My day with the Naked Cowboy
New York City, NY
By Darren Ornitz
Having lived in New York for eight years, Times Square is nowhere near the top of my list of places to photograph. In fact, it’s probably close to dead last. Just the other day however, I got an assignment to roam the chaotic streets trying to find a feature story. Walking through the revolving doors of the Thomson Reuters building, I wondered where I would even begin. While something exciting could happen at any moment, the chances of running into Elmo getting arrested seemed improbable.
After only a few blocks I found myself wedged between a family trying to take photographs of the apparently fascinating Nasdaq building and a bunch of men screaming at me while waving pamphlets in my face about how much fun I’d have sitting on top of a red bus in the middle of bumper to bumper traffic touring the city.
Among the throngs of people I spotted in the middle of the road was an African American man wearing white briefs, cowboy hat, boots, and a guitar. It was a “Naked Cowboy!” Everyone has heard about the original Naked Cowboy, but I had never seen this particular cowboy before. He was a young guy, rocking out on his guitar in the middle of the road, with a grin on his face and a little swag to his strut. I decided to follow him around a bit. At the very least I could snap a few fun photos of him interacting with tourists, all the while getting a little humorous entertainment.
Stopping to interact with giggly, bashful girls requesting pictures with him, it wasn’t long before he made his way across 7th Ave, turning left down a ramp into a parking garage. Now this could be very interesting, I thought to myself. He must be planning to leave in his car and maybe I could photograph his transition back to normal civilian life.
I was not expecting what I came across next. As he walked through a few cars into a cornered nook of the garage, I noticed two other people behind a dimly lit white Escalade. A man emerged from behind the car, the fluorescent light illuminating the rim of his cowboy hat. It was Robert Burke, the original Naked Cowboy! Next to him was his wife, Patricia Cruz, who he had met on the street and who now performs with him as a Naked Cowgirl.
I thought to myself, “I’ve found the Naked Cowboy Batcave! Fascinating!” Everyone in the world has seen photographs of the Naked Cowboy in the streets of Times Square, but had anyone seen this? Had anyone seen the Naked Cowboy hang out spot in the corner of an underground parking garage?
For those who don’t know, Robert Burke has turned himself into one of the largest merchandising personalities in the U.S. He has his own record label, has written books, appeared in ad campaigns, signed an endorsement with Blue Island Oyster Company, and even announced he was running for President in 2010 as a Tea Party candidate.
He has also franchised his Naked Cowboy character trademark and anyone daring enough to follow a similar act can go through a screening process, pay $5,000 a year, and hit the streets as a Naked Cowboy or Naked Cowgirl.
I introduced myself and asked if I could take a few photographs. “Sure! I don’t care. Do whatever the hell you want!” Robert said in a friendly tone. I moved around the confined area, photographing their subterranean life. Another Naked Cowgirl, Alejandra Velandia, even showed up. They all seemed very close to one another, laughing, joking, and sharing stories, all the while prepping themselves with swigs of alcohol and deodorant for the next round in Times Square.
Robert and Patricia didn’t even seem to notice I was shadowing them, and had no issue even when I followed them into the garage bathroom, where Robert got down on one knee and began to pray. While it is entertaining to watch the Naked Cowboy interact with Times Square tourists, it is even more interesting to see people’s reactions to him while waiting in line for the bathroom.
After an hour-long break or so, strumming his guitar and singing a one line song of “All My Ex’s Live In Texas,” the Naked Cowboy, fellow cowboys and girls alongside, made their way back up to the streets of Times Square. The group looked like some kind of eccentric superhero team as they walked up the garage ramp almost in form, stopping only to let a passing car of people take photographs. After shooting for only a short time longer, I was content with what I had captured and headed back to Reuters.
But my day with the Naked Cowboy was not over. As I was leaving the Reuters building later that night I coincidentally bumped into Robert Burck getting into a cab with his wife Patricia Cruz. “Come along with us, jump in the front seat, we are going to a private boat cruise party.” I guess my interesting day wasn’t done yet. For two hours we cruised past the Statue of Liberty and then up the East River with Burck using the same arsenal of songs, comments, and dance moves to entertain the guests. He took some time off from doing his act to chow down on some BBQ and even dance with his wife. It seemed Burck just keeps going, 365 days a year, no matter where he is.
The thing that struck me most about Burck was that behind his character, he appeared to be very down to earth. During the moments I wasn’t photographing on the boat he was eager to speak to me about a variety of things, including his interest in philosophy, which he says he reads about for hours a day. He told me he spends the majority of his free time reading, especially in the morning after going to the gym.
As the sun set, with the last remnants of light reflecting off the Lower Manhattan skyline, the boat pulled back into port. My bizarrely interesting day was coming to an end. I never imaged that I’d ever even come across the Naked Cowboy, let alone spend a day shadowing him. It was truly one of the most interesting days I have ever had in New York. After saying our goodbyes, and with the lyrics “All My Ex’s Live In Texas” stuck in my head, I got onto the subway and headed back to my home in Brooklyn.