Back when only beauty took on the Twin Towers
Outlawing Creative Subversions
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, November 6, 2006
Don’t tell me that we’re not becoming, as an American society, meaner, stupider, more authoritarian, all in the name of security—“responsibility”—as we go about supposedly preserving these freedoms of ours. It doesn’t have to be Guantanamo to make the point. It’s in the little things, the everyday incidents of ordinary life around us, that hiss with the sound of freedom’s rug being pulled from under us. The fact that these things become incidents is a problem. The judgmental ways we now respond to those incidents is a more serious problem. Take the case of Jeb Corliss. He’s a stuntman, a so-called BASE jumper, meaning he jumps from bridges, antennas, spans and earth. He was the host of a Discovery Channel show called Stunt Junkies. He’s jumped off the Eiffel Tower , the Golden Gate Bridge and West Virginia ’s New River Gorge Bridge . On April 27, a Thursday, he disguised himself as a fat man, paid $40 to take the express elevator up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, then in a quick Superman act went to the bathroom and emerged the thin, svelte man of 30 that he is, a parachute on his back. He eluded the police all along and was eluding them still when he was climbing the ledge of the deck’s San Quentin Prison-like fence.
But that’s as far as he got. Security officers swooped and handcuffed him to the fence. Of course, he never jumped. The police took him away in cuffs. By day’s end he was booked on reckless endangerment, a felony. If convicted, he could spend up to seven years in prison. More than six months after the incident his case is still pending. The city hasn’t embraced him one bit. The New York Daily News basically insulted him in a headline: “Jumpin’ Jerk Dreamt of Being a Flying Fool.” The New York Times did it in more snobbish fashion. Its columnist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and one of the Times’ best, made fun of the jumper claiming that he was exercising his right to free expression, and quoted an unnamed official from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office saying, “I wouldn’t want his freedom of expression to land on my head.” Then the columnist called the jumper “the moron from Malibu, willing to risk the lives of others for his own gratification, testing a busy city’s patience.”
What of it, you could say. He was testing the city’s patience. He was all about self-gratification. But you could say the same thing about Donald Trump, who’s all about self-gratification and is now testing a whole country’s patience with his “Apprentice” act, but let’s stick to comparing stunt men to stunt men, and to the way New York City ’s patience was itself gratified by previous daredevils. Go back thirty-two years to the morning of Wednesday, August 7, 1974 , at the World Trade Center , at 7:15 a.m. to be precise. The city was busy going to work when a man appeared to be walking on air, 1,350 feet above the world, between the two towers of the World Trade Center , whose construction was almost about done by then. It was the famous French daredevil Philippe Petit. He, too, had eluded police with three accomplices for three days, posing as construction workers and shuttling up all the equipment they needed to the top of one of the towers. The evening before the stunt they fired a crossbow from the North Tower to eventually build a 131-foot-long cable between the two towers. The next morning Petit spent forty-five minutes walking back and forth, kneeling, hanging by his feet and playing other games while thousands of people stopped in their tracks and a traffic jam developed below. Construction workers cheered. Office workers cheered. Even the police cheered. Petit himself said he was laughing with joy, up there in the breeze. “I was dying of happiness,” he said. Then he turned himself over to police. His explanation, in his heavily accented French? “If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk.” He was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass and sent to a psychiatric hospital for testing. But the district attorney released him that afternoon and dropped the charges after making a deal with him: he would have to perform a high-wire act at Central Park “for the children of the city.” Petit was an instant folk hero. How did the New York Times react to the feat? With an adoring Sunday editorial that described Petit as an artist, and that noted how the charges against him “were, in a very New York way, dropped.”
It wasn’t one-time indulgence. It was the way New York City embraced its free spirits back then, and not just for their French accents. Less than a year after Petit’s stunt, a man from Astoria , Queens , called Owen J. Quinn did exactly what Jeb Corliss tried to do, except he did it at the World Trade Center: he eluded police, hid his white parachute in a green bag, and smack in the middle of evening rush hour jumped off the 110 th floor down to the plaza between the two buildings. He jumped to “draw attention to himself and to the plight of the poor.” He was taken to a psychiatric hospital and released. No charges. In May 1977 George Willig spent three and a half hours scaling the South Tower of the World Trade Center . The mayor fined him $1.10, or one penny floor that he scaled, and Willig went on to the Johnny Carson Show and stunts on the “Six Million Dollar Man” and wrote a brief autobiography called “Going It Alone.”
Each one of these men wanted to exercise his freedom in the most expressive, most individual and self-gratifying way. Each one broke the law. Each one put lives at risk. Each one acted “irresponsibly,” strictly speaking, or to use a word more current to our tribunal culture, each acted inappropriately. Yet each was granted hero status and let go to the winds of celebrity, because as the Times put it back in those free-wheeling 70s, it was the “ New York way.” It didn’t matter if security was breached. The police officers wanted the stunt-men’s autographs more than they wanted to cuff them. The city was happy for the fun publicity.
Were the times that different then than they are now? I don’t think so. Then as now, the effects of a distant war had left its mark on the country and the city. For that matter the World Trade Center itself had been the nerve center of one of the city’s ugliest chapters in its history when the construction workers of the Twin Towers literally attacked peace demonstrators in Wall Street and smashed them around with their hammers and pliers and other weapons they’d concealed in their overalls in May 1970. Four days after the Kent State killings. When White-collar office workers saw what the hard-hats were up to, they joined them. The students had set up camp around a statue of George Washington and waved peace and Vietcong flags around to protest Kent State . The workers went about burning the flags and hammering the students. That was the more fascist side of the “New York way,” and I use the word “fascist” advisedly, the way it was used by Fred Cook, the journalist who covered the so-called “Hard-Hat riots” for the Nation back then: “Fascism is a word to be used with discretion—particularly in times of social crisis—but it is undeniable that its elements could be felt in New York last month,” he wrote in The Nation that June.
I can’t get over the irony of those Twin Towers, whose rubble in 2001 became the symbol of a freedom that’s been the rallying cry of everything virtuously American since then, yet whose construction workers in 1970 had proved to be the John Henrys of American chauvinism and repression—not unlike the chauvinism and repression we’ve been experiencing in different ways since 2001, and in the name of those same Twin Towers. Our friend Philippe Petit and his copycats back in the 1970s essentially soared above the recent mayhem in a “Good bye to All That” sort of energy. Of course it was artistic. Of course it was expressive, and free, and free expression of the most noble sort. Of course it was self-gratifying. But it was also beautiful and healing and, above all, defensible in its own right.
So to go back to our other friend Jeb Corliss. He, too, like Petit, planned his stunt meticulously. For ten years, he says, down to calibrating his jump with the sequential traffic lights’ changes down below, so his landing would take place when the avenue was at a relative standstill. Pedestrians? More of them are killed by rogue cranes and establishment debris in construction obsessed Manhattan every year than would ever be killed if Manhattan replaced DeLand as a skydiving capital. Corliss, in sum, was prepared. But so were police. “Security officers at the building had received a tip” that Corliss would attempt the jump, the Times reported. How on earth do you receive a tip about these things? Who would be so malicious as to want to pass on a tip of this sort? But these are the times we’re living in. (And you can’t discount the extent to which phones and emails have a direct line to the gods of snoopy things in Washington .) So the police were prepared, or as prepared as police ever gets in New York , and Corliss was nabbed. And charged with a felony. And ridiculed by the press. And fired from his job at the Discovery Channel. And banned from ever appearing in any program on any station controlled by the Discovery Channel.
How different is Jeb Corliss from Philippe Petit? How different from George Willig or the Astoria man, Owen Quinn? Not at all. The only difference was the landmark and the city’s attitude—the jumping off point and the landing zone. We’ve gone from celebrating those who soar and defy in beautiful and marginally risky ways to castigating them like common trespassers. That’s the thing: They are trespassing. But not on property or safety. They’re trespassing on authority. Their freedom, however planned and studied and considerate of the environment around them is meaningless. Law and order, “security,” authority, or what’s more vulgarly and euphemistically known as responsibility, is paramount. But nothing is gained by adhering to responsibility defined by today’s criteria of security, except a sense that between freedom and order, order will be maintained at all cost, and freedom will always submit. Funny how the hard-hatted Daily News and the white-collared New York Times, along with the law, banded up on Corliss to give him his public beating. It’s not that nothing has changed in New York . The law and order years of Rudy Giuliani alone gave New York a Nixonian feel that made it natural for the Republican National Convention to be held in New York for the first time ever two years ago. But the city that has been so willing to submit to its admiration for the creatively subversive now submits to the merely appropriate.
Back in 1974 Philippe Petit had effusively described his famous walk as a gift to the city: “ New York wake up and what did they discover? There was a high walker on the twin towers.” These days New Yorkers wake up and what do they discover, besides the obvious gaping hole where Philippe Petit once walked? An even more sullen hole down below, and not just at Grown Zero. New York is grounded.