Friday, August 8, 2008

Tightwalking the Twin Towers

On a gray morning in August, 1974, a young French aerialist walked a tightrope between Towers 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center. He stayed suspended above lower Manhattan for 45 minutes.

There, he was almost free.

Police couldn't get to him.

Authorities stood helpless, waiting.

Citizens cheered him from below.

For nearly an hour, as Phillippe Petit later described it, the Twin Towers breathed quietly with him, "as they welcomed a trespassing poet determined to etch his destiny on the sky."

When he completed his performance to his own satisfaction, he calmly stepped off the tightwire and back into the world, offering his wrists to the waiting handcuffs.

He was taken to New York's Downtown hospital to be examined for mental illness. “The police thought he was crazy,” remembers John Flynn, M.D., who at 87 is still practicing at the same hospital. “I told them he wasn’t — that he was a trained aerialist. Then they took the handcuffs off him.” Petit remembered Flynn and later sent him a photo. “We hung it in our bedroom at home,” he said.

Two years after the Towers fell, Petit wrote a brief and moving essay about them called

My Towers, Our Towers

I walked a tightrope from one to the other--and I watched them die.


Saturday, September 13, 2003

You breathe, don't you?

So do I. And so did they, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Whenever a cloud interrupted the sunshine that made their silver robes flutter chromatically, the drop in temperature caused the steel skeletons to contract a little; when it passed, they expanded again.

You and I groan in anger at times. So did they, when gales forced them to sway, although they had been designed to win that sort of tug-of-war.

All this I know for a fact; because I rigged a cable between the two towers, from crown to crown--the appellation for the inclined setback of the top floors that supported the roof, coined by Leslie Robertson, the buildings' structural engineer.

That gray morning of Aug. 7, 1974, the twins, separated at birth, acquiesced in a temporary union, as they welcomed a trespassing poet determined to etch his destiny upon the sky. I linked them with a smile, that of my cable's catenary curve. The curve of my involuntary smile mirrored that of the cable as I took my first steps. The towers whispered in awe. At midcrossing, I sat down to contemplate the horizon and noticed that it, like my balancing pole, was slightly curved; the towers had imparted to me a most important discovery: "The earth is round!" They quieted down the moment I genuflected, so that I could hear the clamoring of the astonished audience that had gathered a quarter of a mile below. The towers kindly held their breath as I lay down upon the wire, they eavesdropped on my silent dialogue with a red-eyed seagull that hovered above me.

That morning, the twin towers became my towers.

Six years earlier, learning of their impending birth, I had decided to conquer them. I watched them grow. I spied on them. I fell in love. Then, under cover of night, I married them, with a seven-eighths-inch steel cable composed of six strands of 19 wires each. At daybreak, the entire world was our witness.

For what seemed an eternity, we enjoyed each other. I visited them often, through the ups and downs of their colorful lives. I introduced them to my friends and family. And then, on a perfectly clear blue September morning, I watched them die, stabbed in the back by assassins who vaporized in mid-air.

I heard my towers cry for help for a long, long time. I listened in anguish, powerless, to their last sighs. I witnessed their collapse and fell silent, eviscerated. Where had they gone? Who besides me knew that, despite 200,000 tons of steel, glass, concrete, and aluminum, the towers were made mostly of air? Between every piece of solid material, air! Mostly air. Could it be air to air? Like ashes to ashes?

Fluidly, in a deadly cascade of smoke and debris, in a matter of seconds, they erased themselves, taking thousands of human lives with them.

I close my eyes, I remember and pay my respect to the victims and their families. That dreadful morning, my towers became your towers, our towers.

Eleven years ago, when my young daughter died without warning, the dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, came to my side. He offered me guidance from his heart, but quite commandingly: "Speak of her in the present; you must not use the past tense!"

When asked today, "Do you have children?" I answer, "Yes, I have a daughter named Gypsy. She is 9 1/2 years old, and no longer alive."

So are my twin towers, our twin towers, gone, yet still standing tall, made of thin air, yet gloriously defying the sunset on this warm late summer evening.

Look at them!

Mr. Petit is artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York


Thanks to lisa schamess and WSJ for narrative and pix.

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