Monday, August 8, 2011
Coney Island Polar Bear Club: The Center for Weirdness
Photos and text by Kyria Abrahams
Whatever you do, please don’t ask them if the water is cold. It is.
“It clears my head,” says Dennis Thomas. “It’s not about jobs, relationships. You have to be in the moment. You can’t think of anything else.”
Like many of the people here, Dennis never expected to jump in the icy ocean more than once. That was 28 years ago. Now he’s the club president.
"It became the center of weirdness for me," he recalls.
For me, this is my very first experience swimming with the Coney Island Polar Bears. It is the first time my cowardly, comfort-seeking body will willfully do something that even crazy people describe as “pretty crazy.”
Perhaps 28 years later I, too, will remember that I never intended to do this more than once.
Dennis wears a white hoodie and a blue cap, both emblazoned with the club’s official logo and available for sale on the club's official merchandise page. This morning, Speedo delivered a box of free bathing suits. Many members of the club wear Speedo and I'm here on assignment to ask them about it. Unfortunately, the Polar Bears are ambivalent. These are not the sort of people who care about product placement.
"I hate to do this," I say, "But I have to ask you about the Speedo."
“I took one Speedo off and put another Speedo on,” Dennis says, trying to be helpful.
"Will it help keep you warm?" I ask, hopefully.
"Not a chance."
“What if you want to wear a wetsuit?”
His answer is definitive: “Stay home. Don’t bother.”
I’m saddened to realize that my 'Optik Splice Splashback' (which I will later be reimbursed for) won’t help me preserve precious body heat, but at least the lycra has a surprising shapewear effect. It’s mid-March and I’ve been scarfing mashed potatoes nonstop since November. Wearing a spaghetti-strap anything is second on my list of things to avoid -- right below jumping into the freezing cold ocean wearing only a Speedo.
I do not want to do this. I took this assignment because I do not want to do this.
“You can do it,” I tell myself. “You have to. Just think of it as a giant glass of ice water that happens to be controlled by the moon and is full of sharks.”
The 107-year-old club has about 205 members these days, but 75-year-old Oscar remembers when there were only 12 or 15. He also remembers when the tight, knee-length lycra shorts that the men are sporting today were called 'pedal pushers'.
"They were for bike messengers," he says, shaking his head. "Later, they'll take those off and put on real shorts."
"I remember wearing lycra shorts in Junior High," I say "Stripe down the side. With fringed boots and big hair."
Oscar smiles. "Okay kid. Get outta here. You better go interview some more people before it gets too late."
When I get home, I'll go to Oscar's website to discover he's kind of famous.
"Don't mention my last name," he tells me. "I don't want to be associated with this. I don't have a problem with any of it but... it's just not like it used to be."
How it used to be was simple, low-key. Just 15 guys on the beach. Now it's an event. There are photographers, and merchandise, and newspaper articles. Now there's Speedo.
Club members gather in the Coney Island "Education Hall", on the boardwalk right behind the Cyclone. This is also something new, a comfortable clubhouse. The room has back-to-back metal chairs and looks like a bus terminal with taxidermied sharks on the wall. Near the door, a volunteer is manning the hot cocoa table. I'm kindly informed that I'm not allowed to take photos in here.
"I'm sure no one told you," Dennis says without a hint of anger.
I spot Genie ("As in 'I Dream Of'," she says,) sitting against the wall under a mounted sea creature, wearing a pink Speedo swim cap and goggles. She's a competitive swimmer on her ninth Polar Bear swim, maybe around 40-years-old, and she giggles when she speaks. She is wearing Speedo Vanquisher goggles, which she honestly adores. "They don't give you raccoon eyes," she says, laughing. "It's hard to explain if you're not a swimmer like me."
She's the only person here who genuinely has an opinion about Speedo.
Meanwhile, Joan Lupo will complete her twelfth swim transforming her from a “cub” to a true polar bear. You can't just stick a toe in the water and claim you're a badass. Like Judaism, you have to prove you are serious. She is brought to the front of the room and the whole club applauds the newest inductee.
Then most suddenly, with no noticable reticence, it is time to jump in the water.
After a brief photo op on the boardwalk and a round of army-inspired jumping jacks, the group heads inexorably toward the Atlantic Ocean. I realize with horror that I am being swept along with them. And they are actually about to walk into the freezing water.
I spot Joan to my immediate right. “You’re going to have to help me,” I say. “I don’t think I want to do this.”
I expect she’s going to tell me to turn around and run home with the other babies and wetsuit-wearers. Instead, she just smiles and takes my hand firmly in hers. We keep walking in. It seems simple enough. All I have to do is not stop.
“We’re going to go under,” she tells me, and she begins counting back from three without my concent. She places a gloved hand on each of my shoulders. I am shaking my head. Absolutely not. I refuse. Not a chance, Joan.
I refuse to go under until I’m under. I'm freezing and there's not a damn thing I can do about it but accept it.
“You did it!” she says.
I start laughing uncontrollably. Not screaming, but laughing. And Joan is nodding her head, wide-eyed, with me all the way.
“See the people out there who are halfway in? They’re trying to stay warm but they’re freezing. The only way to do this is to get in all the way.”
I'm completely in the moment. There are no jobs, no relationships. I had to get cold to understand. These people aren’t crazy, nor are they masochists. They don’t love freezing water any more than you or I. They’re zen masters, daredevils, philosophers.
Luis, 69, is one such philosopher. He has been swimming for 30 years. He came from Puerto Rico at the age of 15 and has a noticable accent. About seven of the old-timers he knew are left.
When Luis first swam with the Polar Bears, he had arthritis so bad he couldn’t walk. It was his cousin who forced him to go, who helped him out of his wheelchair and into the water. After his fifth time swimming, he was cured. He can tell you how the experience changes people.
“If you come to the water and you are angry, you might change. You might leave and find that you are happy. You might change into a happy person.”
Luis, who stayed in the water for 15 minutes today, is shivering uncontrollably as he says this. He is a happy, changed man. He got in all the way.