THE FIRST PERSON I knew to do it was Cynthia. She was always the first to do anything. She was the first to ski, the first to mountain-climb, and the first to smoke grass, and probably the first to go, and they used to say, all the way. Years later, she was the first to use natural childbirth and the first women I ever knew to nurse her baby in public. With Cynthia, it was a natural thing to do.

You sort of expected that sort of thing from Cynthia. She picked the changing room in the ladies' department of some fancy department store, and she simply sat down and nursed. She did it because the child needed a feeding, becuase the time has come, and becuase she wuld not be tied down. She was liberated before it became a political movement, and so she went into the changing room and called me on the phone and said, "Guess what I'm doing." She giggled, and said, "Nursing."

We talked for a while. She was a chubby, powerful women, very sexy in a way that's hard to describe, and she sat on some sort of stool, holding the phone in one hand, cradling the baby with the other, when suddenly there was a racket. Some woman had complained to a saleswoman, and she had come in to kick Cynthia out. I coul dhear the argument and I could hear words like "disgusting." Then Cynthia said she would have to hang up. There was his little giggle, and then the phone went dead.

That was the first time, but it was typical. There is always someone around to react strongly to public nursing, and the whole subject is one on which everyone has a strong view. There are whole organizations dedicated to the propagation of the practice, and there are tons of books written on the subject, many of them holding that you psychic health was determined the moment your mother decided to nurse or not to nurse little ol' you.

But thislittle is not about nursing per se, a.k.a. breast-feeding, but public nursing, which is something else again. IT has recently come out of the closet, along with everything else, and it is no longer a lower class thing, but something done by women who studied art history in fine schools. It is now rather commonplace for an infant to appear, be passed along like a hot dog at a baseball game, until it arrives at its destination and then does its thing. Nothing is said. No permission is asked and everyone thinks to himself that the whole thing is beauthful and natural, and then looks right at the ceiling of course.

One night, it happened just like that. There was a woman there and at first you might have thought she had triplets.Every time you turned around there was a baby being passed to her, only it was always the same baby. No one said a word. Sometimes as much as five minutes would pass without a feeding, but then the child would appear and the women would do her thing. No one commented. No one indicated anything unusual was going on. The conversation went on and it continued like that even after the woman left. Then someone said something. Then all the hell broke loose.

It's hard to report all the comments, but it's fair to say that both them men and the women had strong views on the subject. It is fair also to say that this is always the case whenever there is nursing going on, especially the kind of marathon nursing that went on that night.

Men seem to have the worst of it. The fact of the matter is that some of them just don't know if they can look, and if so, just where do you look. You want to look because it's beautiful and interesting and simply because it is happening, but you also want to look because you get the feeling that you are supposed to look. The thing is to look in such a way that everyone will know you are looking as, say, a biologist and not as a dirty old man. This being impossible, you settle on the middle distance and gaze off into it.

Anyway, this is just another problem that men will have to deal with, just another confrontation with women as people rather sex objects. (My God, life is tough.) But this is only some of the time and with some women. There are some women who have timed their nursing into a fulltime thing, who if you asked them what they did would have to say they nursed. They're neither mothers nor businesswomen nor whatever they are, but women who nurse, and they go about it in such a zealous way that they manage to drive others straight up the wall, claiming all the time to be doing something beautiful and, of course, something natural.

The fact is, it isn't natural. The fact is that you get the sense that something else is going on, that maybe a political statement about women's liberation is being made or something even more basic, something having to do with femininity, and possibly exhibitionism. Whatever it si, it puts you on the spot, because it ocmes disguised as something out of a Disney film, something with the trappings of beauty and nature that has to do with the needs of the child. But it has nothing at all to do with that, but with the needs of the mother instead, and I, for one, will cheer when someday someone with more courage than I have suggests that both mother and child leave the room and conduct their business elsewhere. It would be the natural thing to do.