Volume 74, Number 19 | September 08 - 14 , 2004

Towers are no more, but Petit to walk the wire again

By Jerry Tallmer

After the first death, there is no other.

With those words, Dylan Thomas ended his great poem on the death of a child, by fire, in the London Blitz. But for Philippe Petit there was, after the first one, another death. Three thousand of them.

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 11, 2004, Philippe Petit, the man who 30 years ago astonished New York City and the world by crossing between, dancing between, the two towers of the World Trade Center on a wire he and a friend had flung from one building to the other, 111 stories into the sky, will materialize on his unicycle in Washington Square Park.

There he will draw a chalk circle around what he calls “my spot” near a statue on the southeast corner of the park — a place from which one could in the past also view those twin towers far Downtown — and assume “the character of street juggler and magician which I have done for 40 years all over the world, and for 15 years, though not recently, in Washington Square.”

Not recently because he’s been too busy writing books and lecturing and building a barn.

But here he is, with his red hair and his blue-black eyes and his ever-young vivacity and his warming smile, sitting at a sidewalk table at the White Horse, one recent late afternoon, with the imprint of a deck of cards streaming down across his black T-shirt.

“It’s the accordion of cards,” he says. “I’m a magician, so I do that. Maybe I start with that. You take a deck” — he acts it out, blank-handed — “and you throw it down, like this, and if you are lucky it lands in your other hand.
“Then I juggle, and then I put my rope between a lamppost and a tree, a tiny tightrope like your little finger, and I walk on this little rope, and I don’t talk, and I don’t advertise, but maybe somebody will point the way they used to point to those towers far off behind me, and will say: ‘You know who that guy is?’
“I hope not to be a disaster. Not to be a — how do you say it in the theater? — a lemon.”
What brings him back to Washington Square is, of course, the third anniversary of 9/11, but it’s also as starring artist of the Shakespeare Project’s first annual Play Outside Festival of free theater that runs from September 4 to September 26 in 22 public venues throughout the five boroughs.
“The unicycle,” he says, “is my escape from the police who come to arrest me.”
He has been arrested more than 500 times — “and I am proud of it,” he says. “In Russia, Australia, Japan, mostly in Paris, in New York, in the U.K., in Spain . . . everywhere around the world.”
He has also, of late, been lecturing around the world: on creativity. “How to be creative, because that is my life.” And he’s been writing a lot. “To Reach the Clouds,” the story of the World Trade Center high-wire walk, came out from North Point Press on September 11, 2002, and a new book, “The Art of the Pickpocket,” is looking for a publisher.
“I learned pickpocketing by myself when I was 17, and I’m now 55. If you find me a publisher I will thank you in the book — and steal your watch.”
So, Monsieur Petit, where were you and how did you find out about September 11, 2001?
“I don’t read newspapers. I don’t watch television. I was at my hideaway in the Catskills, near Woodstock, N.Y., where I live with my companion and producer, Kathy O’Donnell. We received a phone call from a friend who lives at the top of the hill: ‘Philippe, do you know your towers have been attacked — no, destroyed?’
“So Kathy and I ran 100 yards up the hill to the house of this friend, who was in fact Elaine Fasula, a painter, and the mother of my child, Cordia-Gypsy — my child who died at 9 1/2 of a brain injury. And there, in that house, we all look at the unimaginable.
“At that point the first tower was hit, but still standing, maybe just an accident. And then I see, live, on TV, the second tower being hit, and I look at the sky, the same sky in Woodstock as New York City, 100 percent visibility, and I see it cannot be an accident.
“I am flabbergasted.” There, at the White Horse sidewalk table, Philippe Petit stopped for a moment before saying: “It is a very difficult thing to talk about. Because I studied the towers for six and a half years before my walk. Which means the towers weren’t even built yet when I had my dream.
“So I saw them as they grew like children, and when they grew up, I married them with a cable — in the shape of a smile, a catenary curve, not a straight line. ‘Catenary’ is Latin for ‘chain.’ I am a self-proclaimed engineer,” said Petit with his own smile, “from the school of daydreams.”
The smile disappeared.
“How can I talk about architecture,” he said, “when that day took 3,000 lives? You know, last September I was asked by Marlon Brando to come to his workshop on ‘Lying for a Living.’ A workshop for actors. I was there a month, in Los Angeles. And Brando talked about evisceration.”
Petit once again acted something out, his hands emptying his guts.
“Exactly how I felt [about 9/11]. It pulled out my inwards.”
Had Petit seen his daughter die? When was that?
“Yes, of course, I was there at St. Vincent’s, six hours. I have a problem with that date, erased it from my mind,” he said, touching a fingertip to his temple. “Gypsy was born in 1982, so it was nine and a half years after that.
“It was very sudden. Not a three-months’ waiting around. A little headache one night — and next day, St. Vincent’s . . . “
“Very soon after 9/11,” Petit said, he was allowed in to ground zero “because of who I am.” He has been there since. “Now I don’t call it ground zero. I call it a construction site. Now you smell concrete, not ashes.”
No, he said that sunset hour at the White Horse, he had no intention of staying in the city for the Republican National Convention, and he had nothing whatsoever to say about the politics, if any, of post-9/11.
“I am someone who lives in the clouds and have no respect for the way humanity organizes society on earth. If you ask me what left and right are in politics, I respond like an imbecile. I don’t have a bank account, don’t have a car, don’t have a little box full of money.
“You might want to say that I am artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for 25 years, and have done dozens of [high-wire] walks there. My office is there. On June 21, 2005, Sting and I are to give a big performance at the opening of The Sage, Gateshead, a $170-million music center in England designed by Norman Foster. I walk, Sting sings.
“During the Republican Convention I will be in Woodstock, working on my barn. Not a modern barn, an 18th-century barn made with 18th-century tools: a chisel, a mallet and a T-auger, the ancestor of a drill.
“So while you guys are in Madison Square Garden,” said Philippe Petit, “I’ll be in Woodstock listening to the sound of the woods.”
Until he pops up in Washington Square on his unicycle . . . You know who that guy is? That fellow on the rope . . . ?

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