By David Egan
“I have an addictive personality,” said fourth-year philosophy student James Schwartz, attaching his webbing to a tree by Kerckhoff Hall. “I’m obsessive in just about everything I do. I work too hard. I love too hard. And I slackline. Above all–rain or shine–I slackline.”
Schwartz, an acrobat since youth, outlined his plan: to walk above ground level, from Kerckhoff Hall across Bruin Walk and the Tongva steps, to the Fowler Museum—a fifth of a mile–balanced only on the one-inch width of his slackline. “One inch is all I need,” he assured me. But with 322 meters to cross, it would take six jerry-rigged 50-meter longlines to go the distance. Schwartz leaned on the trunk.
“My pinus canariensis” he said, slapping the tree. “Canary island pine. The requirements to slackline are threefold: you need a line, two pines, and extraordinary mental fortitude.”
Mental fortitude, I jotted in my notebook, when suddenly I noticed a young man behind us on Bruin Walk, holding an iPhone 8, filming Schwartz attach the line. He was, I learned, the cameraman of this operation: a stout Parisian filmmaker, a boy of no more than fourteen who went by Luis Dupont and seemed to know more than he let on. He communicated primarily in grunts and cast sideways glances in my direction. I had to know more. Who was this young auteur? I pressed my source.
“What do you mean ‘Why do I hang out with a French adolescent and why does he keep looking at you like that,” Schwartz said. “He’s not looking at you like anything. He’s fucking Luis Dupont. Best slackline cinematographer in the city.”
Schwartz said he likes having Dupont around, this quiet European with a wispy mustache, this tertiary character from a Wes Anderson film. He said he’s purchasing Dupont a little purple hat and is currently weighing the ethics of putting him onto cigarettes. When Schwartz finished attaching his slack to the tree I seem to remember Dupont winking at me with the fraternal charm of a bistro’s garçon.
Walking the distance he would soon cross by slackline, Schwartz led the way to the Fowler. Dupont, establishing the shot, tripped over four people and a labradoodle. He did not apologize. As Schwartz carried those 350 meters of webbing, walking that fated length, I asked if he had any nerves. No, Schwartz said. He literally slacklines in his sleep.
“My roommates have found me walking the slackline attached to our fridge and a closet door handle, successfully, all while sleeping,” Schwartz said. “They found Luis there too, somehow, camera in hand, also asleep. We are no novices. If anyone’s built for this feat it’s me.”
Schwartz said he has a thing for feat—a devotion to achievement, an insatiable desire to accomplish great things. Plus the fans keep him going, he said. As we neared the Fowler, Schwartz gestured to the students strewn about the grass, lying in hammocks, loafing collegiately, sitting in the sun on this Friday afternoon, and he said, “I hope you know they’re here to see me. All of them. They’re here to watch me slackline.”
After pulling it taut, attaching the line to a pinus radiata, confirming Dupont was rolling and, curiously, making a hasty sign of the cross, slackline he did.
Schwartz made his way; I walked with Dupont, who crouched along filming. Schwartz walked with elegance and poise. His face displayed a concentration the likes of which I’d never seen. He was slacklining, sure enough—a gliding figure in Friday’s waning daylight.
Until he fell. A teetering, arm-flailing mishap.
“Who are you?” asked the girl into whose hammock Schwartz toppled.
“I’m Jim Schwartz,” he said. “Slackliner.”
The girl yawned. “That’s cute,” she said. “Now please get out of my hammock.” Rolling back over, she forgot about Jim.
And when Schwartz walked off, it was just him and Luis. Perhaps, Schwartz wondered, dragging his slackline along a road to nowhere, that’s all it ever had been.