or pass up drinks or avoid drugs or take vitamins instead. Still, doesn’t everyone have to choose a vice? Because tempting fate— maintaining some sort of personal control by choosing not to wear the helmet or the sunblock or the wrist guards— can be fun. And freeing. Besides, it’ll be 30 years before you know whether the boogie man got you.

Tommy Azimi of Woodmere, a 34-year-old nutritionist and a personal trainer, chases color on Long Beach, lying with nothing but a lounge chair, headphones and his own homemade tanning potion— vitamin C, flax seed oil, avocado oil, zinc, kosher salt and crushed anti-oxidant capsules. “Before I put it on my body, I put it on my salad or on eggs for breakfast,” he says.

Azimi thinks the skin-cancer scare is a bunch of bunk. “People don’t get skin cancer,” he says. “They get cell cancer.” He even claims that it’s the sunblock itself that causes the disease. As long as people have healthy bodies inside, he reasons, they’ll be fine in the sun.

“You protect the inside,” he explains. “And I’m hoping I’m right.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 24, 1999

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