The Rear-View Mirror: Philippe Petit (1974)

He is up there in the air, 417 meters above ground, a mere speck to his random audience, so you could easily mistake him for a plane or a bird. He might appear semi-abstract to you. Legend has it that, as a Parisian teenager, he had to go his dentist, but found a picture of the not-yet-built World Trade Center in New York in a magazine and drew a line between the two roofs. He left, his toothache all but forgotten, and he perfected his considerable talent as a tightrope walker and waited for the towers to be built. Until then, Philippe Petit worked his way up, from juggling and unicycling in Parisian streets to walking the tightrope between the two towers of Notre Dame, to doing the same thing between two towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And then the Twin Towers got built, and in 1974, Petit was ready for them. Or they were ready for him.

I have to admit that I am more fascinated with Petit walking the tightrope in such blinding heights than I would be if he were able to fly. That might be because it’s possible for anyone to walk the tightrope on any realistic height. It might take a lot of training and a lot of bruising, but it’s not impossible. If you can do it twenty or thirty meters in the air, you might run away and join the circus. If you can do it even higher, you can start selling your own tickets. And then there are people like Petit who must go higher and higher. Of course, my fascination is also fueled by my fear of heights. On a bad day, I have trouble crossing a bridge on foot.

But on that August day in 1974, it seemed unlikely that Petit could have his way. First off, the whole endeavour was illegal. Petit went on secret recon missions while the Towers were not yet finished. He stepped on a nail and got crutches, and the security guys took pity on the poor French tourist with the bandaged foot and held the doors open for him, causing Petit to use the crutches longer than medically necessary. On the evening before “le coup”, Petit got a lucky break when him and his team were able to sneak their 200 kg of equipment in an empty freight elevator, gaining entrance with their fake journalists’ badges. They had to huddle under a tarp on a not-yet-finished level because a watchman made his rounds all night. Another memeber of his team might have been high. Toward morning, their muscles inert and cold, they brought their material up on the roof and signalled to the men on the other roof to shoot an arrow with a fisherman’s cord onto their roof. The cord would be tied to a rope which in turn would be tied to the wire. They shot the arrow. Petit heard the arrow land, but couldn’t find it in the darkness, and the wire had to be up and ready at sunrise. What to do? Petit, thinking on his cold feet, got stark naked and walked around on the roof, trying to avoid the uncovered ventilation shafts, until the fisherman’s cord touched his bare skin. He dressed, and they tied the wire.

And so he did his dance up there. He walked the tightrope for 45 minutes, he danced, he lay down on the wire and got down on one knee to salute the crowds 417 meters below. He later said that he thought he could hear their calls and murmurs. A black clad guy walking to and fro between the Twin Towers has its own eerie poignancy since they don’t exist any more, and the same, to a lesser degree, is true for Notre Dame since the fire last month. By the way: Petit was not charged because he promised to do a show for free in Central Park.

There is an excellent documentary by James Marsh about all of this called Man on Wire (2008). Petit comes across as really full of himself, but someone who is able to walk a thin, slightly moving wire on that altitude must be very sure about themselves. Petit possesses an uncanny power of concentration. I believe that when he is up there on the wire, not much else can exist for him. It is said about Björn Borg that he could concentrate so much that he could bring himself to think that he was alone in the world, playing tennis. Me, I am a scatterbrain, and I have to write everything down to remember. Perhaps we admire things that we are incapable of because we want them.

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