The Precipice of Angels by Phil Austin

A Painting by Mr. Diebenkorn


New York City, the first day: 

     Received, a secret but all-too-modest grant from the Institutes des Boulevardistes in Paris, which is in France, a far place away. A mysterious call to what must be the last remaining payphone in this vast city which is oddly in the lobby of my horrible building; a muffled voice, directions and finally a package of currency found in Central Park at the prearranged drop point, the location of which moves daily depending upon the vagaries of a troop of small parrots. Changed into anonymous American bills, the amount is scarce enough to purchase supplies and necessaries for the adventure, but I am embarked, at least.  I am full of joy, I think. I need yet more money in order to afford the journey across the continent to California, also a far place away. First, however, it becomes imperative that I disappear completely. I have left my sad apartment and carefully let it be known among my few friends and my distracted parole officer that I am off to remote Nova Scotia to tend a dying father – a creature whose decaying existence I have carefully manufactured since my last arrest some years ago. For now, I will sleep in the big park, maintain my disguise and cover my tracks until departure. At least it is mild here and the weather my friend. Still no word from Kolmondegfar in Brussels as to route confirmation and the necessary (but secret) block authorizations. These are slow in coming, I am afraid, largely because of the unfortunate experience of the Anglo-Dutch Combined Expedition of 1994 on the south wall of my intended thoroughfare. The disastrous public displays and humiliations as well as the several deaths of local bearers (few Californians of the time had the necessary skills on polished granite and plate glass) are sure to make Kolmondegfar hesitate. My choice of the north wall suffers as well for the deaths of Greg and Mitsubi – roped together as they were – and the unfortunate arrest and trial of Sir Jim Ashton-Whuippy in years previous. Still, for a lone experienced climber, without oxygen and without the need for bearers, one would think the proper authorizations might be more quickly granted. Kolmondegfar is a fool if he does not grant them. Kolmondegfar is a fool anyway. Mine will be the first solo climb, the third of any kind attempted on the north wall and, God willing, the first to succeed. I am paid up on dues to the Institute, I note, and as well my secret insurance, complete with a random beneficiary I will never know.  I am not unknown, my solo lateral ascent of Michigan Avenue in Chicago last year the matter of an extensive and secret article in the secret magazine of our secret sport. Might they yet deny me?


 The eighth day:

       Authorizations granted! I saw the pin stuck in the telephone pole on East Sixty-Second and went to the drop point at the coded time and there were my permissions. I read, memorized and destroyed them. My heart is racing as I write this today, a fine day in the  Central Park by the little castle. The parrots are gone. There is a soft breeze and there are blowing clouds above, the radios of sunbathers blending into a gentle wash of nothing much at all. My way is clear. I have taken three days of work as a coal miner in the nearby Poconos to earn airfare to the West Coast. Temporary coal mining assignments are hard to come by, but I am with a good agency: Kelly Guys on West Forty-Fifth and Broadway, just off Times Square.


 Los Angeles, the twelfth day:

      Finally, to the south of California today, flying high above the twisting, braided hills with swimming pools inset like turquoise gems. I am disguised, of course, and have no problem with the careful task of collecting my baggage, despite these nervous times. Even with increased security, I think that people here in the West see climbing equipment as something innocent; there is still considerable traffic in mountaineering the Sierras and Rockies and Cascades and Bitterroots and Whites and Ajos. To me and my kind, of course, all mountains are anathema. Their happy conquerors are an urban lateralist’s sworn enemies, as are the peaks themselves. Scenery be damned. The sport is man. Man and his works.

     What a strange city, Los Angeles. Of first concern, it is quite low to the ground, understandable in a region of near constant earthquakes. In our sport, perversely, greater height on a route has come to be considered a bit of a cheat, as it inevitably guarantees some secrecy for the climber. The over-used New York-style high routes have lately fallen out of favor, replaced by the seductive dangers of unseen low-altitude horizon climbing along the broad avenues of these sun-washed cities of the American Southwest. For myself, intent upon a world record, the sheer length of a boulevard where I can find the prescribed distance with few apartments or private homes or tracts of parkland is paramount and Wilshire Boulevard fits the bill to a T. As well, it is a route with just enough height at correct intervals to guarantee lack of discovery in the daylight hours, when I must sleep at higher camps. Beside that of falling, of course, my greatest fear is discovery by a vengeful local police force whose members have reportedly vowed to a man to stop boulevardists in our attempts; this since the celebrated acquittal of Sir Jim Ashton-Whuippy and the ensuing terrors of the fall of the two towers in New York.


 The thirteenth day:

       Found lodging near the Boulevard itself in an unostentatious little residential hotel – The Extended Arms – just off Scrub Jay Avenue, using a name for myself I will not set down even here. Am taking some days now to establish this sunny little suite of two rooms as a base supply camp, carefully secreting items and storing them within. It is actually quite pleasant in this place and from the second story I have a fine view of what will be my starting point, the corner where Voynich Avenue crosses busy Wilshire Boulevard. Purchased a bicycle and have quickly got the hang of it. Today a police car seemed to follow me as I rode the thing back from Westwood, its childish basket filled with dried food supplies purchased from A-16 Mountaineering, but I think I am overly fearful. However, it is well to be cautious. If questioned, I can claim to be but a vertical climber gathering supplies for a foray to the nearby Sierras. Still, there has not been a celebrated arrest of any in our sport in this great city for some years and the whole matter of the trial of Ashton-Whuippy seems quite forgotten.

  The fourteenth day:

     Wilshire Boulevard looms unimpressive compared with the dizzying heights of the Avenues of New York or the intricate changes in lateral direction found in the older cities of Europe, but I find it wonderful all the same. My route will encompass seventy blocks in total and therefore some sixty-nine side-street crossings. The preponderance of slick facades, the jarring disparity in elevations on the same block, the wide streets, the unusual architecture and a sun-warmed climate that can but encourage onlookers in the night hours all make of Wilshire – or K3-45-1, as it is called officially – a climb of maximum difficulty at almost every step. My left leg is not well, of that I am certain. 

      My route slings east to west, my summit to be at the last place possible before the impassable stretch of the Beverly Hills Golf Course, that is, is the highest floor of the rounded corner of the Bank of Wang Building at the end of the seventieth block where Wilshire is slashed by Santa Monica Boulevard. I must therefore enter the route to the east at a point that will make my journey a full thirty thousand lateral feet, or something less than six miles, a feat neither Gregg, Mitsubi nor Ashton-Whuippy dared contemplate and one which will – once I essay it – effectively close forever the past century’s grand competition with “les verticalistes,” who never scale their full heights anyway, invariably carried high up a mountain by some conveyance before they even begin to climb and who can, at best, hope only for the pitiful twenty-nine thousand some feet supplied them by tawdry Everest.

    But, let them have their moment. To be sure, no “horizontaliste” has achieved anything close to the twenty thousand and six claimed by Gordon and Singh on their magnificent New York City high route (Broadway/M93-02-12) in 1958. Cheated of even this distance in my Chicago attempt, humiliated and jailed, I am left with a smoldering desire to see myself set above even the top ranks of the Secret Sport and of its secret history. The attempt must be made here, now. I am not getting any younger. One more fall or one more day in jail will be the end of me, I am afraid. I have wasted my life on this stupid endeavor. I have nothing, no family, no possessions, nothing. I have no wife, no sweetheart, no companion. I sleep alone. It’s now or never.

    The fifteenth day:

     Dreamed I went to a bar on the boulevard last night – the Jungle of  Oranges, I dreamt it was called – and met there a woman whose name I never asked. When I left her house at morning I did not know where I was. I could not find my way back to her. That is all I know. I awoke, that’s the important fact. I need more work on my maps. I need to scout more. I do not need futile, meaningless relationships with women whose names I do not know and who do not care if I might ever find them again. I have taken to dreaming more, it seems. I dream that I dream of a woman who will betray me, as Sir Jim Ashton-Whuippy was betrayed. I think I am frightened now, for the first time.

      Good. It keeps me alert. I do not need to dream. No woman has mastered our sport and no woman ever will.

  The eighteenth day:

     All is ready. The first pitch up will be at the northeast corner of Voynich and Wilshire, sadly the same intersection in which Gregg and Mitsubi lost their lives in ‘99, squashed flat by a catering wagon (colorfully termed a “Roach Coach” in local parlance) after a  mysteriously frayed rope and subsequent fall on their eighteenth side-street crossing. I am nervous and excited but filled with deadly calm and resolution for what I am about to do. There is a small espresso bar (The Krazy Kup) whose leaded and diamond-paned windows and awning will make my first obstacle. The streetlight at the corner is dim and faceted, however, and will provide a short pull up to the scalloped awning. Next door, St. Oiseaux’s slick granite edifice can with luck be negotiated by finger-plungers and my good sucker-set. The adjoining Cochran building is but six stories high, and faced with a thick stucco that will accept pitons – although the holes will have to be back-plugged enroute. By the first dawn I must be up and concealed again. I will embark at midnight, the police patrols then at a minimum. Since I have no compatriots to rappel or belay, I must start on the ground, at the corner, in the dead of night, my supplies disguised as a jumble of trash cans and cardboard boxes. I will be unable to wear sharp crampons for fear of puncturing the awning of the Krazy Kup, and so directing suspicions skyward.

  The nineteenth day:

      Exhausted, somewhat injured in the usual leg, but here in Camp One with all my supplies intact and concealed. Initial ascent not without difficulties. There was a woman sitting in the Krazy Kup until well past two in the morning, sipping cup after cup of espresso. Nervous and shaking, I crouched too long behind a hedge of red trumpet-flowers on Little Palmetto Street. I could not see her face. She had very long, dark hair. She dawdled, reading some small book, and the waiters kept the place open for her and her alone. They seemed quiet and attentive to her every move. She was entirely absorbed in the book. When she finally left, she lingered a step too long by my supplies, I thought. I was petrified. She was carrying a large purse and she wore glasses. Her figure was slim and uncompromising. She walked in her high heels out into the dark. I heard her walk away.  I waited. I climbed, not knowing if my effort was already lost.

  The twenty-first day;

     Mostly ten to twelve-story buildings as I’ve made good speed each night and finally roped and quick-released the crossing at Western Avenue. It is good to be at some height now and I fear the latter stages of the route which drop down to one and two-story buildings. As I write this, I am aware that I must now enter a world of ever newer and higher office buildings whose facades dominate many of the blocks ahead and whose faces involve the negotiation of large expanses of plate glass to be traversed quickly, my powdered dry plungers leaving no marks. I resolve to pay careful attention to the condition of my plungelocs and above all, prevent the accidental swing of chock or piton, the which may shatter glass. An accident on vertical plate glass is the greatest fear of our fraternity and the results are usually fatal, to which the well-known fate of the Swedish Peterson Brothers on Indian School Boulevard in Scottsdale, Arizona attests. Though they fell only two stories, the result was death. The slicing, it is said, was terrible.

    I see the Art Deco style Dwaft Theatre rising gaudily across Wilshire from my present perch. Its decoration comforts me. These last two nights I have traversed a myriad of signs on small and large buildings: Fashion Nails, Nude (monthly) Parking, St. Infirmius Cathedral, something called the Crazy Chicken (I had to mount and traverse the (crazy) chicken itself, pursued by the random swirlings of the Crazy Chicken Grand Opening spotlight) and then a nightmare block of vacant land bounded only by three foot high metal poles along one entire triple-sized city block. This may have been the most difficult thing I have ever done. Spotted by several Homeless, but I think they only saw me as something dark, stringing lines between poles without once touching ground. One of them shouted, “Night spider. Night spider,” but I could not tell if he meant me. It was either the poles or the curb and no one – not even the diminutive Hagworth Smyth-Peglle – has ever successfully negotiated the street-face of that long and low a curb. Finally I am at Crenshaw, which I know to be the first mile mark. There is luckily a Mormonic Temple at Lucerne, upon whose mystic dome I will be able to rest for an all-too-short while. I dream again of betrayal. Ashton-Whuippy’s woman, it was said, followed his progress for some days before the end. Mine has dark bangs cut straight across and nipples like a cry for help. At present, she is but a dream. Did I mention I dream of her?

  The twenty-fifth day:

     The worst of so many bad things is the matter of side-street crossings. This damned boulevard more often than not enjoys wide intersecting avenues which makes for generally hellish prospects by contrast with the bigger-blocked cities of the East or the more narrowly side-streeted, tightly-knit cities of Europe and Asia. (Readers may remember in particular, my successful climb in 1977 with the late Sir Jim Ashton-Whuippy of the south face of People’s Correction Thoroughfare in Zagreb.) Since one must embrace the entire distance of the designated thoroughfare and cannot merely scuttle the crosswalks like a furtive pedestrian – and if a line cannot be safely and silently flung across – the clever streetist must find something upon which to actually climb. Automobiles, for better or for worse, are of the greatest temptation. (There is a perhaps apocryphal story of one Emmerhelz, a legendary Austrian of the Nineteen- Twenties, who essayed Kleineschafte Boulevard during a blizzard so fierce that no automobiles were moving. He supposedly appropriated the correctly-faced tail-coat of a drunken and unsuspecting Vienna burgher and proceeded to scale the man using a bevel sling and two small hook-knouts as the poor chap, twisted sideways by the wind, blinded by snow and fuddled by drink, negotiated through an already fierce storm with this added weight upon his ample back. Not a soul, it was said, saw Emmerhelz as he lifted off and quickly mounted the correct face of an electrical transmission pole, leaving one Austrian convinced only that the storm had pressed upon him “twice the weight of the Devil himself.”)

       More than I had hoped, I have had to use the oldest and most dangerous technique for side-street crossings, the antique Double Mobile Lentmiere Grade Ascent, first thought to have been formalized by that legendary Frenchman in 1825 on the much slower coaches and horses of that halcyon time. To succeed, this being a country of left-hand drive autos, and my route directed west, I must first attach myself to the south face of an automobile moving north on the side street – away from the main thoroughfare – and then transfer over to the correct (or headlight) face of an automobile going the other way, back south toward Wilshire. Reaching the corner, with perfect timing, unseen by anyone – most particularly the driver or passenger – I must then make the ascent to the next block before being swept across the boulevard into an illegal maneuver, thus rendering the entire climb a failure. Of course, all this is unknowing if the car will stop or not at the corner. One must assume it will not. Quickness is all, especially the step-over, car-to-car.

      On the Lourdes Avenue crossing, which I essayed at four in the morning, two nights ago, there was so little traffic that I was carried clear up to Sunset Boulevard before I found a suitable crossover car moving south. This maneuver is nearly impossible, needless to say, very dangerous and doubly unwise to attempt on the brightly colored sports-cars driven by the kind of blonde woman who seems to abound here in what they call the City of Angels. How I escaped being seen by the one I fastened onto at Sunset, I will never know. The top was down on her convertible, but she did not see me as I clung to her grille and headlights and made the step-off to the south face of a “Massive Knockers” magazine dispenser at Wilshire and from there up the side of the House of Hair as she sped away.

       (I see them below even now, at five in the morning, the blondes in the convertibles, their hair blowing in the sultry night air just before the coming dawn, the pigeons scattering before their Corvettes and Mustangs. There is one who drives an open pink Thunderbird in the night, I have seen her most often. She wears dark glasses in the shapes of hearts and she has not looked up at me, not once, not ever.)

  The twenty-sixth day;

     Still set up on the dome of the Mormonics. Here I can see clear to the sea and what must be Catalina Island some miles out in it. I will sleep here for two nights, if indeed sleep is possible. I am exhausted. I seem secure for now and well hidden high on the golden dome of this old building. It is wonderful to be lofted up here. So far there have been no watchers in the windows directly across and below in a block of Disney-modern office buildings, each in the shape of a duck or mouse. I look out to the southwest and the end of this stupid endeavor seems terribly far off, unseeable, in fact. I have begun to wonder if all this is worth it, but I remember the words of my mentor, Sir Jim Ashton-Whuippy:

     “Without secrecy, without furtive endeavor,” he told me on his deathbed, “we who haunt these night routes would be nothing. These cities are ours and ours alone and God must have made them for us or he would not have made them at all. If we are lucky, neither He nor anyone else sees us.”

     Luck, of course, had notably abandoned him.

  The twenty-eighth day:

      Now disaster is near. At Restmore Boulevard, I entered a dark world of four-story condominiums and apartments which stretch for some blocks. The dark side of our sport most certainly comes into focus here. The essaying of private homes or apartment buildings, at night, often leads the sensationalist public to think of streetists as so-called “Peeping Toms.” I recall the many embarrassing moments in the trial of Sir Jim Ashton-Whuippy. I try to move quickly and not look inside windows that are often – especially second floor ones – without shades or curtains. I glanced only once through a window and inside thought I saw the same dark-haired, cut-banged woman who was in the Krazy Kup, who is in my dreams. Is it only coincidence? It is all that I can think. I moved on quickly, for to be discovered there would have been the end of everything. She was dressed in a Chinese black silk robe and her TV was set on the educational channel – I thought I discerned elephants or rhinos reflected in the mirrors behind her couch. She held a thin martini glass in one hand, in it a cheetah reflected.

       At Resumption Avenue, the mile and a half mark, there was an entire huge block of only low chain-link fence to be scaled. Exhausting. My leg was better but now is not. Then there were blocks of modernistic slanting facades and then a school at Aztec Court with yet more chain-link and hedgerow. At Balmoral Avenue I noted (passing the two-mile mark), one third of my endeavor thankfully complete and mercifully undiscovered. There is only one high building on which to rest and then my route drops down to one-story structures. At La Brea, the world of beauty seems to begin in earnest; the “House of One Hundred Percent Human Hair” is right next to the “Happy Times Nail Shoppe” and the “King of Numbers Beauty Supply” adjoins the Revlon Bank building. Was the woman with glasses there in the beauty shop? I swear I thought so. To the Miracle Mile Tower and the Korean Bribery Center; to the El King Theatre and the Hunan Snail Winter Garden, and finally I am at a halfway point falling almost exactly at the famous La Brea Tar Pits. These pits will comprise my greatest obstacle, I fear.

    The thirtieth day:

     The fences and hedges were not easy, and at one point I had to use a sleeping homeless person’s northern buttock as a foothold. He moaned in his drunken sleep, but did not wake. I strung release lines from a flagpole out across the first stretch of bubbling tar to a life-sized brass mastodon and with the unfortunate full moon upon me, made my way across certain death to it. From this mastodon, then, to another of its elephantine kind standing knee-deep in the stuff. Huge black bubbles surged to the surface and exploded beneath me. From somewhere in the vast city I could hear gunshots as well. I traversed the deadly, sulpherous stuff and grappled safely, I thought, onto the museum’s  glass-brick facade. 

     And then I was discovered. She saw me and I am now unsure if it is for the first time. I will soon be reported, I know. My climb is over. I decided to flee and risk death rather than stay and await arrest. Her face, I have never seen such a one. Alone in the museum at night, she had on glasses that were very thick and a pencil grasped between her lovely teeth and she peered out a little sliver of thick, wavy glass set into the facade of the Museum. She was alluring, more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen, lovelier even than the blondes of Wilshire Boulevard in the convertibles of the night. She seemed to glance at me quite frankly, peering somewhat curiously above her glasses. I could not move, suspended as I was some hundred feet above my death in bubbling tar. She dropped her glasses an inch down her nose and leaned closer to the thick slit of a window and observed me coldly. She has very long hair, tied back severely. She wears black. Her bangs are severe. She is the same woman, the one from the Krazy Kup, the one with the martini. I have been seen. It is over. Her face is uncommonly beautiful. I have always liked a woman in glasses, I don’t know why. I have stopped dreaming about her, at least.

  The thirty-first day:

     I keep going. Where is she? 

     During the surprisingly chilly hours between three and five o’clock in the morning, I clawed my way over some really quite interesting marble facing formations not the least of which was a Class Five Underslung on a neon sign reading, if I remember correctly, “House of Chez’s House.” The little plaster buildings interspersed with larger ones along these last few blocks have all been like that, quite the more difficult than they look.  Was that her under the dryer at Yamato Beauty College? I am possessed. I fear the worst and hope for the  best. Neither, I assume, do I deserve. The nightmarish crossing of San Vicente is my greatest challenge at the four-mile mark. Here there are monstrously wide streets to get across to the Big 5 Island and then more to the haven of the ten-story Bank of Singapore building and the official entrance to Beverly Hills. All are restaurants here; Nibblers, the Blue Lobster, the Doctor Dee Drive-in, the Fertile Egge, Regrets from Rangoon and then at Ribbetson Ave. my route drops down to virtually all one-story buildings. 

     I am at five miles when I reach Doheney. The next sixteen blocks are generally low. I move quickly, expecting arrest. Will she come to see me in jail? The Home Savings Building has in relief a brass statue of father and son embracing in celebration of – presumably – good savings habits. I scale their burnished figures and rappel up the Stock Building and then lash myself  onto the windows of the famous talent agency enshrined in the Five-Star/Hopeless Complex, a building shaped like a fish. (It is damnably rounded, like so many of these modern and expensive buildings in this most modern and damnable city.) From Zsa-Zsa Drive west, the streets intersect the great boulevard in a diagonal manner and the side street crossings are necessarily wider.

     There is Rodeo Drive slanting away. Is that her, threading through traffic with great expensive breads in paper sacks hugged to her slim body? Saks across the boulevard – is that her emerging with bundles of forbidden lingerie? Sotheby’s; her at auction? These thirteen blocks are a one-story hell. There is nowhere to  hide and the flat roofs are not available to the streetist, of course. Why am I doing this? I disguise myself on the side of Tiffany’s. It is a good thing I carried the squirrel suit all this way, I suppose.

  The forty-sixth day:

     Still here, still roped in, my net hammock swung between two post-Disney structures, each entire building shaped as a dead rabbit and my lines festooned with the useful Christmas wreathing I carry with me. Took a shower in my hammock tonight, the water in the solar bag still quite hot even at four in the morning. I shaved as well, not an easy feat in darkness, in a wet hammock,  two hundred feet above the traffic, thinking only of her. I am facing north and looking down too much and sleeping too little. I think of her all the time, every minute. I cannot try any more Two-way Mobile Lentmiere Grade Crossings because of the increase of blondes in convertibles. There seem to be no autos but theirs in the night. They drive up and down the six lanes below. I hear the low burblings of their powerful V-8 engines until the dawn. I am stuck here unless, as I have been thinking, I abandon my summit and return as I came, looking for her.      She is not blonde and she does not drive. She follows me, I know, I hope. Today I saw her in a restaurant – Yogurt Alley – after hours. She was sitting at a table smoking a long cigarette. Her hair hung to her shoulders. Her dress was black and cut low. She had a dark slash of lipstick across her lips. She was reading a book. She looked up and watched me over her glasses and under her bangs with what seemed a little smile as I silently essayed the blue plate glass of the window, one plungered hand or foothold at a time. Why does she not betray me? Is she waiting for my summit to betray me? 

     At night, I am unable to sleep, the broad boulevard below seems filled with the blondes in convertibles, their heads in scarves against the hot wind, their eyes shielded by the darkest of sunglasses.



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