The late German poet and novelist Günter Grass once offered a perspective on why large numbers are impossible for some people to grasp. It's not the number itself, but the context. For instance, Grass suggested that most people have no problem imagining a billion Chinese. But, he added, "now try to imagine a billion Germans."
The image defies the imagination while sending a shudder through the soul.
Now try to imagine 3,000 (the Associated Press estimate) naked people stalled in traffic in front of Independence Hall during their bike ride through Center City. Having seen that up close last weekend, I can report that it is not unimaginable and it did cause me to shudder.
Not to be indelicate, but there is no graceful way for a fully grown man to mount a bicycle while naked. ("You want me to sit on what?") The preposterous dimensions and design of the typical bicycle seat become excruciatingly apparent when there is no clothing to interfere with the view of a 200-pound man sans Speedos squashing his bulk onto the equivalent of a tea cozy when the more appropriate design would be a catcher's mitt.
That one image above all will be difficult to burn from my memory after bearing witness to this year's Philly Naked Bike Ride.
Not that there weren't attractive people of both sexes participating - both in the buff and partially clothed - but if any spectators were expecting to find displays of arousing nudity or intimate artistic Georgia O'Keeffe anatomical studies, they would have been as disappointed as voyeurs popping in at a Labor Day weekend barbecue at a family nudist camp.
I had plenty of time to watch and take photos of the fleshy spectacle as it stopped and started, stopped and started - much like a typical Mummers Parade - on the 500 block of Market Street, where I stood on the sidewalk, alongside a multitude of laughing or slack-jawed tourists from around the world.
In an odd way, the very size of this invasion reminded me of the famous description by Richard Harding Davis, Philadelphia's most famous newspaper correspondent at the time, of the German army's march into Brussels in 1914:
"Down the Boulevard Waterloo came the advance-guard of the German army. It consisted of three men, a captain, and two privates on bicycles. Their rifles were slung across their shoulders, they rode unwarily, with as little concern as members of a touring club out on holiday. . . .
"Behind them, and so close upon each other that to cross from one sidewalk to another was not possible, came the Uhlans [cavalry], infantry, and the guns. For two hours I watched them. . . . The thing fascinated you, against your will, dragged you back to the sidewalk and held you there open-eyed.
"No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman, a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain. It was not of this Earth, but mysterious, ghostlike. It carried all the mystery and menace of a fog rolling toward you across the sea."
The Naked Bike Ride carried all the mystery and menace of a Doo-Dah parade and the only fog rolling toward me for the 30 minutes I watched was the smell of maximum-protection sunblock. There was a distinctly pinkish hue to the glistening exposed flesh of most of the participants, a predominantly white and youngish crowd. And stalled as the parade was several times in the late-afternoon August sun, it was an increasingly sweaty crowd.
The mind plays strange games in the hot sun. For instance, on the very spot I was standing, I imagined a multitude gathered in three weeks to watch a fully clothed man dressed in white down to his ankles speaking of forgiveness of sins and love of all humanity, especially those who don't have enough clothes to wear or a roof over their heads, let alone a bicycle to ride.
Of course, the organizers of this seventh annual clothing-optional jolly jaunt through the streets of Philadelphia would fall on the same moral/political side as Pope Francis in terms of promoting sustainable civic lifestyles, fuel efficiency, and good health through daily exercise.
That must be why the city is insisting that everybody walk when the pope comes to town.
Clark DeLeon writes regularly for Currents. email@example.com