Guerrilla Bungee-Jumping: After Midnight

The New Yorker, July 31, 1995, p. 27–28.

High above the East River, on a dark maintenance platform under a well-known bridge, a young jeweller named Gregory crouched and, with the help of a flashlight, studied a fat rubber cord. This was long after midnight a couple of weeks ago. All around Gregory, shadowy figures climbed ladders, spread tarps, covered girders with blankets, and rigged complicated harnesses. Gregory, his jeweller’s concentration fully engaged, inspected the cord—forty feet long unflexed—lying coiled on the platform. It was composed of hundreds of thin beige strands, cinched together every foot or so. There was a fair amount of fraying, particularly toward one end. Gregory fingered the busted strands thoughtfully. Did he really want to bet his life on this thing?

A few feet above his head, trains and cars roared and whined, shaking the platform. Nearby, a steel floor plate had been removed and a coffin-size hole yawned. A hundred and thirty-five feet below, the river’s surface, seen through the hole, looked solid, a whorled gray slab in the yellow lights of the Brooklyn waterfront. There was a police car parked on the waterfront, near the base of the bridge. One of Gregory’s confederates, a bartender and college student named Ian, was monitoring the police car through a pair of binoculars while listening to police-radio transmissions on a pair of headphones. Such, such are the rigors and peculiar precautions of guerrilla bungee-jumping.

The owner of the cord was Michael O’Mahony, a former tent rigger for the Big Apple Circus. Brooklyn-born and bred, thirty years old, he was also the evening’s jumpmaster. When he had finished rigging harnesses, he addressed the group. “This will happen fast,” he said. “We got eight people jumping tonight. Some of you, it’s your first time, I know, and you may feel you need some extra time, but, with the cops sitting down there, I could be making a two-thousand-dollar mistake, so it’s three minutes in the hole each person. If you haven’t jumped after three minutes, I’ll pull you out of there, right? Now, I’m going first. Who’s going second?”

“I’ll go second,” Gregory said. The cord had apparently passed inspection.

O’Mahony set a blue night-light on a girder and demonstrated how to hook a carabiner from the jump harness to a retrieval rig that would be lowered to him. Tall and thin, with a huge head of red curls, O’Mahony made an unlikely drill sergeant, but he had plenty of commando intensity. “This life jacket has a beacon,” he said, flicking on a bright light attached to his chest. “I’ve never had an accident on one of my jumps, but if something happens and you do hit the water, hit the beacon. You’ll find razors in the pocket here. Use them to cut the cord, then kick toward shore. I’ll call 911 on this cell phone. A speedboat will come.”

O’Mahony moved to the hole in the platform, stepping carefully through it to stand on a pair of light crossbars a foot or two beneath the floor. The cord hung from his waist in a thick, vaguely obscene forty-foot loop. “Boat check!” he called.

Two people crawled away to scan the river. If O’Mahony was a strange-looking sergeant, he had some appropriately improbable recruits. They included Alison, a fashion model with slim hips and a dry wit; Eric, an angel-faced motorcycle racer with a long blond pony-tail; Chris, a round-faced bicycle salesman who admitted to “a profound fear of heights”; and Jon, a film-prop builder with the poise of a ballet dancer, a tiny steel barbell through his left eyebrow, and a powerful physique.

O’Mahony, who has led some twenty late-night bridge expeditions, finds his jumpers where he can—“I just look for people who seem ready to get out past the outer edge of life somewhat,” he says—and he claims to get an astounding positive-response rate to his invitations. (Astounding, that is, when one considers that he is proposing something illegal, dangerous, unremunerative, and terrifying.) He does it, apparently, just for the adrenaline hell of it. “And because I can,” he says. The hipster individualists whom he drafts seem surprisingly ready to submit to military-type discipline. At least, they seemed so that night—stealthily climbing catwalks onto the bridge in teams of three, giving come-aheads over walkie-talkies, using code names like Mr. Red and Mr. Black without a smirk.

The lookouts came clambering back across the platform. “No boats downriver.” “Nothing upriver.”

O’Mahony bent his big head and seemed to disappear into himself. A tarp snapped in the wind. Nobody spoke. Finally, O’Mahony jumped up slightly, brought his feet together, and was gone. He fell swiftly toward the swirling gray slab of river, his uplifted face shrinking to dot size with alarming speed. Then the cord reached its limit—a hundred and twenty feet—and he came bouncing back toward the bridge. The group peering through the hole gave a sharp collective exhalation. A few more vast human-yo-yo bounces, and it was time to send down the recovery rig. Under the direction of Glenn Vegezzi, an experienced jumper, who was the night’s second-in-command, O’Mahony was hauled back to the platform. When he arrived, grinning maniacally, he seemed, if such a thing were possible, even more wired than before.

Gregory, who was making his first jump ever, did not use a large fraction of his allotted three minutes in the hole. Talking into a tape recorder, he answered some questions from O’Mahony about his vital statistics, plus one about whether he was making this jump of his own free will. Then he was gone.

After he returned, he shyly reported feeling “hyper-alert.”

All the jumps went smoothly. The hard part, clearly, was the waiting. Jon, the film-prop builder, hunkered in the dark, silently chain-smoking, for at least an hour. Then, when his turn came to jump, a party boat appeared, chugging slowly upriver, its lights pulsating, and he had to wait, already harnessed to the cord, for many more long minutes. After his jump, his friend Alison took him aside and solemnly kissed him on the mouth.

Chris, when his turn came, muttered that he had “the shakes,” and went back to the end of the line.

Alison vamped while O’Mahony cinched the harness on her, fore and aft, and when, as she stood in the hole, he asked her age, she said, “I hope to be twenty-nine soon.” To the will-and- volition question, she replied, “Utterly, dude.”

This was her second jump. She leaped with style.

Chris went last. As he stood in the hole, answering questions for the tape recorder, O’Mahony said to him, “You are not going to die tonight.” Chris looked unconvinced. When he finally jumped, he disobeyed instructions and grabbed the cord, mildly abrading his forearm, and when the recovery rig was lowered he was disoriented and had trouble attaching the carabiner.

The eastern sky was whitening as Chris was hauled back up through the platform floor. The police car was still parked on the waterfront. O’Mahony, becoming frantic about the dissipating darkness, directed a furious restoration ot the platform, replacing the floor plate, packing up his equipment, and putting all the tarps and ladders back where the bridge workers had left them. Then the group moved out, jogging silently down the catwalks in teams of three, reconvening briefly at the base of the bridge for handshakes and goodbyes, then melting off in different directions into the dawn-crisp city.