Lapping It Up

A rained-out afternoon morphs into a challenge for the ages.

click to enlarge DON'T DRINK THE WATER: Breast stroking through filth and muck, the author struggles to keep his mouth closed. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
DON'T DRINK THE WATER: Breast stroking through filth and muck, the author struggles to keep his mouth closed.

The retention pond next to the Planet parking lot, dry since the last big rainfall in August, had done its job. The thing was almost full, probably three feet deep with leaves, street run-off and other unspeakable muck. Even for standing water, the pond was particularly ... what's the word? ... uninviting.

"What would it take to get you in there?" Anthony asked me, looking over the sludge. This sort of are-you-that-stupid? challenge is always tantalizing. But when one comes on a rainy Friday, when the computer servers at work are down and everybody is a hangnail away from slitting their wrists in the breakroom with a plastic spork, it can be downright dangerous.

"Across and back, how much?" Anthony, a Planet sales guy, asked me again. We were huddled under an awning, last Friday's mini-monsoon tapering off around us. He was taunting me now. He knew I was considering it, and once Anthony realizes one of his cooked-up schemes actually has a chance of coming to fruition, his eyes get as wide as his mouth and he pounces, like a wild dog on an injured gazelle. (This is the same guy who somehow got many in the office to call him "Ham Gravy"; proposed that he and I walk from opposite ends of the Howard Frankland and mark a mythical peace between St. Pete and Tampa; and last week tried to arrange an Iron Chef-style "Chicken Parm-off" between two Planet staffers, one of whom had never before made chicken parm.)

I set my price at $40, then bumped it up to $45 when Ham Gravy seemed confident that he could round up the money. He went inside to fundraise, and I walked to my car, where I had a towel and a pair of shorts stashed away in the trunk. "What will it be?" I asked myself. "The butterfly? The backstroke? The breast?"

More importantly, why am I telling you all this? Three reasons: 1. This is my penultimate column for the paper — I'm moving to California next week — and I was getting worried that if I didn't write something, the public-at-large would never know what a jackass Anthony is. I should also acknowledge that this is the umpteenth story idea he has given me. 2. Due to Friday's atrocious weather, the column I had planned to write got rained out. And sometimes, when there's no news, you done gotta make the news yourself (using the term "news" loosely, of course). 3. I think it's time to break down the myth that everyone at the Planet is a workaholic suit. I know it seems that way, trust me; I thought so too before I took the job. But it turns out there are actually some pretty interesting personalities writing for the paper, personalities that readers only see once a week in bite-size chunks.

Well, all that's about to change. In the next month, the Weekly Planet's editorial department is starting a blog. It's called BlurbEx, and you'll hear more about it as the launch approaches. But for now, think of this column as a preview — my chance to get in on the action before I head west. Because, really, where the hell else but a blog should one write about getting $45 to swim across a disease-ridden retention pond at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon?

I'm no hypochondriac, but as I changed in the bathroom, I ran through the potential medical maladies that may come from swimming in street run-off. There was the obvious possibility of infection. A chance that I would encounter the slightest trace of urine. I considered for a second the possibility that the water could somehow seep through my ears and onto my brain, but that seemed unlikely, and I had no clue what the effects would be anyway. Health risks responsibly considered and dismissed, I hiked up my shorts and walked outside, where the entire office was waiting. (If you know of any medical conditions I might now be suffering from, be sure to write me an e-mail.)

I stuck a toe in, the water was freezing. I still had a shirt on — I'm not the most fetching man topless. I peeked back at my coworkers, who looked like kids going into the freak show tent at the fair; half-excited, half-scared by what they were about to see. Then Anthony showed me the money, 45 bucks in cold hard cash. I pulled off the shirt, revealed my lopsided nipples to the world, and dove in.

If you've ever been involved in some major athletic contest, then you know the feeling I had as I came up for air. The crowd noise, in this case pained cries of "eeewwwww," faded away. It was just me and the sludge. I went with the breaststroke, tried to ignore the mushy bottom as it rubbed up against my stomach. I kept my eyes fixed on the grass across the pond, made a concerted effort not to swallow. The last third of the pool had a thick film on top, a repugnant mix of leaves and unidentifiable oils. If I were to encounter anything death-related, it would be lurking in this last third. But there was no time to stop — I'd seen the money, as they say. I crooked my head, slid through the muck, and popped out. I was a champion. A pond-scummed, nasty-assed, potentially diseased champion. But a champion nonetheless.

Epilogue: Like all spoils from are-you-that-stupid? challenges, my winnings were spent in their entirety at the bar in less than 24 hours. I've found no identifiable marks or rashes, but I do have a sinking feeling that I contracted vertigo, even though I'm not exactly sure what vertigo is. Ham Gravy, for his part, has all but forgotten my fateful swim — he's moved onto trying to convince a recently engaged woman that, in exchange for the ring, she owes her fiancé something tangible. Her heart, Ham Gravy claims, is insufficient.

click to enlarge VICTORY IS MINE: "I was a champion. A pond-scummed, nasty-assed, potentially diseased champion." - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
VICTORY IS MINE: "I was a champion. A pond-scummed, nasty-assed, potentially diseased champion."

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