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.