One Wheel, Two Towers



Neighborhood: Lower East Side, World Trade Center


They say everything happens for a reason.

Construction began on the World Trade Center in August of 1968. Some months before that when I was in the second grade, our teacher, Miss Spellman, handed out a Weekly Reader, an eight-page magazine with short articles designed to encourage the habit of reading in elementary school students. The only story from the publication I can recall was about the impending start of the towers. It was exciting news to my class. The article said they would be the tallest buildings in the world and not two miles from where we sat in P.S. 63 on the Lower East Side. Most incredible to my seven-year-old mind, it described how the towers would intentionally sway up to 11 inches in all directions to accommodate strong winds at that height. How, I wondered, could that to and fro not eventually bring those buildings down.

For me there was yet an additional secret concern. A fear my parents knew of, but that I would never confess to my friends. A common enough anxiety facing little boys who would be men. My mother would sometimes take me on trips to Macys. Preferring the bus to the subway, we would invariably walk west from 1st Ave along 34th St passing the Empire State Building. Each time I willed myself not to look up. I usually failed, and the dizzying height immediately sent me into a panic. I could not imagine the giant structures that the article had described being constructed so close to my downtown home.

A few years later when my friends and I were 10 and 11, we sometimes on weekends rode our bikes down to the financial district in the vicinity of the towers still under construction. Some businesses had taken up residence in them by then, but they had not yet officially opened. I still mustered all my powers not to look up.

A nearby office building had some bank art, those random shapes in a variety of sizes and bright colors. Ugly but not drab, they are the financial world’s way of showing it cares about the aesthetics of the urban landscape without actually caring. They did make for challenging obstacle course riding. There was also an array of decorative, similarly colorful canopies that made for excellent climbing, before the building’s weekend security guard came out to chase us away. Off we would ride elsewhere into the otherwise deserted downtown.

Deserted perhaps, but not a ghost town. There was always a stray banker or two in short sleeves stopping by the office to tend to some affairs or affair. A beat cop, uncomfortably overdressed, patrolling the neighborhood for young mischief makers. An errant homeless man wandering in search of a break. Signs of life in a slumbering neighborhood.

On August 7, 1974 Philippe Petit executed his historic tightrope walk between the North and South towers of the WTC. There is little I can say about this feat that hasn’t already been said. What I can say is that I have no contemporaneous memory of the event. Given the influence Petit would later have on me, this is surprising.

I have often wondered how this could have been, but it was only in the writing of this piece that it finally occurred to me. My family was obsessed with the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon would announce his resignation the following day, August 8th. Phillipe Petit was small potatoes compared with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Rebozo, Dean, Mitchell, Cox, Ervin, Sirica, Holzman, Liddy and Hunt, Woods, Richardson, Ruckelshaus, the Saturday Night Massacre, CREEP, the Burglars, the Plumbers, the Tapes, the Slush Fund, the Hearings, impeachment, and the cover up. Ford would soon utter the words, “our long national nightmare is over.” The walk between the towers went unnoticed.

Later in the ‘70s, Petit would take up residence to perform on weekends near the Garibaldi Statue in Washington Square Park. Unaware of his earlier extraordinary marvel, it was there that he captured my attention with his remarkable talent. Dressed in black, his act used only three balls, a unicycle, a slack rope, and a hat. No single trick he did was beyond the abilities of a dedicated, even amateur, practitioner of the circus arts. He juggled, rode, and balanced, sometimes doing two of those things at once in a hypnotic ballet. He never spoke, he never faltered. His display, his presence, and his act were simple, elegant, and flawless.

Petit belonged to a cadre of well known, in their time, Washington Square Park street performers. Along with comedian Charlie Barnett, fire-eater Tony Vera, and others, they were masters of a crowd, brazen and original at a time when unregulated creativity spoke louder than the corporatized management of public spaces. Petit mesmerized me. Sometime before he began, I would climb the tree under which he performed for a bird’s eye view. When he passed his hat around, I would crumple up a dollar bill and throw it down. He caught it without fail. I sometimes wonder if he remembers me.

I soon began to teach myself to juggle. I started with walnuts, which were too light, but unlikely to break anything when they flew off. Throwing them up in what looked like a juggling pattern, I eventually mastered the three-ball cascade. I cracked a few nuts in the process. I then headed over to Paragon’s Sporting Goods, a retail survivor still today on 18th St, off of Union Square, to buy some lacrosse balls like those that Petit used.

My skills gradually improved. After the cascade came other patterns: the shower, one-up-two-up, under the leg, behind the back. Occasionally, I even took my balls to Washington Square Park and practiced there. I felt thoroughly inadequate, but the act of flailing there allowed me to indulge my fantasy of one day becoming one of the select few who could draw in an audience, offering each pair of eyes refuge from the quotidian.

In the summer of ’77 I bought a unicycle. It was a 24” Schwinn purchased at that popular bike shop on 14th Street with the giant mural on the side of the building. The workhorse of unicycles, the Schwinn is solid, heavy, and nearly indestructible, no matter how many falls and drops it is subjected to. Mine, to be sure, would endure many. Of course, bike shops did not stock unicycles, so I would have to wait two weeks for mine to arrive. It cost $75.

Unicycling has gained some popularity in recent decades, but at that time you were on your own if you wanted to give it a shot. I took my place next to the street sign on the southeast corner of 3rd St and 1st Ave. Without guidance, the only way to learn is to sit up, push off, and try to pedal. Over and over I fell immediately, endlessly amusing and bemusing passersby. With no one to tell me to keep my weight centered on the seat and arms outstretched shoulder-high like a tightrope walker’s pole, I flailed wildly. But the wheel at last made one revolution. Then two. Then went five feet. Then ten. Halfway down the block passed the First Houses, and then at last, after two weeks, one time around the block.

As difficult as it is, riding forward on a unicycle is just the first step in its mastery. Getting on unassisted, aka free mounting, without holding on to anything or anyone, rocking back and forth in place, or idling, useful at red lights, and riding backwards, are skills that must be learned for one to be a bona fide rider. For all the time I spent watching Petit this should have been clear. But I was 16. It would be years later, after learning patience and having online resources, that I would acquire these skills.

Then and there Washington Square Park would not wait. Then and there I was well on my way to never achieving the dream of being a performer. But then and there I rejoiced with the one skill I had and entered the park on only one wheel.

The following summer before heading off to college, I found a job. Not so much found as was given by a friend’s father. It was at the Associated Press in Rockefeller Center. I worked in the photo department, delivering pictures to the New York Times and Daily News on the midnight shift. The perfect time of day, I often did my rounds on unicycle.

Grease and Debbie Does Dallas graced the marquees that summer. I went largely unnoticed in the Times Square of 1978, because the hookers, pimps, and dealers had other business to tend to. Few tourists braved the city at that hour. The odd witty night owl would occasionally shout out one of the refrains familiar to every unicyclist. “Hey, you lost a wheel!” “Buddy, where’s your other wheel? or “Yo, faggot!” It was a thrill to be more than just an observer and actually a part of the grit and spectacle of the era.

I never did ride my unicycle around the World Trade Center. The last time I was there was in the early ‘90s. My wife, best friend, and I took the subway early on a weekend morning. It was as deserted as those bike rides on weekends many years ago. Coming up from the underground, we approached a bank of phones from a tunnel. They had no doors, just waist-high glass separators between them, and there in one was a man squatting and reading the newspaper.  The man was defecating as if he was sitting in his own bathroom, the one he likely didn’t have in the home he also lacked. He stood his ground or simply paid us no mind because, in fact, on that early morning, we were the interlopers.

A decade later, on a clear, brilliant September morning, on my drive to work in suburban New Jersey, I listened to Bernie Goetz on WBAI discussing his run for mayor. He was promoting his plan to offer tax breaks to retail business that dispensed with those ubiquitous storefront metal gates. The Subway Shooter wanted a friendlier city with a better quality of life.

Within a few hours 2,606 people, my uncle Abe included, were killed when two planes crashed into and brought down the World Trade Center towers. Some 30 plus years after my classmates and I learned of them, lived among them, and came to assume that every glance downtown would include them, they were gone. How many of New York’s 8 million stories, like mine, had been inspired by them?

They say everything happens for a reason, but it seems random to me.

photo: Raphael Lasar on his unicycle outside The Associated Press Building

Raphael Lasar is a librarian at Bell Labs in New Jersey. He still dreams of running away to join the circus.

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§ One Response to “One Wheel, Two Towers”

  • Danny Polowetzky says:

    The World Trade Center towers were not popular when they went up but became appreciated and missed when they were gone.
    It is strange having wandered around a site that was taken for granted as a permanent part of the city background , only to vanish.

    That was a great story.

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