CHICAGO — One Saturday final June, Dan O’Conor started his day in a prickly and painful state. He was anxious from the coronavirus pandemic, troubled by American politics and, on this specific morning after celebrating his son’s highschool commencement with neighbors and some tumblers of bourbon, spectacularly hung over.
Fed up together with his whingeing, his spouse, Margaret, ordered him out of the home. He climbed on his bike and rode three miles east to Lake Michigan, the place he may see the skyline of downtown Chicago shimmering to the south.
Mr. O’Conor stood on the lip of concrete on the fringe of the lake, the place the water beneath was possibly 15 ft deep and a bracing 50 levels. His head throbbed. He jumped.
“It felt so good,” he mentioned. “I simply needed to dam all of it out, the pandemic, every part.”
That is the story of a 53-year-old man who has jumped into Lake Michigan every single day for practically a 12 months. Mr. O’Conor’s jumps have adopted the whole arc of Chicago’s seasons, from the gloriously heat to the punishingly frigid and again once more. They usually have practically traced the pandemic, too, from its early months until its waning days within the Midwest.
The every day leap started as a non-public ritual, a technique to escape the demoralizing information of the day, get a bit of train and cheer himself up with a motorcycle experience and the splendor of the lake.
One 12 months later, it has turn into one thing else completely.
What was as soon as a solitary morning dip within the lake now attracts a daily crew of spectators: members of the family, pals, informal acquaintances, fishermen and, on some days, a pair of chatty ladies from Poland who cease by on their every day stroll.
The leap is a musical efficiency, too, ever since Mr. O’Conor started inviting native bands — a lot of them out of labor due to the pandemic — to serenade him as he leaps into Lake Michigan.
That was the place I first glimpsed Mr. O’Conor, who posts underneath @TheRealDtox, a nod to his facet gig making stenciled rock T-shirts, which he offered at Lollapalooza and different festivals within the days earlier than Covid.
Final fall, I used to be in the midst of a 12 months of reporting that was targeted on the pandemic’s human toll. After interviewing individuals who misplaced spouses, family and pals, emotional conversations that would stretch for hours, typically I might decompress by mendacity on the rug in my dwelling workplace, taking a couple of minutes with my backbone pressed to the ground. Different occasions I might go browsing to Twitter and watch a person I had by no means met flop into Lake Michigan.
It seems loads of different folks shared this tiny pandemic escape.
“All of us had been sitting at dwelling, bored and scared and uncertain of what’s occurring on the earth,” mentioned Bob Farster, an actual property agent who’s a neighbor of Mr. O’Conor’s. “And right here’s this man with a bizarre mustache who retains leaping within the lake and he’s having a blast doing it each single day.”
After the primary morning’s leap, Mr. O’Conor got here again the subsequent day, and the day after that. Someplace across the fourth day, he posted an image on social media. A couple of month later, a pal requested him if he was nonetheless leaping within the lake.
“Through the pandemic, it was a kind of mild,” he mentioned. “Every thing was so darkish with the pandemic and the protests and politics. Then folks had been like, how lengthy are you going to do it? What are you doing it for?”
Mr. O’Conor didn’t understand how lengthy he would preserve leaping, and even significantly why he stored leaping, morning after morning. However there was one thing about the entire endeavor that appealed to his massive, obsessive character and his appreciation for routines. Earlier than the pandemic, Mr. O’Conor, a stocky, gregarious former promoting government for Spin journal with unruly hair, attended music festivals and exhibits no less than twice per week — and took a small pocket book the place he wrote down each track that the bands performed. There’s a plastic bin crammed stuffed with notebooks in his storage.
In occasions of nice stress just like the pandemic, rituals can tackle a heightened significance. In March 2020, New Yorkers leaned out of residence home windows, clapping for well being care employees every night time at 7 p.m. sharp. Different folks, jittery at dwelling, baked bread every day, scheduled a Zoom name with their households each Sunday, or went for a stroll on the identical time every night.
The every day leap was slowly turning into Mr. O’Conor’s personal means by way of the pandemic.
Through the winter, there have been days he may probably not leap in any respect: When Lake Michigan was coated with snow and ice, he needed to break by way of with a shovel to discover a place to fastidiously drop into the lake, then climb out once more. A girl interrupted him on the water’s edge as soon as, involved about his psychological well being.
“Are you making an attempt to kill your self?” she requested.
“No, I’m simply leaping in and getting out,” he replied.
Steve Reidell, a musician in Chicago, performed with a band throughout one in all Mr. O’Conor’s significantly icy mornings. To get to the water’s edge, the band pulled a transportable amp on an inexpensive plastic sled.
“I used to be like, ‘Do I wish to play a present exterior within the winter, even when it’s only one track?’” he mentioned. “However I used to be fairly moved by what he was doing.”
Some folks discovered it infectious, diverting, even inspiring. Others questioned if he had gone loopy.
“I by no means bought this straight-up from folks,” mentioned his spouse, who runs a meals pantry in Chicago. “However individuals who have a penchant towards not being danger takers would give me a ‘How are you going to let your husband do that?’ type of factor. However you’re with any individual for 30 years, you are likely to get to know them. I’m not going to have the ability to inform him to not do it.”
One in every of Mr. O’Conor’s jobs is driving a paratransit bus within the northern suburbs of Chicago, taking folks with well being points or disabilities to their appointments from early afternoon till late night — work that allowed him the time to do the leap every morning.
Just a few months in, an area media outlet, Block Membership Chicago, caught wind of his jumps, amplifying the eye from pals and acquaintances.
One pal who was going by way of private issues started coming to the lake for the jumps, simply to start out his day on a lighter be aware and get his thoughts off the adverse. Mr. O’Conor, a particularly social particular person earlier than the pandemic, discovered that due to the jumps, he was renewing previous friendships, making new ones and getting notes from folks he had not heard from in 20 years.
Elaine Melko, a photographer who knew Mr. O’Conor as a fellow guardian at youth baseball video games, has discovered herself drawn to the lake together with her digital camera, partially for the prospect to socialize a bit of.
“It’s nearly been like a bar with out drinks,” she mentioned. “Getting collectively by the lake and having a bit of dialog, after which everybody has to go dwelling.”
Final week, Mr. O’Conor arrived at his traditional spot at 10:30 a.m., sporting a protracted gown — a thrift-shop discover initially from the Kohler spa in Wisconsin — he had stenciled with the phrases “Nice Lake Jumper.” The solar was intense; a number of folks sat round speaking as Tim Midyett, an area musician, warmed up on the guitar.
“I haven’t performed in entrance of anyone since January 2020,” he mentioned.
Mr. O’Conor ready for his leap. There’s nothing elegant or clever about his method. He doesn’t swan dive or cleanly disappear into the water. He plunges, messily. Typically he executes a stable, and pretty spectacular, again flip.
He was nonetheless cheery as he emerged, dripping, from the water, and insisted on doing one other couple of tries earlier than he left.
“Refreshing,” he mentioned of the water. “Takes your breath away.”
Serendipity is guiding the tip of his yearlong quest: On Friday, Chicago will turn into one of many largest cities within the nation to totally reopen, with the lifting of pandemic restrictions and capability guidelines in eating places, bars and Mr. O’Conor’s beloved live-music venues.
He has one thing massive deliberate for Saturday, a grand finale by the lake on the 365th day. There might be shock visitor musicians, pulled pork sandwiches, veggie burgers and popcorn. Mr. O’Conor doesn’t understand how many individuals will present up. However he’s anticipating that no less than a few of them will leap in.