Amidst a heavy and astonished silence, New York City pedestrians strain upward, looking above themselves at someone standing at the edge of one of the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan. Confused and apprehensive, the people on the ground or in cabs or on the Staten Island Ferry halt their daily routines to peer up at the small figure, thinking that he is perhaps a window washer or a construction worker or, just maybe, a suicidal jumper.
The silence that settles over the city’s morning chaos immediately builds tension in the story and incites a rare moment of connection between people living disparate lives. Strangers suddenly find themselves concentrating on the same strange sight, and this brings them together, even if only for a moment.
Because the man atop the tower cannot be viewed from all angles—with various buildings obstructing the line of sight—pedestrians search for vantage points from which they might be able to watch this strange display. They wait with baited breath—not wanting to stay, not wanting to leave—as they try to make sense of the long black line in front of the man, which stretches from one tower to the other.
In this moment, uncertainty creeps through the crowd. As busy New Yorkers, they’re unused to standing still in large numbers, but they don’t want to miss whatever is clearly about to happen. As such, they doubt their decision to stay while also doubting their impulse to leave.
A pigeon flies from the top floor of a nearby building. The watchers track its diving motion as it swoops near the man standing at the tower’s edge. It is at this point that they notice other people watching from the windows of nearby office buildings.
Yet again, the onlookers find themselves paying more attention than normal to the people and things surrounding them. McCann’s narration swoops around the city like the pigeon, touching on many disparate moments and people.
A passing weather helicopter hangs a clumsy turn, its rotor blades bleating a loud, heavy rhythm. Its window opens and a camera appears. Down below, police officers turn their sirens on. This excites the watching crowd, which starts to chatter about the many possibilities: they speculate that the man is a burglar trying to escape, that there are hostages inside the towers, that he is a terrorist, that he is advertising a product, that he’s protesting something.
With the introduction of the police, readers—along with the pedestrians—are encouraged to consider the precise nature of what’s going on, registering for perhaps the first time that the man on the tower must have somehow broken the law in order to gain access to the roof. The mention of terrorism in connection to the World Trade Center is a subtle nod to the tragedy that would befall the buildings decades later.
Rumors spread and the commotion picks up. Police officers run into the World Trade Center to start making their way to the top floor. Fire trucks arrive; so, too, does a flatbed truck with a cherry picker. The excitement and energy is punctuated as a man opens his office window, leans out, and yells, “Do it, asshole!” After a moment, the crowd erupts in laughter.
The callous attitude so often embodied by New Yorkers is evident in what this man yells. But rather than driving people apart—like such behavior often does in the city—it serves as a unifying act, the humor ultimately binding the crowd together amidst mounting tension.
Some of the onlookers agree: they want the man to get it over with already, to just go ahead and jump. Others disagree. Regardless, the crowd is charged with energy and anxiety as the man bends over as if to examine his shoes, and then suddenly his body seems to sail into the air. The crowd lets out an exasperated moan, and even the people who wanted him to jump are utterly shocked. Then, with relief, someone shouts that it is not the man’s body but rather a shirt that is falling and twisting its way through the air.
The shirt that flies through the air seems to challenge the crowd, asking them if they truly want the man to jump. The fact that even those making jokes are ultimately silenced by regret and fear insinuates that their callousness is not genuine, but rather an affectation put on in order to survive an unforgiving city life.
A new silence settles over the audience as now the man on the tower straightens to a standing position again, this time holding a long a very long and thin bar in his hands. He fixes his eyes on the opposite tower, tests the weight of the long bar, and places a foot on the wire strung between the two buildings. Below, the watchers collectively hold their breath in silence. The man walks onto the wire.
The crowd’s silence once again marks the extraordinary connection they’ve forged despite the city’s hectic patterns that fight to keep them apart. This moment—based on Phillipe Petit’s real-life tightrope walk between the Twin Towers—will serve as an ephemeral axis around which the rest of the book will rotate.