Man on Wire

Man on Wire

“You sure must drink a lot of coffee.”

“I haven’t had a drop since I started this job.”

“Wow. How do you do it, then?”

“I’ve never fit in and staying up all night is easy for me. May as well get paid for it.”

I knew from a young age that I never fit in with the other kids. Not only did I sit down in front of Sesame Street but I’d also watch the evening news and The Nightly Business Report when I got a chance. When I was in the library in elementary school, I’d grab whatever reference book or Encyclopedia struck my fancy and go through it until I found something that stood out to me. When my parents got  lost behind the wheel, I was the one who knew where we were and which directions would get us back on track. I was intellectually hungry to know how, where, when, why, and what made people tick. Much of that curiosity was satisfied when I went to New York alone for the first time in early ’94 and drove out to California alone a little over two years later. There were no words to describe what it was like to see the words, pictures, and stories in books and depicted on television come to life right in front of me, as I got to use my knowledge and take my learning to another level by experiencing new places firsthand.

One of the moments I’ll never forget was the first time I drove out at night alone. I had just gotten my license and a pair of wheels (not much else functioned properly on that vehicle) but on a night not much unlike tonight, I took her out for a spin here in town. It may not have seen like much to anyone else but to be out alone with the buildings illuminated by artificial light, with hardly a soul to be seen, and with the top down on a room-temperature night was something that struck me as totally new and totally comforting at the same time. Most of all, I wasn’t tired like so many people were when they had to be out late for work or socializing. I begged to stay up past my bedtime when I was little to watch Sha-na-na or Dance Fever and even though they had been off the air for years by that point, the little boy that resented going to bed early finally got his due and loved every minute of it.

Looking back, it was easy to see why I loved that night and so many others like it since. Every job where I’ve had to be up during the day had been a struggle for me – from getting out of bed, staying awake and alert for the full 8 hours, and conforming to an office environment that never felt quite right, even on the best of days. One thing I learned during the struggles of a daytime vocation was that I had to keep myself stimulated in order to feel alive. No, it didn’t involve illicit substances or death-defying juvenile antics, but I had to read, write, learn, listen, and respond to as much as I could and add it to my base of knowledge, so I could find new fields that explore on my own time.

Even with all the books I have here at the house, all the pages bookmarked on my computer, and all the places I’ve been lucky enough to visit in the other 46 States that I don’t regularly get to, there’s so much more out there that I haven’t been able to have my senses come into contact with. The older I get, the more I realize that what I’ve learned will probably pale in comparison with what still currently remains unknown to me. For example, there’s the World Trade Center and a chapter of its history that I only recently started to inquire about further.

Several times in the 1980’s, I had the chance to go to the observation decks on the 107th and 110 floors. I remember the absolutely massive escalators leading up from the PATH terminus, the elevators having “Welcome” written in several languages for the tourists, photographs of each of the 4 views with the major buildings highlighted for the sightseers, the electric fence around the edge of the outdoor observation deck to thwart jumpers, and an autograph on the northwest corner of the South Tower, with a simple marking on it. Later on, I realized that someone had crossed between the Towers on wire around the time my parents got married, but I never read any further into it.

Three months before I graduated from Columbia, I stumbled into the auditorium at the Student Center where I had reviewed notes for class during many a lazy afternoon. That day, they were screening Man on Wire with a Q and A afterwards with one of the deans. It was free and open to all and even though I missed the first 15 or so minutes of it, I put my books away, sat down, and stayed until the end of the discussion.

I would tell everyone out there reading this to go rent it on DVD and watch it straight through, but that’s not why I’m writing this entry today. For starters, this isn’t a blog about movie recommendations and furthermore, I hadn’t been to a theater in years before watching that documentary; so therefore, I have almost nothing to use as a frame of reference. Most people I know have seen so many movies that they know what they like and don’t like and what they think of the most popular films in recent years. I’m the exact opposite as I have little use for Hollywood right now and spend my free time pursuing other forms of mental stimulation.

All of that is besides my point, however. Like so much else in life, it wasn’t the crossing that was amazing as much as the story behind it. It’s impossible to envision someone being able to freely walk into the construction site down at Ground Zero today once night sets in but Philippe Petit and his assistants did just that when the original World Trade Center was under construction in the 1970’s. The whole operation was so meticulously planned that the details behind the “artistic crime of the century” were nearly amazing as the actual act itself. Mastering the art of tightrope walking, gaining access to the construction site, learning the layout of the towers, and accessing the roof seem difficult enough, not to mention having to breach whatever passed for security back in those days. It may seem like a lot of preparation for an event that may never have happened, but when asked about it afterwards, he had this to say in his defense:

“When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk!”

And so he did.

It’s so difficult for me to look at those pictures nearly 40 years later. It’s not because the towers aren’t there anymore, or because the landscape of Lower Manhattan has changed, or the color resolution has changed 1000% for the better, or even because the air of today’s postindustrial Gotham has become cleaner than clean itself. It’s because I keep thinking that he’s absolutely, totally insane for what he did.

But there’s no doubt that he isn’t.

Sitting on the physical edge of 110-story towers as if it was a simple ledge is something that no one else would ever want to do, but he wanted to do it. He had a goal, a way to attain it, and the patience to follow through. Who am I to criticize him? There was a time when picturing machines heavier than air gliding effortlessly around the world, or messages being sent to anyone, anywhere, anytime at the click of the button, or even diseases invisible to the naked eye being wiped off the face of the Earth would have seen eternally impossible but someone had the courage to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries past the known realm to see these ideas become reality.

No matter how preposterous it seemed or how much effort was required to carry out the dream.

From what I have read, some have criticized Petit for what they perceive as his enormous ego. I never thought it was big at all and unless one completely clouds out friends, family, and spirituality, it’s almost impossible to have one’s Freudian impulses out of whack. It was ego that sent explorers across the Atlantic in search of riches, new lands to conquer and ultimately, a new home away from crowded, feudal Europe. Ego led to the writing of a document that separated us from a country intent on plundering our wealth of resources instead of treating us as equals under the law. Years later, ego led to the laying out of the “greatest grid” of streets in the greatest city in the republic which had the courage and daring to break away from the largest colonial power the world had ever seen. A few generations later, ego after ego took part in the greatest race for height of the 20th century, which ended in the construction of two massive towers that were over 95% full on the day they were destroyed at the dawn of the 21st century. Each age of individual gain involved less and less physical space that had to be conquered than the one before it but involved more mental blocks that had to be overcome, as the World became smaller over that time but the contents of it became larger and more complex, and therefore, presented more challenges for those that wish to rise over them.

All of this came to a head on August 8, 1974 as millions watched mesmerized during Petit’s 8 walks back and forth between the towers over a 45 minute span. One Police Officer who watched knew that he’d never see anything like it again but little did he know how utterly prophetic his words were. It was apparent that day that no one would ever string a wire between the towers and use them as a means of crossing the 1,300-plus foot height of their rooflines again. What was not obvious that day was that we’d never push a boundary like that on U.S. soil in anyone’s lifetime.

Sure, new companies have been formed and new inventions have come along that have revolutionized the workplace, the standard of living, and the way people interact with one another, but so much has changed in this country that it’s increasingly hard for one big idea or one big person to come along and challenge the conventional wisdom of the day. Groupthink, conformity, increased domestic surveillance, and a security state have all led to a dearth of creativity that will hurt America for generations to come; assuming that the Republic even survives in its current state for that long. Toss in another fiscal collapse similar to what happened 5 years ago and it could be the end our way of life forever.

A few weeks ago, I went into Bryant Park after a night out at work which saw me interact with the usual cast of characters that I come across during a typical shift. None of them measured up to the person I had gone to see in the reading room that day. Vivacious, humorous, and uplifting, the 63 year-old that spoke that sunny afternoon was there to promote his latest book, which dealt with knots. Seems like a simple premise until you realized that the person had been tying and retying knots for decades and that that person was none other than Philippe Petit himself.

It was one of those days that stuck with me for a long time after I paid for Why Knot? and To Reach the Clouds. Once again, something that I had only seem in film and print had come to life before my eyes, much as the places in New York and America had for me during my jaunts away from my cozy suburban abode. The crowd that grew was much larger than anyone had anticipated as those walking by through the park or on their way back to the office after lunch realized who was speaking and how he had everyone’s attention who was in attendance. Most striking of all were how many people that were in the park that day were *not* aware of the speaker at all but rather, were on their phone/Blackberry or idling the time away in the midst of a presentation by one of the most engaging personalities ever to set foot in the Big Apple.

When it came time for me to have the books autographed by him, I mentioned that I was surprised that he wasn’t left-handed. Not only is yours truly sinister in the way my brain is wired, but nearly all of the women that I’ve most admired and have been attracted to over the years and many of the notables that I’ve emulated were in the minority when it came to which hand they’d place a writing utensil in. Philippe mentioned that he was indeed right handed but thought of himself as more ambidextrous than just about anyone else.

Surely, who would argue with that?

Before I left to shoot my first rounds of Petanque in weeks, I told him wholeheartedly that he was beloved in New York. While I’m sure he’s been told that more times than I could count, I’m sure it’s something that one would never get tired of hearing. Personally, it would be something I’d want have someone  tell me, though I wouldn’t be sure for exactly what I had done with my life and my God-given talents.

And that’s where the problem lies.

The old Chinese saying is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with single step and for me, the problem is figuring out what direction that, and the thousands of others that come past it, would be in. Years of reading, writing, and schooling have shown me that for all that I know and have codified, that there’s much out there that I have yet to learn and accomplish. Every time I think about how hard it is, I pull up the picture of the view down from the South Tower of the World Trade Center as Petit took his first step and danced among the clouds on that Summer morning decades ago.

I’d give anything to experience that feeling for myself someday.

Man off Wire

Man off Wire

Prince of Broken Hearts

Etan Patz

In an average shift, I’ll put on around 140-170 miles on the particular Taxi that I’m driving that night. Lights and corners eventually melt into runs, which melt into hours, which eventually melt into my 12 hour blocks of work. The chorus of sirens, traffic jams, and human obstructions that I’ll inevitably face will add some hue and tone to the composition of the night but once I turn in around 5 in the morning, it just becomes another pile of transactions on the receipt that adds up my fares and charges for the night.

It was with somewhat large fanfare a few weeks back that Prince Street in SoHo was blocked off with flashing lights and yellow tape. Most of us in New York were well aware of the reason for the extended investigation that the police and the FBI were conducting. What many were previously unaware of was the story behind the reopening of one of the city’s daunting and saddening cold cases that anyone could remember. Like an old wound that fully refused to heal, anyone that went by Prince Street during that week was reminded of the 6 year old that captured the City’s, and ultimately, the nation’s attention back in 1979.

Etan Patz set out for class on May 25 of that year, like any boy who was looking forward to the end of his school week. It was only a two block walk to his bus on West Broadway but somehow, he never made it to his ride or to school that day. When it was discovered that he hadn’t returned home, a frantic hunt for the child was undertaken, triggering a sizable response that was somewhat reminiscent of the Son of Sam episode nearly two years earlier. Before the internet and social media took hold as forms of communication, the evening news became the go-to source for updates on this story and the hysteria that this caused led to Etan becoming the first child pictured on the side of a milk carton. Kids were missing and exploited long before him but it was his disappearance that changed how society responded to this problem and dealt with it, even if it wasn’t the most prudent or helpful solution possible.

I remember when I was growing up how “Just Say No” was the hot topic for kids both in school and on the news, as everyone from the First Lady on down campaigned to dissuade people from using drugs. What was an anti-drug slogan would ultimately be seen as one of the first sound bites for millions of us that were starting to come of age at the time. Eventually, the people and cases that rocked the city and the country at large in the following decade were reduced down to the victim or the locale in which they took place. Adam Walsh, Bernie Geotz, Howard Beach, Lisa Steinberg, the Preppie Murderer, the Central Park Jogger, Crown Heights, and Rodney King became synonymous with crimes that sensationally became worse than the one that preceded it. Nearly all ended in trials, tears, and piles of finger pointing, with the larger issues of race relations, civil conduct, and respect for fellow man remaining on the back burner throughout all of the ordeals. By the early 90’s, the United States had become a more violent, segregated, and stratified society where certain groups and races were still unable to assimilate and fully participate in the American Dream.

Lost in the midst of all this was Etan Patz.

It was no coincidence that the year in which he disappeared also saw Kramer vs. Kramer win Best Picture. No, Etan’s parents were not divorced but much of the film focused on the fight for the child. By that time, divorce and the breakdown of the postwar nuclear family was already in full effect along with an accompanying rise in the crime rate across the board. At the same time of this malaise, the SoHo that had characterized industrial and commercial New York for generations had been accidentally been preserved thanks to Robert Moses’ unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway. Loads of cast-iron gems were saved from the wrecking ball or from massive alterations due to the state of limbo that the highway was in for a quarter of a century. All of these factors converged at the time of Etan’s disappearance as the area was in a state of rebound, full of artists colonies that produced such seminal creative incubators as The Kitchen. When those became priced out, the Soho of today took hold as Prince Street is now known for such haute couture boutiques as Baby Phat, Miu Miu, and Nicole Miller. The neighborhood at large has become the go-to high end mall when shoppers want to avoid the crowds and tourists that zealously flock to Madison Ave. in the 50’s and 60’s or to the bottom of the High Line. The old industrial buildings lend an air of grittiness to a set of streetscapes that’s clearly targeted for the now-infamous 1% but thankfully, there remained one outlet of the old ‘hood that has withstood the gentrification and upward climb in rents:


Years ago, an ex of mine and I went there for dinner after running a bunch of her errands down on Broadway.The neon sign, old wooden bar, and pressed tin ceiling were a throwback to the restaurants that had once dotted much of the island. As we ate our meal on the red and white checkered tablecloths, I couldn’t help but wonder how much history that place had seen throughout the decades of surrounding change. I still remember the meal of chicken parmesan and our walk to the eatery through a part of town that at the time, I had hardly ever seen foot in but now, it’s obviously a different story. Like so many streets in SoHo, I cut down Prince to avoid the traffic on Houston Street or Broadway when the shoppers are out in full force. The police tape and investigators are long gone and once again, Etan Patz’s disappearance has been relegated to the cold case files as it was for so many years. On my way out to head to the subway with my girlfriend at the time, the thought going through my head that night was the same that I have today, as I yearn for the day when the Patz family can finally learn the truth and move on from their heartbreaking ordeal:

If only those walls could talk.

Prince Street, looking west from Fanelli’s

Tag! You’re it.

Knickerbocker Ave – Bushwick

Graffiti. It’s a form of communication as old as cities themselves and coincidentally, there’s no shortage of it in the Big Apple. One of the things I wondered when I started my job was how much of it was still existed this far into the 21st century. Now, all of you hipsters and millennials might be surprised to know that graffiti was once one of the biggest problems in the city, right up there with crumbling housing, Subways that walked instead of ran, and fiscal insolvency. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.

Flash back to 1981. Ed Koch is running for re-election, the Iranian Hostages return home from 444 days in captivity, and President Reagan comes a stone’s throw away from being assassinated by a Jodie Foster-loving psychopath. In the midst of all of this, 4 1/2 year old Pat attends his first Yankee game which naturally involves a car ride over an extremely clogged George Washington Bridge. I had no idea that I’d be in college before the team I was about to cheer on would play in October or how close to the stratosphere our seats would be nor did I have any idea of what I was about to witness as our car made it’s way through the Bronx to find an open place to park. Most importantly, miniaturization had yet to take place, resulting in film being a scarce commodity. Had I had the digital camera and iPhone that I currently bring with me on every shift in my hands on that fateful day, I would have recorded every aspect of that ride, from the filtered sunlight illuminating the leaded auto exhaust underneath the apartments on the Trans-Manhattan Expressway to the archaic El over Jerome Ave that rumbled as we waited for the light to change. Most importantly, I would have snapped the graffiti provided the most color to be seen on that fateful day.

After all, that shit was everywhere.

Ask anyone who was alive then what it was like and their eyes will probably light up upon recollection of how marred open surfaces were. Concrete, brick, and wood were no match for the onslaught of Krylon and sharpies that descended upon the city. It was enough for the MTA to declare a war on it that didn’t end until the last stainless-steel Subway car was eradicated of the markings in 1989. Burgeoning gangs in the Bronx would hop the fence at the Subway yards at night to leave their colors and names on the side of anything on wheels that was parked, so the whole city would see their names and tags on their way to work the next morning. What rose out of the ashes of the decaying slums was more than an crude artistic movement, but the beginnings of hip-hop itself. It’s nearly impossible today to hear The Message from Grandmaster Flash or Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks and not picture an Adidas-wearing DJ blaring out the sampling beats on a pair of Technic 1200’s as a Graffiti-covered train rumbled by in the background.

7 Train view – Long Island City

President Carter might have gone down Charlotte Street in the Bronx and vowed to rebuild but the real seeds that sown the destruction of graffiti was what killed off much of the edge of the city, and that was gentrification. Graffiti was, and still is, a form of rebellion set to art. There are no guidelines, no schools for it, and it’s not done in public in broad daylight. Much like vermin that scurry when the lights are turned on, the artists themselves had wished to remain as anonymous as possible, resorting to nicknames like “Plug” and “Shadow” as a moniker. Any validation of this could be seen in the artist that most exemplified the tumultuous decade of the 1980’s:

Keith Haring.

I loved Haring when I was growing up. So many playgrounds, walls, and published art collections in that decade featured his work but what amazed me the most was how beginning which of course, was on theSsubways. One man, one marker, and one crazy style (when combined) was enough to start a movement that led all the way to the art galleries of SoHo and the face of the AIDS epidemic that was inescapable shortly after bursting on the scene. What seemed like an innocent collection of dancing men and animals contained tons of erotic and societal references when looked at closely but the bigger message was the rebellion that so many artists felt against a society that made them outcasts, which was also shared by Haring. Coming out was not the same as it was in today’s era of DOMA and Ellen Degeneres and as I’ve mentioned before on here, Haring was like Madonna in that he exemplified a time when those from more conservative parts of the country could migrate to Manhattan, crash on someone’s couch, and express artistically the change and issues that America was facing Homophobia and corporate greed might have been topics that many were afraid to speak out about but Haring unwillingly jumped on the bandwagon that came to exemplify New York in the 1980’s.


I’m not saying that he drove a Beamer, moved into a downtown Loft, or spent his zillions on Cocaine but no other artist of his age went from scrawling on blank transit system billboards to having his own gallery exhibitions so fast as Haring. Real artists do their work even when they starve but he hit it big in a short span, like so many others who were upwardly mobile in the 1980’s. Just as fast as he shot to fame, he lost his life when the disease that took out so many in his community cut his life short in 1990. I remember where I was when I heard the news, since it was around the time when Ryan White passed on . Although I never knew anyone who perished from the disease, I still remember what it was like to hear it on the news all the time and to see people that made their mark on society and my youth, so suddenly taken away before they should have exited the stage.

The forces that moved Haring into superstardom and eradicated Graffiti have reached their apex today. Large amounts of capital infusion have cleaned up the Bronx, to the point where chain stores and a $1 billion home for the Yankees have replaced abandoned autos and rubble-strewn lots as symbols that the Borough projects out to passerby. Most of the markings that exist today are found in high-end museums (A Haring retrospective of his early years is currently being featured at the Brooklyn Museum), expensive *Chelsea* galleries, and on rooftops out of cleanup’s way on street level. Like so much of New York’s past, it has been commodified and put up for sale to the highest bidder, to the point that seeing a wall covered in art has become a rare treat in the city where an ad for a Disney production on Broadway is more likely to be spotted. As long as there is angst, there will be those who rebel against the “system” and perceived injustices. With a lingering recession and a Mayoral election next year with no clear-cut front runner, there may be a chance for a new movement of artwork to appear on surfaces around the 5 Boroughs, as the disenfranchised tire of taking over parks and plazas for months on end.

Some of the images that will emerge will cover up the old but like those tags and images of yesteryear, today’s art will be reflecting a City and society that has still failed to accommodate the basic needs of all.

Tags – Lower East Side