Some people campaign for world peace, others try to end hunger. Moral firebrand Ken Beacon just wants to put pasties on the nipples of Ashtabula's nude dancers. A small task, speaking in square inches of fabric. But who can really measure the distance between nothing and something?
A union ironworker and former Jesus hippie, Beacon, 45, has never done things half-baked. After he was "saved" at age 20, he moved into a born-again commune and played drums for a band called He's Coming. Now, rather than beat the cymbals for Christ, the former one-term Ashtabula councilman is trying to reform the city's all-nude juice bars. He's proposing a blanket ban on nudity within the city limits, bolstering his cause with a freshly inked U.S. Supreme Court decision, Erie v. Pap's A.M.
In that case, the court ruled that cities can require everyone to cover their privates in public places, including strip joints. Moreover, making exotic dancers wear pasties and a G-string doesn't violate their First Amendment right to free expression. A few swatches of material, the court reasoned, won't restrict the messenger, even if the message is "Take it all off."
Though Beacon considers himself a religious man, the pasties needn't be puritanical wool. Gold lamé with tassels, sequins, or even, presumably, press-on bicycle reflectors will suffice. Because any garment, no matter how teensy, would be an improvement over wearing only what God gave ya.
"The studies have shown that the more clothes the women wear, the less crime there is," he says, producing a citations list from the American Family Association, a conservative bastion that supports him.
Beacon started preaching propriety in 1994, shortly after becoming a councilman. While riding around in a cruiser with a local cop, he encountered a pair of distraught women fleeing a would-be rapist. The women were exotic dancers at Cinderella's, a clothes-free establishment located 130 feet below the town at the bottom of a gulch. Though he'd never patronized Cinderella's, Beacon knew what was going on there was no PTA meeting.
Backed by what he calls his "juicy story" about the attempted rape, he embarked on his one-man mission to shut down the sleaze shop, along with another club called the Rare Cherry. Since then, he's penned impassioned letters to council, picketed adult bookstores, and generally kept the city's law director, Tom Simon, scrambling. (Simon's headaches have also included the self-generated variety, since his own bar, the L.A. Café, was busted by the FBI for underage drinking and drug sales.)
Despite his zeal, Beacon's having a tough time getting Ashtabulans honked off about naked ladies. The clubs, after all, are in areas zoned "no-man's land," industrial districts where the only angry citizen is the wind.
"I really don't know what he's crusading for, because it don't make no sense," says James Restina, owner of the Rare Cherry. "He's out there all alone, blowing smoke."
Even Neroy Carter, the pastor of Ashtabula's Jesus Only Pentecostal Church, abandoned his own anti-nudity crusade. He decided there were better ways to spend his time, like tending to his flock and building a senior citizens' home.
"You can make a lot of headlines, do a lot of saber-rattling, but what it comes down to is the local officials, what they're willing to do," Carter says. "When I was convinced they weren't going to [ban nudity], the public battle for me was over."
Not easily deterred, Beacon befriended one of the assaulted dancers, who agreed to tell her story on video.
The resulting hour-long tape is a squirm-fest. As the off-camera interviewer, Beacon, a tall teddy-bear of a man whose default facial expression is an ear-to-ear-grin, plays it soft and sympathetic as he asks the hard yet delicate questions.
"You were supposed to strip all the way down?" he inquires of the young woman sitting on his couch, an evil-clown doll inexplicably flung on the seat-back behind her. "Get completely naked?" And "Did you ever see any of the other girls touch themselves? Was it masturbation?"
The tape rates a creepy factor of 6, but the ex-dancer's real desperation survives the cheesy production values. She thought she'd be good at the job, she says, because she'd taken some dance in college before she ran out of money and dropped out. After she was hired, her big dreams of one day opening a dance school were scaled down to pea-size, and instead she set her sights on stripping for Tiffany's in Cleveland's Flats, a club that her peers consider a much classier place.
Clothing the naked, says Beacon, is really a women's issue. He argues that in poverty-stricken Ashtabula, women shouldn't have to disrobe to make an honest dollar.
But the divorced ex-dad, who gave his daughter up for adoption many years ago, isn't about to shack up with Betty Friedan. A refugee from a family that bled Democrat, he "turned traitor" in 1994 and joined the Republican Party, disgusted by Clinton's policies on gays in the military and partial-birth abortion.
Now that his family barely speaks to him, he gets his socializing in with groups like the NRA, emceeing at the local chapter's Christmas dinner. Otherwise, he lives a relatively quiet life in a house that looks abandoned, with his roommate, a large, cinnamon-colored rabbit. "We Are Armed," warns the red-lettered sticker on his front door.
Besides his nudity platform, Beacon is also trying to get a conceal-carry gun law passed in Ohio, which should help women everywhere, he says. "It's not that every woman has to have a gun in her purse," he intones. "But the rapist doesn't know which one does and which one doesn't. And as far as equal rights for women are concerned, there is nothing that makes a woman equal to a man better than a .45."
And a full wardrobe. If Beacon had his druthers, he'd make the strippers put all their clothes on. But for now, he'll settle for two strategically placed dots and a dash.