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By four years old, disdain for my fellow man starts to show: I climb onto everything to distance myself. At age six, I announce, "When I grow up, I want to be a theatrical director!" Then I proceed to learn magic on my own.
During the next ten years, I study drawing, painting, sculpting, fencing, printing, carpentry, theater, and horseback riding, all with prestigious masters; I embrace focus, tenacity, respect for the tool, and passion.
The reaction of my parents to my unruly individuality is to legally emancipate me on my seventeenth birthday. Autodidact, I become a juggler and a tightrope walker.
By the time I turn eighteen, I've been expelled from five schools for practicing the art of the pickpocket on my teachers and the art of card manipulation under my desk. I refuse to take the basic exam to prove I can read, write, and count, and thereby jeopardize my chances of landing a job picking up garbage or operating a cash register. Instead, I leave home and become a wandering troubadour, a street-juggler without a permit who is arrested constantly.. .all over the world.
No one wishes to hire me, practitioner of an absurd arrogance; for a while I make sure it stays that way. It becomes essential to write, play chess, learn Russian and bullfighting, discover architecture and engineering, invent hiding places, erect tree houses, train at lock-picking -- to indulge my gourmandise for knowledge while honing my perfectionism.
This course of events conduces me to imagine rigging a wire in secret somewhere and performing on such an imposed stage, out of reach, in total disregard of the powers that be.
The adventure of the World Trade Center begins with the first appearance of such thoughts, in a dentist's waiting room in Paris. I am barely eighteen years old.
I am barely eighteen years old, free, rebellious, and untrusting. It's winter in Paris, 1968.
Pain from multiple cavities forces me to enter a dentist's waiting room. The air is stale, the ceiling low, the wallpaper hideous. A couple of naked forty-watt bulbs reveal half a dozen senior citizens, who greet my entrance with loathing and suspicion.
I grab a stack of outdated newspapers and flip the pages as noisily as possible. Suddenly, there is silence: I am staring at an illustration and reading over and over a short article about a fantastic building whose twin towers, 110 stories tall, will rise over New York City in a few years and "tickle the clouds."
Over the photograph of the architect's model, in a display of classic French chauvinism, an outline of the Eiffel Tower has been superimposed at the same scale, for comparison. On the side, the pitiful Tour Maine Montparnasse, unknown to the world yet Parisians' latest pride, stands less than half the size of the American project. With typical French egocentricity, a large heading proclaims, 100 METERS MORE THAN THE EIFFEL TOWER, while a subheading informs us erroneously, IT'S THE "TRADE WORLD CENTER" OF NEW YORK.
Although I have been practicing only a few months, I have already announced my intention to become high wire artist supreme, and wire walking has already become my obsessive, nearly fanatical new passion. So it is as a reflex that I take the pencil from behind my ear to trace a line between the two rooftops -- a wire, but no wirewalker.
I want this article. I need this article.
It is almost a crime in my country to deprive a professional antechamber of useless reading material, and almost certainly another to tear out a page.
I begin to stare with growing intensity at the cheap reproduction of Les Nymphéas hanging askew above the grandfather clock, as if a huge insect were strolling across the canvas. Soon, necks twisted, everyone joins me in staring at the painting. I let go of a giant "Aa-choo!" that gives me cover as I tear the page and shove it under my jacket, then hurriedly disappear.
The heist takes less than a second. It takes me a week to find another dentist, but the pain I suffer is nothing compared to the dream freshly acquired.
If this were a scene from my film, I would have the camera follow the clipping back to the young thief's studio, show the document being pulled out from under his jacket -- tight frame -- and being filed inside a large red box dragged from under his bed. A close-up would reveal the box's label in boldface Garamond: PROJECTS.
These files are not business ventures, but projects that ripen in the clouds. The secret desires of children who spend afternoons in treetops. Dreams.
And yet I will forget the clipping, for much of the next four years...
TO REACH THE CLOUDS
During the next few years, unbeknownst to me and thousands of miles away, something amazing, something unheard of, something colossal is happening.
First an architect had a vision. A preliminary model, eight feet high, was constructed; another dozen, at different scales, would follow. Little sketches gave way to drawings of great detail and dimension, thousands of them. In downtown Manhattan, thirteen city blocks would have to be cleared. Ground was broken.
Hundreds of men, trusting only those childish cardboard-and-glue assemblies, guided only by those pitiful sheets of flammable paper marked with thin blue lines, hundreds of men are leading thousands of men, men with tools, men with machines, into stacking steel, concrete, aluminum, and glass in perfect balance and in total disregard of the commandment, "Thou shall not try to reach the clouds."
The ants are building a skyscraper -- skyscraper with two arms, pointing at the gods.
The rest is noise, lots of noise. The cranes are slewing, luffing, and lifting 192,000 tons of steel. Each I-beam, each load-bearing column tree, each truss is numbered by hand before being slung and sent into the sky. And someone always knows precisely how and when to connect the pieces.
This goes on for three years.
And the twin towers rise.
Copyright © 2002 Philippe Petit