Laurens De Jong drives his convertible all year round
When you are driving along I-94 in the middle of winter in a two-seat convertible with the top down, the problem area is not above the neck.
At least, that's not the part that gets cold.
"The weak spot," said Laurens de Jong, "is pants."
You may have spotted de Jong on the road in his 2005 Honda S2000. If you have, at least in cold weather, you'll remember him — because no matter the temperature, he's topless.
Unintentionally, his preference for driving amid the elements has made him a bit of a celebrity, albeit an anonymous one. Other drivers take his picture a few dozen times a day and frequently post it online, but always with a question:
Who is this guy?
De Jong, 46, is a 6-foot-7 native of the Netherlands who speaks four languages fluently, lives in Ypsilanti and has racked up nearly 189,000 miles on the original six-speed transmission.
He is not crazy. He is not starved for attention. He is not trying to set a record for consecutive days driving with the top down; he figures that was retired back when cars didn't have roofs.
He just enjoys keeping his convertible converted, thank you — no matter how much it may confuse or even rile other drivers.
Yes, rile, as though de Jong was somehow insulting people with lids on their rides. One memorable bystander hollered, "You're lucky I don't have my gun with me!"
But rage is a rarity. More often, he'll hear well-meant silly questions, like, "Aren't you cold?"
"Of course I am," de Jong says. "It's 9 degrees out."
Which goes back to the pants.
He can put on a warm hat, though he often doesn't. Likewise a scarf, a neck-warmer, gloves and an aging blue ski jacket with a fleece lining.
From the waist down, though, he's dressed for work, and slacks are not a great barricade against a frigid Michigan January.
Not that you can detect that if you've spotted him downtown, where he works as an IT supervisor, or passed him on the freeway, where he's typically doing a placid and less buffeting 55 mph in the right lane, or read the decals on his doors trumpeting a nonprofit that helps pay people's utility bills.
But if you are considering dropping your own top, as de Jong has done with every turn of the key since September 2003, you might also consider long johns.
His streak of top-down driving days, as of Wednesday, was 2,809, a number he clicks off with a little metal counter nestled in the console.
"I love how unbelievably pure the air is when it's cold," he says. "I love the padded sound of tires on fresh snow."
He also loves the smell of rain five minutes before it falls, though the rain itself is a bigger problem than snow, frost or 100 degree heat.
Keeping a weather eye on radar images, he can usually duck the heaviest part of a downpour. Worst case, he has occasionally had to put his roof up for 10 or 15 minutes.
Actually, that's the second-worst case. The very worst is when water short-circuits his electrical system.
But again: the thrill is worth the chill.
De Jong moved to the United States in 2003 with his wife, Julie, a social research scientist at the University of Michigan who grew up in Walled Lake and drives a nice, sensible Subaru Outback.
They have two children, 7-year-old Ansel and 4-year-old Amalia. When de Jong came home from work Monday, Amalia asked him to take her for a spin around the block, so maybe it's genetic. Or maybe what's inherited is a sense of curiosity.
"The human body is an amazing machine," he says, and he found himself wondering about its limitations. So he challenged himself to drive with the top down for 100 days, then liked the experience enough to keep going.
"I look at other drivers," he says, wrapped in their cocoons, and "they're happy despite the weather. I'm happy because of the weather."
In one 37-mile, 50-minute commute home, his gloves and black knit visored hat might go on and off several times. He's attuned to conditions, and to internal cues.
The first time he tried a winter drive with no cap, his scalp hurt. But he researched frostbite, realized he didn't have it, and grew used to the feeling.
He hasn't grown used to the photos, especially at highway speeds: "You could always just get to work and tell someone you saw a guy with his top down." But as long as people are staring and snapping, he decided to put the attention to good use.
His car now sports decals on the doors with a Facebook address, Freeze for THAW, and the phone number for donations to the nonprofit — (800) 866-THAW — that helps struggling Michigan families with their utility bills.
No one at THAW has spoken to him or seen the signs, but THAW CEO Saunteel Jenkins appropriately described them as "very cool."
It's particularly apt, she says, that someone embracing the cold is helping people who have no choice.
De Jong says he isn't looking for thanks, any more than he's looking for attention. He's just doing what comes naturally.
It's Michigan. It's winter. You can curse the weather, or embrace it. Or OK, you can do a bit of both.
That walk to his car in the parking lot at work?
He says it's brutal.