Ben Umayam

On Half-Inch Heroes

Like all Filipinos, at the age of puberty, I became obsessed with penis size.  

I used to be very guarded about my bare body.  What happened?  A couple of years ago,  we moved to Queens after 40 years in Manhattan. Queens is the most diverse of NYC’s boroughs.  There are as many as 800 languages spoken in Queens.  We live at the end of the 7 subway line, built to shuttle people to The Mets’ Shea Stadium and transport folks to The World’s Fair of 1964-65.  The neighborhood is named Flushing, a name that has Dutch origins.

After the move, I joined up at the YMCA off of Northern Boulevard.  Like all things Flushing, the place is overrun by Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, Malaysians, all sorts of Asians.  I had done decades at gyms in Manhattan, mainly at the NY Tennis and Racquet Club on 13th Street.  They used the exterior in a famous Seinfeld episode, where George Costanza argues that peeing in the shower is appropriate.  Much like another George episode where a friend walks in on him, nude after swimming in the cold sea, I was taken aback at this Flushing Y.  In the locker room, men flaunted puny peters, teeny tools, mini man-hoods, in short, short cocks, less than average schnauzer tails.

All this showing off surprised me.  Like all Asian adolescent boys,  at 13,  I became convinced of my inadequacy in the penis department. 

It was a different pre-puberty.  I remember as a child coming to this same Y on Northern Boulevard.   I lived four blocks away during The World’s Fair. We lived in a lowish middle-class neighborhood. Ours was the only house on the block, Maple Avenue, surrounded by apartment buildings, pre-war six-floor models.  Although my father, the diplomat, traveled in diplomatic circles, his salary, being the Consul General of The Philippines to New York, was not commensurate to that title.  He was a Consul General from a third-world country where 2 % of the populace was rich, the rest dirt poor.  Daddy could not afford to send his son to summer camp out of the city during the off-school months.  Instead, he sent me, every Saturday, to the Y. These days, the YMCA is the principal source of summer camp for inner-city children.  Those days were the beginnings. The Y took your kids off your hands on Saturdays during summer.  The Y filled children’s Saturdays with a range of activities.  One of them was swimming.

The YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association.  In the 60’s it was still exclusive,  membership for the male sex only.   And in New York, all the male kids were required to swim nude—no official explanation as to why.  I remember my sisters giggling, “he goes and swims nekkid,” to all their girlfriends. I asked my parents why.  They were very modest.  You would never see the Consul General or his wife lounging around the house in their underwear.  My dad tried to explain,  “Son, it is to make sure children from all economic groups feel comfortable swimming.  Working-class families who cannot afford to buy their kids swimming trunks, they would still feel equal.  Can’t afford swimming trunks, no problem, no one wears trunks. They all swim in the nude.”  It did not sound that he genuinely believed this to be true.

The website “Historical Archives-Nude Male Swimming” explains.  The YMCA required swimmers to be naked because of the filtration systems that existed when public pools became popular.  Bathing attire was wool and the fibers clogged.  In 1926, the American Public Health Association (APHA) required nude swimming for males at all YMCAs throughout the US and even high school pools.  They did so for health concerns.  In 1906, Edwin Foster discovered pathogens in pool water.  It became a requirement to shower with soap and water before hitting the pool deck in the buff.  They even had floor showerheads that squirted up to assure scrotums and anal cavities were squeaky clean. Swimming naked kept you clean.

Additionally, because of pathogens, the YMCA started draining pools weekly.  The refilling of a swimming pool with 45,000 gallons of water was costly—the Y offset the bill by denying males swimsuits.  Strangely,  swimwear was always provided for women.  That propriety caught up with men in the 60’s.  My Y youth experience happened about this time.

Every Saturday, I was poolside, naked at the Y.  We all felt pretty equal that way, prancing around, horse playing in the water, free and equal.

That is until we snuck a peek at the counselors as they stripped to put on their swimming trunks.  Clothing optional was not an option for the adults. Their massive members were humongous compared to all of our kid-sized pygmy johnsons. And all that hair, what was that?

At puberty, it all changed.  The word was out.  Younger, we were taught Aesop’s Fables.  At puberty, we were taught the Asian Myth. Asians have minuscule members.   Whether you were decent-sized or big, the guys and all the girls knew, your Asian putz was smaller. 

I grew up being pee shy from the age of thirteen.  That means at public urinals, you unbuckle your pants and stand with your peeney hidden from view, or if you prefer, the whip out method, you saddle up to the urinal so that no one sees your tool.  Even though I heard, on Howard Stern, that short of 6 inches, that was your average size, as a young adult, I still felt small.  Asians have Lilliputian tools.  In his book “Little Big Man,” Alex Tizon examines whether this is grounded in fact.  He uses a quote from James Baldwin in his last novel regarding the mystique of the black male penis, that “it was more a matter of its color than its size. . . its color was its size.”  The yellow herman was a pee wee herman.

In my 30s, 40s, 50s, this was reinforced at the gym,  my average size meant inadequate. In Manhattan on 13th Street, it was the Aryans with schwinging schlongs who paraded naked.  All of us Asians and average-sized Irish, Italians, Latinos, Eastern Europeans; we kept our towels wrapped around us and wiggled here and wiggled there to slip on our underwear, and only then would we let the towels drop.

Imagine my surprise when at The Y in Flushing, all the Asian guys stormed around with their tiny tims.  Circumcised and uncircumcised, most were smaller or about the same size as me.  My nilly willy was fine.  

And after a few weeks, I realized that little nickies are more aesthetically pleasing.  According to Da Vinci’s L’uomo vitruvianao, big sexual organs are vulgar, barbarian.  Puny tootsie rolls are more cultured.  It never fails; observing a tour group of American teenage students viewing Michelangelo’s David at the Academia in Florence, they always smirk viewing the giant’s not-so-giant peter.  Renaissance art is famous for its parade of dinky winkies.  

After a month at the Flushing Y, I, too, was swaggering around the locker room like some Michelangelo statue.  Towel wrapped around me as I go to shower? Who needs that.  I now appreciate the naked male body with short-sized shafts.  And not to leave out a mention of the firmness of the Asian butt.  No matter what age, almost all Asian men have bubble butts, like soccer buns you see at European football matches.  But that is another matter.

The other day, at Lincoln Center near The Metropolitan Opera House, I overheard two African American beauties talking.  “…and then they create these institutions so they can keep the people they have enslaved, down,”  one maintains.  The other gesticulates at the massive poster of the Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten, in agreement.  I think to myself, “Gurl, that opera,  probably about a Pharoah who told all his male peeps that they have pint-sized peckers. Now go build me some pyramids.”  I  pucker my lips like Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot” and snap my fingers, one round snap, as I glance at my basket.  “Yup, Ummm hmmm.” 

Now in my 60s, that sense of empowerment, shredding the years of feeling pushed down, downtrodden due to my micro shaft, is reinforced with my every Flushing Y visit.  Next to the scale right outside the showers with no curtains or frosty doors is what I call The Korean Korner.  The one guy, I think, is a member of the police precinct next door.  At age 40, he plays basketball in his police tee with the young guys.  He is the group leader.  He wraps and unwraps his towel showing off his vienna sausage.  Another businessman, all toweled up, sits with his legs wide-spread, exposing his baby carrot—a third squats, feet flat, exposing his shrimp crank.  With his super shaft, the youngest guy saunters between them all, in a style of deference to these men who command respect.

When we retire in Valencia, Spain, I tell Mike, my spouse, I want to spend lots of time at the nude beach we discovered last year.  We found it on the seventeen-kilometer bike trek that hugs the coast.  The bike lane extends from the 15th-century city center to the bomba rice fields.  Just past the gay cruising beach, there is a clothing-optional place.

“That I would not expect from you, Mr. Shy Guy,”  Mike responds to my declaration.

“It’s because of my Y revelations.   I now have no qualms about my half-foot hero.     That first bike ride in Valencia, we are doing the nude beach, pack the water bottles, no trunks.”


Ben Umayam moved to NYC to write the Great American Filipino Short Story. He has been published by Ligeia, EthelZine. Lotus-eaters, Home Planet News, 34th Parallel, Digging Through The Fat, Anak Sastra and Corvus Review.

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