#48: The Tightrope Walker of Union Park

August 17th, 2012

Mike rides his bike to Union Park three nights a week in the summer. He sets his iPhone to play that special brand of indie country, sets his helmet in the grass, lights an incense joss stick and spends the next few hours walking the tightrope between two trees.

He doesn’t so much creep across the rope as pounce repeatedly. With his arms spread wide, he stands with one foot in the air two feet in the air until the moment fits. Then he sets the other foot down dramatically but with a swift grace, like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits. He stands for a second on two, then when that moment’s right, lifts the other foot up to repeat the pounce.

Near streets thick with the offices for the unranked and nonfiled of the Teamsters, UE, Laborers, Fraternal Order of Police and more, Mike walks back and forth two feet in the air three nights a week. He silently chides himself when he slips, but steps back up each time.

The day I saw him, he was wearing basketball shorts and a raglan baseball shirt advertising indie-folk darlings the Avett Brothers. Between the shorts and a pair of those athletic shoes with the individual toes, his legs swirled with tattoos. They reminded me of seashells mixed with storms.

He slipped, landing one foot on the ground and giving a few hops. He noticed me and asked if I wanted to try. I did.

“Stand so it’s running down your heel and right here,” he said, touching near my foot after I hoisted myself up with the tree branches. “So you’re standing with your weight on your big toe or second toe.”

I gave a few ginger stabs at letting go of the branches to walk forward.

“Just focus on the end and focus on your breathing,” he said.

He had me move to the center of the rope, saying it’s more “forgiving” for a newbie. One foot on the rope, one on the ground, body in a half crunch to hop up cat-like when the moment is right.

When I put my foot up, the rope started wobbling terrifically. I hadn’t expected that. Side to side, tensed. About six inches in either direction as my leg pushed down on the taut wire. I had to hold my leg with my hands to stop its back-and-forth flip.

I noticed the joss stick and that the tightrope’s brand name starts with “Yoga” in that English font someone somewhere thinks looks like Sanskrit. I asked if the tightrope walking is “like a meditation thing or something.”

“It is meditation,” he said. “It’s all about calming yourself and that’s all about controlling your breathing. That’s about controlling how your mind works.”

Breathe deep, he said. Breathe in and out. Just look at the end of the rope and focus on breathing. I did. The line stopped wobbling.

“You’re getting it,” he said after my next few tries. “If you do that for 45 minutes, you’ll be up there.”

I got the sense neither of us wanted me still to be there in 45 minutes.

As I picked up my bike to go, I peeked back at Mike, the happy hippie aerialist of Union Park.

He was already back on the rope, standing arms spread with one foot in the air, at peace with it all.

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You are currently reading #48: The Tightrope Walker of Union Park by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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