JUST FOR THE L OF IT: TRUE BROWNIES SHUN PUBLICITY AS THEY PLUNGE
When the L Street Brownies take their annual New Year's plunge into Dorchester Bay at noon, the walk-ons will far outnumber the bona fide club members who consider a dip in winter's frigid waters to be more than a photo op.
If club estimates are right, fewer than 10 legitimate Brownies will scramble toward the ocean, outnumbered by hundreds of one-time thrill-seekers as the TV cameras roll and newspaper reporters note the awe, shock and condolences muttered by a swarm of bundled onlookers
Club president Paul Levenson thinks the bigger the crowd, the better. But Leo Simonetti, a longtime Brownie, said you won't find him at the bathhouse today. "There's too many phonies who come down to get their picture taken," he said.
The harbor is the cleanest it has been in years, but only 35 members remain from a club that counted about 150 as recently as a decade ago, Levenson said. And the prospects for recruiting more swimmers from the booming running and weightlifting programs at L Street appear as murky as harbor water on a summer day.
Club member Vinny McDonough, 75, doesn't think the venerable Brownies, who are celebrating their 93d annual New Year's swim today, will exist in 10 years.
"The young kids don't go in the water, they go for the weights," McDonough said. "Swimming isn't something that young kids get psyched up about. I guess they want to beef up their muscles to impress the girls."
Only a half-dozen L Street swimmers take the waters throughout the winter, a club member said, and most of them are long past retirement age.
Still, they show courage under chilliness that awes weekend warriors of all ages. The L Street Brownies also embody a jocular bonding that recalls a sepia-edged era when socializing was as much a part of athletic clubs as exercising.
"It's camaraderie, it's tradition, it's making people happy, and it's friendliness," said Levenson, 79. "The camaraderie, really, is contagious. Maybe some of the guys who use the weight room will move over and join us."
McDonough, of Malden, is a hard-core member of the L Street Swimming Club and Brownies. The retired Somerville police detective has been swimming 220 yards a day in 38-degree water this week, but the hordes expected at L Street this morning will probably keep him away.
"It's gotten so big now. They'll have hundreds down there," said McDonough, a South Boston native.
McDonough extolled the benefits of a regimen that he said has kept him cold-free for 10 years. "Once you get going, you don't notice it. And you feel like a million bucks," he said.
Simonetti prefers to take his swim alone or with his pals, and it's a routine that he's perfected over 30 years, 52 weeks a year, six days a week.
"I find it exhilarating," Simonetti, 68, said of his frigid dunks. "You feel good, and it keeps you young at heart. Hey, it's better than taking up booze or drugs."
One inducement to join the club, Levenson said, is that "the price is right." Gaining access to the L Street facilities costs only $20 a year, and joining the Brownies sets someone back only $1 more.
Today's swim is the club's biggest annual fund-raiser. For $1 membership cards, the curious and the hung-over will travel to L Street "from all the New England states" to scamper toward the water at the sound of Levenson's whistle.
Levenson concurs with Simonetti that most of the revelers are "fakers," but he welcomes them "with the New Year's spirit." Besides, the proceeds from a few scant minutes of shouting and shivering will pay for the food, doughnuts and coffee that grace the club's meetings throughout the year.
Despite a declining membership, the L Street Brownies will have another shining moment under the spotlight today. And even if most Brownies will shun the event, the homage will be real.
But tomorrow, after the TV cameras and reporters have vanished, drop by the clubhouse to see what the fuss is about. If you're lucky, Leo Simonetti and Vinny McDonough will be there, striding into Dorchester Bay for a brief, brisk January swim.
It's what they do. They swim. By themselves. In the winter.
Boston Globe, January 1, 1997