Monday, February 23, 2009

Meeting Philippe Petite, 1976

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from Internet

When Man on Wire won the Academy Awards for Best Documentary on February 22, 2009, I immediately had to smile, having interacted with the film’s subject Philippe Petite. It was during the summer of 1976, known then simply as “The Bicentennial.”

I watched the Twin Towers go up. Being a new teen, its rise seemed to go on and on. One building went faster than the other, but with the impatience of youth, time seemed to be passing very slowly as it kept going up and up and up. Finally, the huge antenna was placed.

In 1974, Petite became infamous when he and others illegally set up cables, and he walked across the quarter mile high gap between the buildings a number of times.

Even in the early days before 24/7 360 surveillance in the name of freedom, it seems hard to believe that this group could physically set it all up without the knowledge of, if not the city government, than at least the building management (e.g., he had fake ID), who probably saw it as positive PR when there had been so much negative press about what many considered an eyesore to the skyline. Why else would they leave Petite’s autograph on the building’s corner, clearly visible from the roof viewing walkway, right until the attacks 28 years later?

In 1976, I found myself unemployed from the Brooklyn movie theater I had started working the same year as Petite’s Tower walk. My pal Dennis Concepcion, whom I had recently met at Queens College (which I had recently started attending) said he would put in a good word at his place of employment, part of the Baskin-Robbins franchise. This particular one was on Seventh Avenue South, between Bleecker Street and Christopher Street, nearly directly across from Sheridan Square.

It truly was a fun place to work, especially in that hot summer. Our hands would freeze while bodies stayed hot standing next to the refrigerator motors. Unlike most franchises that adhere to strict rules about dress, size of portions, and inventory, this particular franchise was run very loose. If people were nasty to us, we would give them less of a scoop that those we liked, especially it if was Rocky Road, which was particularly brutal to scoop.

For example, there was this guy who came in regularly who looked very Madison Avenue with his suit, glasses, and attach√© case. A really friendly person, he mentioned that the next day was his 10th anniversary. I told him if they both came in the next day, I would gladly give them a gratis anniversary cone. He came in the next days with another man who was dressed the exact same way: even their hairstyles and ties matched. He introduced the man as his 10-year partner. “Oh!” I said, and gave them both their promised cones. As I smiled and handed it over, he said, “You seem surprised. Does this bother you?” I truthfully answered, yes I was surprised (considering how “straight” he looked), but no I was not in the least bothered. We chatted a while, and he continued to come back every day (and it was always good to see him).

I’m not quite sure why I was surprised, because we were diagonally across the square from the Stonewall, and directly across from another gay bar, where patrons who struck out there tried to hit on us. While I always took it as a complement, truthfully, I was never interested. I only met one person who got angry at my turning him down, who went into a rant about “Why would a straight person be working here!” After giving him a slightly smaller portion, I asked him to leave and not come back ever again.

One of the outcomes of working there was that my subway stop was directly under the Waverly Theater, and I had the opportunity to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show very early in its Midnight run, when it was just me and a few gay couples, most of them making out. Also, famous people would sometimes come into the parlor, and I served the likes of Barbara Walters, Mark Leonard (who played Spock’s father), and Paul Benedict (the British neighbor of The Jeffersons). One time when I wasn’t there, Divine came by and Dennis gave me his autograph (which I still have).

One night I was working and saw a flash of fire in front of the store through the window. It was a hot night, but considering we served cold ice cream, the store was not really crowded. Between the bits of bright flame that shot out every minute or so, I could see there was a swarm growing. Making sure we were covered, I went outside to check out what was going on. At the center of the growing crowd was a man dressed totally in black and a top hat who was juggling, breathing fire, and doing magic tricks for the group. He did it mime style, though not in whiteface. After watching for a while, I realized it was Philippe Petite, and it also seemed I was the only one who recognized him. His tightrope walking stunt was famous, and even his name was somewhat known, but people either did not recognize his visage, or just never put the two together.

Over the next few nights he appeared a few times, as it seemed he picked the corner in front of the store as “his spot.” Honestly, I didn’t see any problem with it because he drew people into the store when he finished, especially with causing more heat with the flames. There were two teen girls who also worked there, whose father owned the liquor store next door (it is still there). They thought highly of themselves and could have stepped out of one of those teens-with-attitude films. I refused to take crap from them (for example, I would not let them take out the live Ramones tape I had made at CBGB the night before that I was playing on the store tapedeck – this was before their first record – and replace with the Bay City Rollers), so when these nasty bimbettes wanted to chase him away, I would not let them. Heck, it was Philippe Petite, fer cryin’ out loud.

On one particularly hot night (the whole summer was a steambath), I went to watch him, and could see the sweat pouring down from under his top hat. Breathing fire surely must have been hard on him. So, I went into the store, filled a cup with some fruit punch (I figured it would be easier on this throat than something carbonated), and went back outside. Even in the dark, I could see that he was hotter-than-hot. Without thinking, I put my hand out with the drink, right through the crowd. Instantly, I realized that I would be interrupting his show, and it could be considered rude, so I flushed. Brilliantly, he managed to make my giving him this drink into part of the act, and he drank it down. Then I slunk back into the store.

The next day, he showed up at the counter. In his very thick French accent, he thanked me for the drink, and said in all the years that he had been doing magic and breathing fire, I was the first person ever to offer him a drink. I told him that while I couldn’t usually get out to see him, especially if there were customers, he was always welcome to come in after and I’d give him a free drink. He did so occasionally throughout the summer. He was a cultural (and counter-cultural) hero, after all!

The job only lasted into the fall. The owner of the store lost it to his ex-wife in a divorce deal. She fired everyone and started it from scratch – and strict to the letter. It was the wrong idea for that neighborhood at that time period, so it closed in less than a year. Now it’s a restaurant. Luckily, I went back to working in a different theater in Brooklyn. As for Dennis, we are still friends, but I never saw Petite in person again.

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