In New York, the last gasp of local holiday reportage is coverage of the Polar Bear Club’s annual New Year’s day swim at Coney Island. It’s up there with the Macy’s Parade, lighting the tree at Rockefeller Center and dropping the ball in Times Square.
My first memories of it are snowy black-and-white television broadcasts, or large-dot photos in the daily news, of a couple dozen people — mostly white, out-of-shape men — dashing into the water to casually splash themselves as a handful of onlookers watch and shake their heads at their craziness.
Not sure why, but I’ve been meaning to see this for myself, and 2014 was my year. I was surprised by what a big event it is — two or three thousand people, maybe more.
The actual swim starts at 1:00, but swimmers and celebrants start collecting on the boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue well before that — some coming off all-nighters in the City.
I hate to be the one to break the news, but if you have your heart set on joining the Polar Bears, there are no open positions for full membership. For a suggested twenty dollar donation (more if you wish), you can sign up to swim as a guest, and all the proceeds go to Camp Sunshine in Maine, which is a retreat for children (and their families) with life-threatening illnesses, a very worthy charity.
It’s a party atmosphere, with lots of costumes, and a fair amount of drinking, but nothing excessive. All age groups are represented, with a surprising number of families incorporating the swim into their New Year’s routine. There were a few really old people (over seventy is my new definition), who I thought might be there to check off a bucket-list entry. As I watched some of them come out of the water shivering and turning blue, I worried that I might actually get to see some bucket kicking. Luckily, there wasn’t any.
If you register, you’re assigned a group with whom you join in an en masse charge across a section of the beach that is marked for the occasion. My guess is that more than half of the swimmers registered, and for those that didn’t, they just congregated on either side of the reserved area and took their plunges when the time seemed right.
I took some photos:
The water temperature was reported to be forty-one degrees, which was better than the air temperature of thirty-four. Most of the dips are brief, and exits are hurried. Many bring thick terry cloth robes, which are quickly donned and provide adequate cover for removal of wet swimsuits. Others had friends and family hold up towels as they changed. A few were less modest and publicly stripped, but the change was performed quickly and drew little attention.
This year I was strictly an observer and have to admit to having a notion that maybe next year I’ll go in. Chances are good to excellent that I will not.
The Polar Bear Club was founded in 1903 by Bernarr MacFadden, who is considered by some to be the father of physical culture.
Everything Reminds me of something else
As a child I lived with my family in Brooklyn, and we took the subway to Coney Island a few times. It was the biggest and most wondrous place I had ever seen. To my inexperienced, five-year old eyes, the beach went on forever and was so packed with people, I would have believed that everyone in New York was there. There were these poor guys walking through the crowds in white suits carrying coolers filled with Ice Cream, shouting out the name of their products. I remember a guy calling out, “Hey Fudgie Wudgie,” over and over.
Before places like Disneyland, Coney Island was considered the world’s center for seaside entertainment. The streets that ran from Surf and Mermaid Avenues to the Boardwalk were lined with a hodgepodge of amusements and attractions run by independent operators. There were a couple of larger “parks” that offered rides, games and food. The two most famous ones were Luna Park, that burned down in the forties, and Steeplechase, that I went to before it was torn down in 1966 by Fred Trump, who is noteworthy for making a millionaire out of one of the worlds largest windbags: Donald Trump.
Steeplechase was named after the ride where you rode on a wooden horse that ran around the building on an outdoor track. There was a leather belt that was supposed to hold you on, but it seemed to me that if you fell off, you would probably be run over by the other horses, of get dragged across the ground until you were a bloody mess. This ride and many others would be shut down in today’s litigious society — and it’s a damn good thing because they were unbelievably dangerous.
When I was about five, I remember begging my mother to take me on the Cyclone, which at the time was one of the biggest roller coasters in the world. She refused, saying it was too extreme, but agreed to take me on the Tornado, which was pretty damn big, too. She warned me that once I got on, I would not be able to get off, and as evidence of how naïve (okay, stupid) I was, I took this to mean that we would be on the ride for the rest of our lives, which was perfectly fine with me. My mother taught me how to properly ride a roller coaster that day, which includes screaming and laughing, and holding your hands over your head when you’re on a steep decline.
When I was around twelve, I was a paperboy for Newsday in the Long Island town of Islip, NY, where our family had moved a few years before. The Paper would have contests to encourage us to sign up new subscribers, and a couple of times the prize was a trip to Coney Island. Once we caravanned to the place with parents of other carriers, and another time we took a bus. Both times we were let out to run wild, with a warning to find our way back to the arranged rendezvous at a specific time, or risk being left alone on the mean streets of Coney Island, into which we would almost surely disappear forever.
And that seemed quite possible, as there were all manner of creepy people wandering around, and there were plenty of dive bars and unsavory characters going in out of those places. One of the attractions were called “Fun Houses,” where you would walk through cramped, dark passageways and people would jump out from behind corners and scream at you — and they were terrifying! I was convinced that these were real ghouls, some probably off the street and getting paid enough for a beer to scare the punks from Long Island.
There was a penny arcade with a machine that even then was ancient, and for a nickel you would look in a visor as you turned a crank and watch a flip-card movie of a scantily clad woman who danced and flashed her breasts at the end. I kept waiting for somebody to stop us from dropping our nickels into the machine, but no one did. Part of Coney Island’s allure was an undercurrent of something a little illicit. Years before there was a place on the boardwalk where a blast of air would come from below when girls walked over it, which blew their skirts up in the air. Anywhere else this would have been scandalous, but at Coney Island it was okay, it was just fun.
Through a friend, I knew some guys who were a few years older than us, and they were pretty wild. One night they went to Coney Island and had their picture taken, all of them wearing leather coats, looking tough and holding liquor bottles. I didn’t know then, but Coney Island had long served as a Photo Studio for people of limited means. I found this out after being presented with this picture of my grandparents proudly holding their infant son, my dad, posed in a dinghy sporting a Coney Island pennant.
The Coney Island of today is barely a shadow of its former self. Steeplechase and Luna Park are gone. A minor league baseball stadium stands where Steeplechase was, and there are some pretty big empty lots abutting the boardwalk, for which there’s talk of development. There is a place with a bunch of rides that looks like fun, but the attractions that used to line the streets are gone. Nathan’s is still there, and the Cyclone, too. I am committed to taking a ride on it as soon as it opens in the spring — it’s looking a little rickety.