I have around my house two photographs in frames that have suddenly been rendered ancient. One, in my dining room, is a panorama of the Manhattan skyline in 1985, when I lived in Hoboken, N.J. Hoboken has several vantage points that offer what is certainly one of the most spectacular urban views in the world. The panorama consists of four photographs, laid end to end, that I took from River Road, a thoroughfare that runs alongside the Hudson River and that has since been renamed Sinatra Drive, after Hoboken’s most famous citizen. I took the pictures shortly after dawn on a cool morning in the fall, pausing on my regular morning run to take advantage of what I had become aware, as the season changed and morning after morning dawned clear and crisp, was an exceptional photo op. The sun rises behind the Empire State Building, and its rays reflect off the steel and glass of the World Trade Center. Over TriBeCa is a bright half moon.
The second photograph, in my study, was taken from Liberty Island in New York harbor, from which the Statue of Liberty rises. (I still think of it as Bedloes Island, the name I learned when I moved to New York with my parents in 1953 from Sacramento, Calif., and the name by which the island was known until 1956.) The photograph was made in the late summer of 1989, and shows my daughter, Lily, then 7 years old, wearing light blue pants and a pink T-shirt and white leather sneakers, carrying a back pack bigger than her torso. We had just climbed to the top of the statue, taking the elevator to the top of the base, then walking the 162 steps to the crown. We had felt pretty cocky going up the metal spiral stair, even though the metal exterior wall of the staircase was only up about to my waist. Coming down was another story. That wall seemed very low all of a sudden, and the view down over it into the statue’s innards very scary. We had the clever idea of going down the way we had come up, facing the stairs rather than facing out, and down we backed, moving slowly but without anxiety.
In the second photograph, Lily has her back to the camera, her chin on her skinny arms, as she looks out over a wall on the base of the statue toward the harbor and, beyond it, the Battery. A couple of sailboats make their way across the choppy water, and a Staten Island ferry boat pulls out of its terminal at South Ferry. Rising up behind the terminal, silvery in the shimmering air, as big as all get out, are the towers of the World Trade Center.
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, I looked up a couple of dates and realized that two events that in many ways define the World Trade Center for me took place so long ago that many people sharing the horror of the day were not born, and many others may not remember them well. In 1974, Philippe Petit, a French aerialist, walked a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Petit and an accomplice got themselves locked into the towers at night, one in each building, and went up to the roofs. Using a customized crossbow, they fired a fishing line across the space between the buildings, then strung successively heavier lines until they had rigged a thick wire cable like those used on bridges. In the morning, Petit walked for 45 minutes back and forth between the towers.
In 1977, George Willig, an inventor for a toy company and an experienced rock climber, used metal hand- and foot-holds that he designed specially to fit in the tracks of the window- washing scaffolds on the side of one of the towers, and climbed all the way to the top. I was living at the time at Perry Street and Seventh Avenue, having just quit my job at the New York Daily News and working on my first novel. During a break, I noticed the manager of a clothing store across Seventh Avenue standing outside and looking south through binoculars. I thought nothing of it–I didn’t have the radio on–and figured someone had given him a new pair of Bausch & Lombs. I realized later that he’d been watching Willig, and that I could have too–a suitable excuse not to work.
Petit and Willig were both arrested, but the sentences reflected most people’s view of the seriousness of the crimes. They were sentenced to do public service, giving demonstrations and performances for school children. (Willig was also fined $1.10, a penny a floor.) Most New Yorkers figured they’d made creative use of an otherwise rather dull, too-big public edifice.
Petit went on to become artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and to walk between the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero, among other exploits. Even after he became famous, he would occasionally give free performances in Washington Square Park, walking a slack rope and doing magic tricks. Lily, then three or so, watched him with me once, sitting cross-legged on the asphalt. He came over and took a silver dollar out of her ear. “How did he do that?” I said. “Why did he do that?” she rejoined. I couldn’t answer that.
At P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village, Lily was a classmate of Gypsy Fasula, Petit’s beautiful, pale-skinned, flaxen-haired daughter by a dark-skinned, dark-haired beauty. I saw Petit once or twice, picking Gypsy up after school, but he never walked a tightrope across Hudson Street, which was all I wanted him to do. I heard that Gypsy’s mother complained that Petit wasn’t committed to their relationship, and I wondered what she’d expected from a man whose favorite place to be was a three-inch cable over a void. Gypsy Fasula died at 9 or 10 of meningitis. The last I heard, Petit was going to walk across some canyon in the Southwest. I never heard whether he made it. According to a 1997 issue of Outside magazine, George Willig, who had taken to calling himself the Human Fly, was living in Southern California, remodeling commercial buildings.
Lily, who is 19 now and a sophomore at a college in Connecticut, was in New York the weekend before Sept. 11, bopping around, going to a play, dropping in to a jazz club, feeling the newfound freedom of a young woman who has somehow convinced her parents to let her take a car to school. Friends of her boyfriend go to New York University and live in dorms in a renovated building in the Wall Street area, and that’s where they stayed, right around the corner from the World Trade Center. She was back at school, watching on television in a friend’s dorm room on Tuesday when the first of the two towers collapsed. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said on the phone when I called her. I didn’t either.
And now I have these dated photographs. They’re not quite like photographs of people who have died after they were taken. I have those too, and am glad to have them, glad to have captured a smile, preserved a gesture, commemorated a personality. These photographs are different. They will be difficult to look at for a while, and I will never look at them again in the same way. They memorialize not what I want to remember, but what I will never forget.