Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Man on Wire
When the first of the Twin Towers was burning on TV and I was sitting on my coffee table, leaning forward into the TV, on the phone with qualia, it occurred to me that nothing held the towers together. They belonged together, being identical and, of course, next to each other, but one could fall and the other remain. Tethered to my brother by phone, I remember thinking, "one could go and the other stay."
Then the second plane hit, and they both went.
One year after I was born my parents moved from Arlington to upstate Michigan. I spent every Sunday in church wondering if I could make it from the organ loft to the pulpit by swinging from the lights. In the car I stared at telephone lines and imagined myself running--or cycling--on them alongside us. A typical childish fantasy.
I recall my father mentioning, one morning, that a crazy Frenchman had walked on a wire stretched between the Twin Towers. For which he was arrested. I believe this was the first time I had felt outrage directed at anything other than my own mistreatment.
How could they dare arrest a superhero?
The Frenchman, Philippe Petit, and accomplices had snuck up to the tops of the newly constructed towers and strung a cable between them. In the morning, dressed in black bell bottoms, Petit spent 45 minutes on the wire, 450 meters above the ground, barely visible from the ground.
Not until the Towers fell did I understand the reason for Petit's arrest, and not until I watched Man on Wire , a documentary about Petit and his Twin Towers wire act, did I understand the audicity of the act and how far we have moved from the days when wire walkers, as long as they were not communists, were the worst we had to fear.
What feeling do you have when you see this picture?
This morning I started my ride at 6:15 in absolute darkness. I wore lights, but I felt exposed, nonetheless, the only bike in a sea of cars travelling twice as fast, in absolute darkness. Not quite as exposed as Petit, 100 stories up, walking an inch of steel, but still exposed.
Maybe this is why I sense the frustration of the drivers who pass: This must be illegal! It is so strange and so dangerous! This cyclist must be crazy or desperate! No one would be out this time of day on these roads simply to be out this time of day on these roads.
After Petit's arrest, American journalists wanted to know why he had bothered. In the film Petit says, "This was a very American question," referring to our pragmatic and Puritanical natures. The answer, of course, is that Petit is an artist, and walking on wires is art, and the sight of him floating above the Earth is supposed to inspire some kind of epiphany. Typical French nonsense.
In truth, watching a man walk on a wire is absolutely mind numbingly boring. Essentially, a man is walking. Sure, he's doing it on a wire, and there is the implication of danger, but it is unclear how much. After all, we who are not wirewalkers have no way of comprehending how dangerous it is. It's completely beyond our comprehension because we have nothing to compare it to. Good wirewalkers do it with ease, like they're going to the store for groceries.
That's what Petit looks like in video footage...like a hunched man very slowly shuffling to the store for groceries, albeit on a wire and wearing bell bottoms.
Wirewalking is merely walking in an extraordinary context. Say, between the Twin Towers, 1,200 feet above the ground.
Maybe that's what cycling and wirewalking have in common. That is the art of them. Context, doing the pedestrian (walking, cycling) through the extraordinary. Rock Creek Park with the fog settling in or hitting a 130 degree turn at 35 mph in the middle of a pack of 150.
Or walking on air.