A Visit With the Cloud Walker – Philippe Petit in Rhinebeck

A couple nights ago, Holly and I drove with our sixteen-year-old son, Jack, across the Hudson to Rhinebeck, NY, to see and hear the wonderful Philippe Petit at Oblong Books & Music (a great indie bookstore I recently wrote about). Philippe is the Frenchman who walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center forty years ago this August. I need to write that again in italics. He walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. At that time, the second tallest buildings in the world. And he didn’t just do it once. He strode back and forth 8 times, approximately 1400 feet above the pavement, 110 stories, jumping occasionally, and even laying down, as if to take a nap. Thinking about that, seeing photos, and most of all, standing in Philippe’s presence, never fails to spike my blood pressure, but in a good way. My sense of wonder re-ignites, and a whole vista of possibility opens inside me. In short, I feel like a kid. I will never, ever wrap my head around Philippe’s astonishing, unique feat, but that’s OK. It’s like what T. S. Eliot said about poetry: it communicates before it is understood. Philippe’s 1974 walk, and his entire life, is best viewed, I have decided, like a poem, a living work of art, communicating volumes of mostly inexpressible, yet invigorating energy. There is no “processing.”

Philippe on one of his 8 passes between the towers.

Philippe on one of his 8 passes between the towers.


I was 9 and growing up in Atlanta, Georgia when Philippe took to the Manhattan sky, but I heard and read about it, fascinated. I was too young to recall the Moon landings, so this, I assume, was like that for me, although sadly (or perhaps not) no film footage exists of Philippe’s walk among the clouds, except an indistinct, faraway helicopter video. When I moved from Georgia to Manhattan in 1985, and saw (and briefly worked in) the WTC, my amazement was refreshed. I went to the top floor of WTC 1, and thought about Philippe’s act. It made me queasy, especially when I realized the towers swayed in the wind.

Further keeping Philippe in my forebrain was my first roommate, Peter McCabe, who was studying acting at NYU. He was a big Philippe fan, and, to our landlords’ dismay, Pete constructed a walking wire in the long hall of our Avenue B tenement (he drilled supports into the floorboards). He practiced on it, honing his actorly grace. And, a la Philippe, Pete occasionally fastened a slack rope between two trees in Washington Square Park, and walked it.

So Philippe never really left my consciousness. And when the towers fell in my last year as a New Yorker, I thought of him, and knew his heart was breaking even more than mine.

***

Because Philippe is a Catskill neighbor, our family trip to Oblong was the fifth time we’ve seen him perform. I say perform because calling what he does a “lecture” or a “talk”  seems insulting. Although it was an author event for his recently published (and excellently titled) Creativity: The Perfect Crime, it was not a “reading.” It was a performance.

We almost didn’t go because Jack is in the final crunch of his sophomore year of high school and he had studying to do. (And, to be frank, I was in a tunnel-visioned bad mood.) But, as often happens in parenting, we took a calculated risk, in part because Jack knows Philippe, and really wanted to go. As parents, we want Jack to connect with extraordinary people as much as possible, to see, up close, lives lived with bravery, integrity, and joy. That sums up Philippe pretty well. I have told Jack time and again that he will go his entire life and never meet anyone like Philippe Petit. So we made the 45-minute drive, and Jack alternately napped and studied in the back seat.

My son first met Philippe via Woodstock’s Golden Notebook  (another great indie bookstore). Jack works there after school on Fridays, and helps out at author events. He assisted Philippe at a Woodstock Writers Festival event for Philippe’s 2013 book Why Knot? (Philippe is prolific) and they hit it off. Philippe even came to our tiny town of Phoenicia and gave a performance in an old church, where I rigged my decrepit amplifier for his microphone and wished with all my might I could make it sound better than it did. But Philippe didn’t complain. And he sold a ton of books.

Philippe Petit and Jack, Woodstock Writers Festival, 2013.

Philippe Petit and Jack, Woodstock Writers Festival, 2013.

At Oblong, Philippe, true to form, did not mingle with the crowd prior to his performance, as authors usually do. He was going to make an entrance. The place was packed, standing room only, almost 100 people, which is a lot for Oblong, although, as ever, I looked around and wondered why 5,000 people weren’t there, just as interested as me. Honestly, what could be cooler than this guy? What?

An assistant gave every audience member a plastic fork – no explanation – and, after a quick intro, Philippe bounded out, elfin, graceful yet powerful, like a ballet dancer, looking many years younger than 64. He sized us up with a palpable intensity, the molecules in the air shifted, and he began.

Philippe at Oblong, photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Phiippe at Oblong, photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

His voice is musical, accented of course, his English is fluid and perfect, and he is as funny as a stand-up. The only unintentional (I think) malapropism of the night was when he explained why he sketches so much, rather than taking photos during his travels. He said, “I do not have an intelligent phone.” After saying hello to Oscar-winning local gal Melissa Leo in the front row, Philippe expressed his hatred of “books about creativity,” but his editor encouraged him to write about his creativity, so here we are. Then he invited a woman out of the audience and pretended to perform a card trick when, in fact, he removed her watch from her wrist without her – or anyone – noticing. He talked of learning magic as a kid (on a commune, it turns out) then mastering juggling, riding his unicycle everywhere, and basically teaching himself everything. The word “autodidact” never sounded so lovely. He also got kicked out of five schools.

This is all covered beautifully in the documentary Man On Wire, by the way, which you need to see if you haven’t.

 

Philippe at Oblong, Melissa Leo in baby blue sweater, front row, smiling. Photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Philippe at Oblong, Melissa Leo in baby blue sweater, front row, smiling. Photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Philippe finally mentioned the forks. He asked people to come up with alternate uses for the fork, i.e. be creative. He got some entertaining answers. Jack raised his hand, but we were way in the back, and he didn’t get called on. I asked my son what he would’ve suggested, and he said you could hold the fork tines up to your eye and get a sense of what it was like to be in prison, thereby broadening your perspective on life. I’m biased, of course, but no one else’s suggestion was nearly as good as that.

The only dip in the positive vibe was during the Q & A, when a guy asked how it felt for Philippe’s “pinnacle” to have been when he was 24. Very annoying. But, deft as ever, and unflappable, Philippe explained, in a roundabout, poetic way, that it wasn’t “the pinnacle” of his life, because he is still living that moment every day. The subtext: if you ever did anything as magnificent and monumental as that, you wouldn’t be asking that obnoxious question (interpretation mine). And, in fact, Philippe’s life has continued to be unusual, bountiful, and inspiring.

Around this time, Philippe noticed Jack, and called out to his friend, his “soul cousin.”  That, in a word, was the pinnacle of the night.

We bought books, and Philippe said hello, signed them (in honor of Jack’s style, he drew a top hat on his) and we headed into the night, each of us quite jazzed. For Jack in particular, the event was very encouraging, and he was buoyant into the next morning. What he said on the street was that Philippe made him feel less stressed about school, which is marvelous. His school experience is much, much more stressful than his mom’s or mine ever was, and we all endeavor to stay engaged and on track without overdoing it. It’s a challenge. Does he plan to get kicked out of school and take to death-defying antics like Philippe?  No. But it’s not about that. It’s about seeing a vibrant expression of life beyond the version of what a school kid – or anyone – knows and sees every day. An active encounter with an amazing person telling an offbeat life story, who is vital and engaged, gives more perspective than reading a book or passively watching something. It’s complimentary education. The values of art, and artist, and life are there before you, breathing, laughing, transporting fellow souls into the limitless imagination, as artists do.

The terrain where we experience wonder and possibility gets obscured by the daily grind, the news, the hammering home every day of our collective peril.  Philippe restores that imaginative-yet-very-real vista, where some important living must take place. This vista is crucial for all of us, but mostly for Jack, who, like his soul cousin, looks to the clouds and sees more than just clouds.

 

 

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