CHICAGO – One Saturday last June, Dan O’Connor started his day in a prickly and painful position. He was worried about the coronavirus pandemic troubling American politics and gleefully hung out on some Tumblrs of bourbon this particular morning after celebrating his son’s high school graduation with neighbors.
Tired of his moaning, his wife Margaret ordered him to be thrown out of the house. He got on his bike and drove three miles east to Lake Michigan, where he could see the Chicago city skyline twinkling to the south.
Mr. O’Connor was standing at the edge of the lake at a concrete mouth, where the water below was probably 15 feet deep and 50 degrees. His head throbbed. he jumped.
“It felt great,” he said. “I just wanted to stop it completely, the pandemic, everything.”
This is the story of a 53-year-old man who jumps in Lake Michigan every day for almost a year. Mr. O’Connor’s leap has followed the full arc of Chicago’s seasons, from gloriously hot to punishingly cold and back again. And they’ve almost traced the pandemic, too, from its early months to its waning days in the Midwest.
The daily jump started as a personal ritual, a way to escape the depressing news of the day, get a little exercise and amuse yourself with the bike rides and majesty of the lake.
A year later, it’s become something else entirely.
What was once a solitary morning dip in the lake now attracts a regular contingent of onlookers: family members, friends, casual acquaintances, fishermen and, on some days, a pair of gossipy women from Poland who go for their daily strolls. stop for.
The jump is a musical performance ever since Mr. O’Connor began inviting local bands – many of them out of work due to the pandemic – to calm them down as he jumps into Lake Michigan.
This is where I first saw Mr. O’Connor, who posts under @TheRealDtox. side gig Making stenciled rock T-shirts, which he sold at Lollapalooza and other festivals in the pre-Covid days.
Last fall, I was in the middle of a year of reporting that focused on the pandemic’s human toll. After interviewing people who have lost spouses, relatives, and friends, emotional conversations that could stretch for hours, sometimes I lay on the rug in my home office, pressing my spine to the floor for a few minutes. . Other times I’d log on to Twitter and see a guy I’d never met in Lake Michigan.
It turns out that lots of other people shared this little pandemic survival.
“We were all sitting at home, bored and scared and unsure of what was happening in the world,” said Bob Forster, a real estate agent who is Mr O’Connor’s neighbor. “And here’s this guy with a weird mustache who keeps jumping in the lake and he’s having a blast every day.”
After the first morning jump, Mr. O’Connor returned the next day and back the next day. Somewhere around the fourth day, he posted a picture on social media. About a month later, a friend asked him if he was still jumping in the lake.
“During the pandemic, it was kind of light,” he said. “Everything was so dark with the pandemic and the protests and the politics. Then people were like, How long are you going to do this? What are you doing for it?”
Mr O’Connor did not know how long he would keep jumping, or especially why he kept jumping early in the morning. But there was something in the whole effort that attracted his admiration for his big, obsessive personality and routine. Before the pandemic, Mr. O’Connor, a gaudy, sociable former advertising executive for Spin magazine with unruly hair, attended concerts and shows at least twice a week – and carried a small notebook where He used to write every song the band played. . He has a plastic box full of notebooks in his garage.
In times of great stress such as a pandemic, the importance of rituals can increase. In March 2020, New York residents leaned out of apartment windows, clapping for health care workers at 7 p.m. each night. Others, troubled at home, cooked bread daily, had Zoom calls with their families every Sunday, or went for a walk every evening at the same time.
The daily jump was slowly making its way to Mr O’Connor through the pandemic.
During the winter, there were days when he couldn’t really jump at all: When Lake Michigan was covered with snow and ice, he had to break through with a shovel to find a place to fall carefully into the lake, then out. Had to climb A woman once, worried about her mental health, stopped her at the water’s edge.
“Are you trying to kill yourself?” He asked.
“No, I’m just jumping in and out,” he replied.
Steve Riedel, a musician in Chicago, plays with a band during one of Mr. O’Connor’s particularly snowy mornings. To reach the water’s edge, the band hauled a portable amp on a cheap plastic sled.
“I was like, ‘Do I want to play a show outside in the winter, even if it’s just a song? They said. “But I was very impressed by what he was doing.”
Some found it contagious, disturbing, even inspiring. Others wondered if he had gone mad.
“I never got this directly from people,” said his wife, who runs a food pantry in Chicago. “But people who are interested in not being a risk taker tell me ‘How can you let your husband do that?’ That sort of thing. But you’ve been with someone for 30 years, you try to get to know them. I’m not going to be able to tell him not to do it.”
One of Mr. O’Connor’s jobs is driving a paratransit bus in Chicago’s northern suburbs, taking people with health problems or disabilities to their appointments from late afternoon to late evening – a job that gave them time to jump every morning. gave.
In a few months, a local media outlet, Block Club Chicago, caught wind of his leap, increasing the attention of friends and acquaintances.
A friend who was going through personal problems started coming over to jump in the lake, just to start her day on a lighter note and clear her mind from the negative. Mr O’Connor, an extremely social person before the pandemic, found that because of the leap, he was renewing old friendships, making new ones and getting notes from people he hadn’t heard from in 20 years.
Elaine Melko, a photographer who knew Mr. O’Connor as a fellow parent at youth baseball games, pulled herself into the lake with her camera, somewhat for an opportunity to socialize.
“It’s almost like a bar without drinks,” she said. “Staying together by the lake and having a little conversation, and then everyone has to go home.”
Last week, Mr. O’Connor arrived at his usual place at 10:30 a.m., wearing a tall robe — a thrift-shop find originally from Kohler Spa in Wisconsin — stenciled with the words “Great Lakes jumper.” was. The sun was intense; Some people sit and talk while warming up on a guitar by a local musician, Tim Midiet.
“I haven’t played in front of anyone since January 2020,” he said.
Mr. O’Connor prepared to jump. There’s nothing elegant or sly about her technique. That goose does not dive or disappears into clear water. He drowns, is a mess. Sometimes he does a solid, and quite impressive, back flip.
Dripping, dripping with water, he was still happy, and insisted on trying a few more before he left.
“Refreshing,” he said of the water. “Take your breath away.”
Serendipity is guiding the end of their year-long quest: On Friday, Chicago will become one of the biggest cities in the country to fully reopen, with restaurants, bars and Mr. O’Connor’s beloved live in the pandemic Music venues with the removal of restrictions and capacity rules.
They have something big planned for Saturday, a grand finale by the lake on the 365th day. Surprise guests will be musicians, pulled pork sandwiches, veggie burgers and popcorn. Mr. O’Connor does not know how many will come. But he’s hoping that at least some of them will jump in.