Recently, in the mornings before I head into the office, I’ve been going down to Battery Park to practice my juggling. It’s been a few years since I’ve done much of any juggling beyond a few party tricks. Before I moved to New York, when I lived in New Orleans, it was my profession. I went down to the French Quarter most weekends, put a minnow bucket out in front of me, and busked. When I moved and found a job, I was excited about the prospect of being able to once again juggle for fun, without an audience, without the banter—juggling for juggling’s sake. But it turned out that it can be hard to find a quiet corner of a public place in New York where someone’s parent won’t ask if you do birthday parties. It took three years before I decided to check out Battery Park in the morning, and once I did, I discovered that it was the sort of still, quiet place I’d been looking for the whole time.
So between 8 and 9, I take my props down to the same quiet, tree-lined spot with a view of the bay, and I get to work, trying to finally nail down a few things I’ve wanted to master since high school—the five-club cascade and learning how to juggle seven balls. Each of these things can really only be accomplished through a frustrating amount of repetition and failure. You throw everything up into the air, and it all comes down long before you hoped it would, and you spend about 15 seconds gathering your props and conducting a post mortem on which of your throws fucked everything up, and then you try again. But what makes it repetitive and monotonous is also what makes it pleasurable. It’s like counting rosary beads or meditating. When the pattern gets going, I count along to the steady rhythm of the props connecting with my palms. It would be difficult to count out loud, so there’s just a steady stream of half-realized numbers passing through my mind as I stare at the apex of the pattern, where the force of my throws reaches an equilibrium with the downward pull of gravity, and they begin their descent. I don’t look at my hands because I don’t have to. The eye sees the arc, and the brain signals the hand, so it knows where to be when the object comes down.
Despite the fact that there are no crowds gathering around me, there are still people. The same runners pass by on the path three or four times in the hour as they make their laps. Dog walkers roam around, occasionally stopping to sit on the benches that circle my area. And long streams of tourists follow their guides, who hold their flags high in the air as they shepherd their groups to the landing where they board the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes I notice some of them stop and take pictures of me. Often, if they pass by while I’m in the middle of a decent five club run, they’ll clap once the clubs come down. Or, they’ll say something cringeworthy like “practice makes perfect” or “keep trying.” I’ve learned from experience that people tend to assume that something they did was the distraction that ultimately caused me to drop. Most of the time, that’s not the case. When I’m really focusing, they hardly exist.
Sure, there are times when they do distract. The difference between practicing and performing is that you perform what you have mastered, and you practice what is just beyond your capability. To practice is to reach. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. But when people see you try and fail, they assume that you can’t. And you know that’s what they’re thinking, so it makes you self-conscious. Rather than slipping into the monotonous, meditative fugue state in which progress is made, you choke. Then, there’s a pressure to prove that you can. So, you do what you can. You show off.
I pick up three clubs instead of five, put a fourth one on my foot, begin my three-club cascade, then kick the fourth up into the air and incorporate it into the pattern, ultimately tossing one of them incredibly high into the air before gathering them all up and tossing them aside. No big deal. It doesn’t make me a better juggler, but it shows other people that I’m good. Validation.
I’m often torn between what to focus on. There’s the desire to withdraw into myself, to get the exercise and the improvement that comes from pushing my own limits. But then a group might pass by with a large number of kids, or even a few enthusiastic adults, and in those moments, it makes me want to put on a show. Everyone becomes a little bit of a child when they watch a person juggle, especially when the juggler is at least moderately good. When a person juggles five clubs, everyone has to look up, and their eyes get just a little wide, their mouths drop open, and they smile real sincere involuntary smiles. Most of them will ask the same questions or make the same comments. They veer from the awestruck to the immature. A simple How do you do that? to a pubescent Can you juggle my balls? But even in New York, very few people simply walk on by without taking a glance.
And in these last few days out in Battery Park, I’ve been reminded of how juggling brings out that part of humanity. It’s that universal awe at the capacity and creativity of the human mind and body. It’s not just juggling that makes us feel this way. We feel it when we watch trapeze artists and aerialists, figure skaters, pole vaulters. We become amazed by our own species, and by the individual who put in the thousands upon thousands of hours to perfect some skill that serves no purpose but to entertain and to prove that it was possible.
Of all these skills, juggling might be one of the silliest, which is why jugglers tend to also incorporate comedy into their routines, and why one of the most common reactions I get when I juggle is simply laughter. It emerges as a sheer expression of joy at the sight of something that requires so much focus but makes so little sense.
There are people who take it incredibly seriously—who view juggling as first and foremost a sport. They want to do away with sequined vests and clown noses and define good form and cultivate talented athletes to push the limits of what is possible. Like the incredibly talented—and incidentally, pretty funny—Jason Garfield, who co-founded the World Juggling Federation, an annual competition held in Las Vegas that airs on ESPN-2, with categories including five club endurance, freestyle, and Major League Combat juggling. But I’ve never tried to describe the WJF to someone without being interrupted by laughter and side-eye. Hell, one of the sportscasters for the competition is the magician Penn Jillette.
The happy medium is probably not to take yourself too seriously. You might be in peak physical condition, with your name in the Guinness Book of World Records, but you are still, nonetheless, a juggler.
It does make me happy and get me feeling overly sentimental just knowing that I have this skill that tends to make people smile. Even without any make-up or big red noses or under-sized unicycles, a person juggling in public will always be something of a clown. And lately, in times like these, it’s been helpful to remember just what it is that clowns, jugglers, circus artists, contribute to the human experience. It is, as Charlie Chaplin put it, the ability to make someone smile, though their heart is breaking.
I’ve had conversations with my more literary and political friends about escapism, a word which often comes out of someone’s mouth with disdain. People have told me that escapist literature is an indulgence of the privileged. How could a person afford the luxury of disengagement in a time of crisis? And juggling, like escapist literature, seems to serve no purpose, to advance no cause. But then again, C.S. Lewis once wrote about a question his professor, J.R.R. Tolkien posed:
“What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?”
His answer: jailers.
This morning, I made it out to the park, and had gotten through most of my hourlong practice when I noticed that one of the park custodians was watching me. He was standing in front of me on the other side of some bushes, staring. I’d been practicing some seven-ball runs. Earlier in the week, I had flashed seven for the first time—which means that I caught 14 throws, which would be considered “qualifying.” I could now say that I had juggled seven balls, but not necessarily that I could juggle seven. So I was practicing, trying to repeat and eventually move beyond what I had accomplished earlier in the week, but I wasn’t really succeeding. Still, the man was focusing intently on me as the red balls rose into the air and then came back down to earth. After a few minutes, when I had decided to pack it in for the day, he called out, “You’re getting it,” and I nodded and grinned.
Then he started walking toward me, talking as he approached.
“I’ve been trying to learn three,” he said. I picked up three of the balls and asked if he’d like to show me. He told me no, that he was still working on it.
“Well show me where you’re at and maybe I can give you a couple tips to help you out.”
He hedged a little bit. “I’ll try with the two,” he eventually said, and took two in his hand.
I expected to see what I usually see when someone says they’re trying to learn to juggle. They take the two balls, toss one in the air, pass the other one off underhand, and move them around in a circle like we’ve all seen in a million cartoons. It’s the first thing you have to correct when a person begins to learn, and it’s a hard habit to break. A mix of muscle memory and a priori conceptualization, or something. But he didn’t do that. He threw up the first ball, and then the second one, forming the correct x-shaped pattern that is the basis of all good juggling.
“I think you’re ready to try three,” I told him.
“You’re doing everything right. Just give it a shot.”
I handed him a third ball and introduced myself, holding a hand out. He took it and gave it the firmest shake I’ve encountered in years.
“Virgil,” he said.
I did a quick demonstration for him of the three-ball cascade pattern, showed him how to hold them properly, and then he gave it a try, tossing the first, then the second ball, and they fell to the ground.
“Take off your hat. The visor’s blocking your field of vision.”
He took off the visor and tried again. This time he caught them both, but like most people, he held on to the third ball.
“You have to remember to throw the third. Don’t be afraid to drop. Don’t think one, two, three. Just think throw, throw, throw.”
He tried again, this time successfully getting all three up into the air. After a couple more tries, he succeeded at getting to four catches, then five, then six. His pattern was perfect. “I decided I wanted to learn a couple months ago,” he said, “so I went online and started watching videos, but I just couldn’t get past the two.”
We talked for a while. He described watching me juggle. “I was looking from over there on your side for a while, just seeing how they all went up in that flat plane, like you were describing. Then I moved over there up front where you saw me, and I watched you from that angle for a while and saw how your hands were moving. You learn a lot just watching something like that.”
I told him to carry around a set of juggling balls to practice on his breaks.
“I do,” he said. “I keep a set I made out of aluminum foil here in my bag.” He unzipped it and showed me.
We didn’t talk about where either of us had come from, except that I mentioned my past as a street performer. We also didn’t talk about politics or current events or anything else but juggling. And there were certainly plenty of things to talk about. Every day that I’ve gone down to the park, I can’t help but look at the Statue of Liberty, and the hordes of tourists crowding onto the ferry, and consider the dissonance between the values inscribed on it and the values of our current situation. But none of that mattered in this particular moment, in this particular conversation. It was pure escapism, from my life, from his life, from everything, and neither of us knew anything about what the other one was hoping to escape, we were just happy to do it.
Virgil handed my props back to me.
“Are you usually here? I’d like to come by from time to time and show you my improvement.”
Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be here.”