Two daring acts of seeing in and around the wilds of New York City.
I will walk from civilization to the unknown.
—Philippe Petit, Man on Wire
There’s a shoreline here in New York that I visit often during the summer. I would call it a beach, but it doesn’t have the lifeguards, radios, and lotion-sweetened air that I associate with that term. The shoreline is part of the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, a 1,363-acre belt of land protected by the National Park Service. There are no cars there, no manmade structures, and the nearest services are at Watch Hill, a Fire Island hamlet that has as far as I can tell only one concession stand, one bar, one restaurant, a general store, a visitor center, and a ranger station. Usually, I go to Otis Pike for just the day with a homemade lunch and a half bottle of champagne in tow. Once each summer, I plan a longer trip and camp overnight—alone save for deer, rabbits, birds, and swarms of mosquitoes—amid the hillocks and valleys formed by Otis Pike’s high dunes.
The Otis Pike Wilderness is only sixty miles from New York City. Still, it takes a while to get there: the train ride to Patchogue on Long Island’s South Shore lasts a good two hours, delay and transfer at Jamaica Station in Queens included. (Traveling by car would save little if any time given weekend beach traffic and its multitudes heading farther east toward the Hamptons.) Then there’s the ferry ride from Patchogue across the Great South Bay to Watch Hill—another forty-five minutes. And then there’s the walk from Watch Hill as far along the shoreline as my legs will take me.
I walk past the small groups of people—families, mostly—that surround the lifeguard perched on his chair, past the volleyball players, past tight clusters of brown, glistening bodies parked close to the shore. As I trudge east along the water’s edge, weighed down by food, beverages, and sometimes, camping gear, the clusters dissipate. After half a mile, I might come across other visitors, alone and in pairs, every couple hundred yards. Some of the few people I see are nude and this is unremarkable. There are not enough people and not enough nude people for Otis Pike to be a nude beach, much less an exhibitionist’s destination. An ogler could only be disappointed.
I keep walking—a mile and a half, maybe two—along the shore. I walk until I see no one.
Two summers ago, I made the mistake of bringing a boogie board along on an overnight visit to Otis Pike. Fire Island waters don’t usually invite play: the island stretches northeast into the Atlantic—just as Long Island does—and though its waters lure the occasional surfer, waves tend not to reach the height and fetch there that they do along most of the East Coast. When the water is rough, the waves crash too erratically and too close to the shore for boogie boards to be of any use. (And the water can really get rough. I can’t help but think of a visit to Fire Island several years ago. I said hello to a surfer as I walked past him; emergency workers pulled his body from the water an hour or two later.) When the water is calm, you might as well just swim or float supine. During this particular visit, the water was, as a little research might have indicated, calm.
So between a useless board and too many provisions, I was really saddled. I walked a good mile out, but didn’t have it in me to walk far enough to be completely alone. I stopped in front of a dune that looked familiar. Of course, dunes change form over time; this one, however, had retained its shape enough for me to recognize it, as well as the lightly trodden crossovers that lead to the corridor between Otis Pike’s foredunes, which are visible from the ocean shoreline, and its backdunes, which are closer to the Great South Bay. I had set up camp near this same stretch before and remembered that there were several flat nooks on the other side of the familiar dune, places where I could pitch my tent and sleep comfortably. I looked to my right and saw two figures farther east along the shore. They were on their feet and moving about and far enough away—maybe four hundred yards—for me to be unable to discern their sex, their state of dress, or anything else about them. This was a good, lonely enough spot. I put my things down in the sand, slipped on a pair of light pants and a windbreaker, grabbed my tent and pack, and scampered over the dune and into the corridor.
Mosquitoes hovered near my head as I scanned the corridor’s undulating terrain. I walked around a bit and quickly spotted a small plateau; it was adjacent to a slope on which imperfect bleached-white shells had been arranged in the shape of a heart. An image I would have found irritating in any other context was, on this sandy slope, welcome. As often as I go out of my way to be alone (partly, I think, to test my mettle), I can’t say I always enjoy being by myself. Just as a lover or friend might annoy or delight depending on the day, I find the pleasure of my own company to be a little hit-or-miss. Here in the sand was some encouragement. Someone—probably two people—had recently been in this same spot and marked the place with a sign of their good time. If I’d been in the wrong mood, I might have understood the message differently. It might have seemed to taunt me. I might have longed for a man’s company here in what was undoubtedly a romantic place. As it was, I read the heart as a platonic rather than romantic symbol and was grateful for the suggestion that I would also have a good time, not despite being alone, but because of it.
I’m no old woman, but I have found as I sprint through my thirties that more and more, I covet men—not necessarily pretty ones (though I like those too), but men of any reasonable age who have something of the stripling about them.
It took me just a few minutes to pitch the tent and scamper back over the foredune. I glanced to my left as I walked toward the cooler and large tote I’d left by the shore and saw that the two figures I’d spotted minutes earlier were still there, standing motionless now rather than moving about. I spread out a threadbare sheet, put on a bikini, and lay down on my stomach, feet pointing toward the figures in the distance.
It wasn’t until I’d made myself comfortable—brushed sand out from under me, drank some water, opened my book and flipped to the right page, thought for a moment about whether I should open the champagne right then or wait a little while—that I looked up and saw two men sitting on a piece of driftwood at the base of the dune I’d just crossed. They were only fifty or so yards away. I saw that they were dark-haired and well-built. I put them in their twenties.
I couldn’t imagine where they’d come from. I’d looked back toward Watch Hill several times as I walked into Otis Pike; by the time I was half a mile out, there hadn’t been a soul trailing behind me. It couldn’t have taken much longer than five minutes for me to go behind the dune and pitch the tent—there had definitely not been enough time for anyone to catch up with me. Both men were, as far as I could tell, naked. They couldn’t have been hiding in the mosquito-ridden corridor when I arrived: they’d have suffered a serious bloodletting. They’d walked in from somewhere. (I wondered, for a moment, if they’d wandered over unseen from the gay beaches at Cherry Grove or The Pines, several miles west.) They seemed, though, to have appeared out of nowhere. So I was startled, mystified—but not displeased.
Edward Hoagland writes in “Sex and the River Styx,” his treatise on being a dirty old man, “We don’t speak of ‘dirty old women.’ They don’t covet pretty men at their bedside, or cross the River Styx joking of blonds; they have a different concept of dignity.” I remember thinking when I first read Hoagland’s essay that if dirty old women aren’t much a subject of conversation, it is only because most old women aren’t forthcoming with their material. But surely the material is there. Hoagland’s sense that old women don’t covet as old men do struck me as callow; it’s the one moment in the essay when Hoagland seems as unknowing and as charmingly corruptible as the women he portrays. Come here, dear, and let me enjoy your naïveté…
I’m no old woman, but I have found as I sprint through my thirties that more and more, I covet men—not necessarily pretty ones (though I like those too), but men of any reasonable age who have something of the stripling about them. My deep appreciation for the nape of a man’s neck—a spot I’ve always found to retain an alluringly youthful, wholesome quality, a vulnerability, no matter the man’s age—has only grown over the past twenty years. If Hoagland means to suggest that women do not objectify men as men do women, I believe he is mistaken. I, for one, like to look, to be the beholder. I like the power—the dignity, even—of that role. I have a difficult time imagining I’ll ever change much in this regard.
And so here I was at Otis Pike: beholding.
Last summer, I saw Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit’s 1974 high wire walk between the Twin Towers. As the film, which chronicles Petit’s two major feats (Petit managed not only to walk the wire, but also to execute an elaborate plan to do so) portrays, the high wire artist hitched a 450-pound, 7/8-inch-diameter steel cable between the towers and traversed the cable for forty-five minutes. Several of the scenes that deal directly with the walk—as opposed to those that deal with the shenanigans that led to the walk—focus on reactions from the onlookers and collaborators who saw Petit meet the towers’ challenge. Petit’s then girlfriend Annie Allix recalls shouting “Look! Look!” as she regarded from the street below a scene that must have seemed in person even more sublime than it appears on film. Jean-Louis Blondeau, a collaborator (and former friend of Petit), tears up, as Allix does, as he recalls the intricacies of the high wire plan and the depth of what Petit did. Even though he and his friend are now estranged, Blondeau, who to this day disputes many details of Petit’s story, is still moved by the vision of his one-time friend on a wire a quarter mile above the earth.
The film also includes footage of Sergeant Charles Daniels, a Port Authority police officer who regarded Petit from a close distance on the roof of one of the towers and who dazedly remarked during a news conference held after Petit’s capture,
His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire
again. Unbelievably, really. To the point that we—just everybody—was
spellbound in the watching of it. And I personally figured I was watching
something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought
it was once in a lifetime.
It is clear from Daniels’s account that even if Petit was arrested that day, awe had trumped the law, for at least a little while. Petit must have occupied two positions in Daniels’s field of vision: Petit had been physically just out of the sergeant’s reach, but metaphysically a million miles away.
I suppose that to acknowledge a gaze is to acknowledge the need for permission—or at least to be made aware of other desires and expectations.
Petit went far out of his way to escape civilization and made for himself a perfect space—a space between the towers, between land and sky, between life and death. As intrigued as I am by descriptions of the view of Petit from both the safety of the towers’ roofs and the street below, I am even more intrigued by Petit’s description of the view from the void—from a space beyond the law.
My friend Jennie Yabroff interviewed Petit for Newsweek just before Man on Wire was released. The article, which appeared in July 2008, opens with a description of what Petit saw just before stepping onto the cable:
The view was magnificent. To the south, the Verrazano Bridge and the Statue of
Liberty. To the east, the approaching sunrise, the sky turning from deep to
pale blue at the horizon. At a quarter mile up, perched on a precipice, he was high
enough to see the curvature of the Earth, but he could still hear the distant
murmur of the city below. He knew the police were on their way—after all, what
he was doing was illegal—but he couldn’t help taking a few precious
seconds to look around.
During his talk with Jennie, Petit revealed that he saw other things, too, as he walked, stood, sat, bounced, and lay down on the line. He said he looked up and saw a sea bird and had a silent dialogue with it. The bird has appeared before in Petit’s recollections of that day. In an interview aired on PBS as part of The Center of the World, Ric Burns’s documentary about New York, Petit recalls,
At some point in one of the crossings, I lay down on the wire and looked at the sky,
and I saw a bird above me. And again, because… my senses were [decoupled],
I could see that bird pretty high up, and I saw the eyes were red. And I
thought of the myth of Prometheus there. But the bird was circling and looking at
me as if I was invading his territory, as if I was trespassing, which I was. So at some
point I thought the gods—the god of the wind, the gods of the towers, the
god of the wire—all those invisible forces that we persist in thinking […]
don’t exist, but actually that rule our lives—might become impatient,
might become annoyed by my persistent vagabondage there. So my intuition
told me it was time for me to close the curtain on this very intimate
A poet, Petit would later tell Jennie, should not ask for permission. In interviews, in his recently re-released book Man on Wire (previous editions were titled To Reach the Clouds), and in the film Man on Wire, Petit makes almost as much of the illegality of his performance as he does of the performance itself. Authority, for him, is far more dangerous than any high-wire walk. Yet without the specter of authority—the night watchmen who didn’t see Petit and his collaborators sneaking equipment to the towers’ roofs; the policemen who watched in awe as Petit lingered between the two buildings and who manhandled him during his arrest; the simple illegality of the act—it’s hard to imagine Petit being driven to do the walk or reveling in it as he does. He magnificently escaped one form of authority only to find himself subject to a new authority: that set by the bird that caught his eye and the gods that caught his mind’s eye.
It’s better not to know you’re being watched. A few years ago, I spotted a good friend standing on the downtown local subway platform at West 86th Street as I sped past the station on an express train. Regarding him in this unimposing way—seeing him without being seen by him—made me so happy that I cried. I felt as though I’d been given a sort of gift. I felt, too, that I’d given him a gift he’d never know I gave him: he hadn’t had to suffer my limiting gaze.
I suppose that to acknowledge a gaze is to acknowledge the need for permission—or at least to be made aware of other desires and expectations. Petit’s reverie ended when he became aware of the need for permission, when he became aware of being watched.
I’m not much of a cigarette smoker—I don’t think I’ve ever even craved a cigarette, not really. But I’ll have one if I’ve eaten too much or if the atmosphere feels right, and sometimes I bring a few to Otis Pike. There could not have been a better time and place for me to have a cigarette than there on the sand as I looked at the two men before me. Two men I’d nearly convinced myself were ghosts, two men far enough away for their presence to be unthreatening and close enough for their image to be enjoyed. I lit a cigarette and began, distractedly, to read. One of the men stood up, walked to the water, and let it wash over his feet. On his way back toward the driftwood where his companion remained seated, he turned and called to me. “Do you have a cigarette?” he asked. I nodded. He stood there, looking uncertain. “You’ll have to come over and get it,” I called.
He walked over, in no apparent rush, and stopped a good four feet—a respectful distance—from where I lay. I reached out to give him the cigarette and a lighter; he seemed almost to teeter as he took them from my hand. Shyness restricted his movement. “Would it be all right,” he asked, “if my cousin and I sat with you for a while?” Before I answered, I turned around to look at the figures in the distance—for permission or to see, if I could, what occupied their gaze.
Suzanne Menghraj teaches writing in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program. “Twin Peeks” is the first in a six-part series of essays Suzanne will write for Guernica with support from a Liberal Studies faculty grant. “Roll Deep,” her interview with the writer Luc Sante, appeared on Guernica in August 2008.