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2004-01-01

Matthew Alexander Henson
B. 8.8.1866 Nanjemoy, Maryland / D. 3.9.1955 New York City
Cerebral Hemorrhage

Down off Coney Island each New Year’s Day the Polar Bear Club invites New York to take a plunge en masse into waters as icy as God cares to make them. Today that wasn’t at all, as the air temperature was a warmer-in-the-sun fifty degrees and it was very sunny at one o’clock, when the brave went in by their hundreds. Me, I was still making my way across the tire-tracked sands when the blue-black crowd in the distance let loose a cheer, must have been the very stroke of one, and suddenly clusters of silver spray erupted all along the shore. Limbs and—as I drew closer—large round bellies filled our foreground, mine and the uneasy Jewish trio’s sharing a pair of binoculars and a tattered pretense of being down there watching birds. I did not see the topless woman. “USA! USA! USA!” A dozen or so mildly obese patriots could be seen and heard to brandish a water-soaked stars ‘n stripes at the broad brown back of the Puerto Rican contingent, gone to towel off after his own wade ‘n wave. The male member of an upright young leftist couple walking away from the scene scowled “Disgusting!,” apparently in agreement my remark, that only Americans could turn this into a war. Mrs. Roger Tory Peterson explained, “Well they’ve got the TV stations down here.” The gleam of gilded tuba rims seemed to confirm it. However, what they did not have were free Jimmy Dean pork sausage sandwiches being served, as advertised, from heated tents. Maybe they’d had them earlier in the day, say at eleven, when the guys unpacking the sandwich trucks looked up to see an immense line of Russian senior citizens, six or seven thousand of them stretching all the way back to Brighton Beach, all clutching their social security cards. On the other hand, maybe Jimmy Dean was serving sausage sandwiches in that small white tent set up next to the toilet pavilion, from which people who’d gone in the water were emerging with what they called “certificates,” which read “Did It.” In either case, I went unfed. On the Boardwalk, two guys stood in the sun by shuttered Nathan’s to get back into their clothes and assure one another how warm the water had been, especially when compared with last year, how really pleasant. But white people lie. The truth about the Polar Bear Club swim, under any weather circumstances, is probably closer to what one young black guy, dripping, said:
“I feel like I was just in fight with Mike Tyson.”

Consolation Site: It was then, or never

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