The loveliest and most annoying thing about jumping into the Monongahela River on New Years Day is the clutter. The Polar Bear Club is responsible for the tradition, but there is no leader, no order and no rules. The river belongs to every one, the day belongs to every one and the decision to jump belongs to everyone. The powers that be abide by making parking free and sending the Pittsburgh River Patrol to keep anyone from doing anything overwhelmingly stupid. Nipping on champagne and whiskey apparently doesn’t fall into that category, though, and neither does dressing like Santa Claus or Superman.
The morning started out beautiful. The sun over downtown made the leafless trees glow on Mt. Washington, but soon clouds crept over the river and the air got cold. The clock struck nine, but no one jumped. The news crews interviewed some kids from Bethel Park High School. The guy in the Santa suit pumped up the crowd. It began to drizzle, making tiny circles in the river. Still, no one jumped. No one jumped because no one jumped.
And then something great happened: the rain picked up just enough to send a tremor through the crowd, and without any directive at all, people started stripping down to their bathing suits and drifting toward the river. Here and there, hundreds of tiny groups huddled at the edge of the wharf, counted down to zero and jumped into the icy water.
It was a wonderful moment, a crowd reaching a conclusion on its own.
But then… it took an hour to clear the parking lot because the walkers wouldn’t get out of the way of the drivers, and the drivers went both ways down the one-way lanes, and someone parked in the exit ramp. This time, the crowd couldn’t figure out what to do.