They juggle by the lake, the three men do. They meet when the weather’s nice and they talk and laugh and they juggle.
And they invite people in.
It was a beautiful day in what was technically still late winter. It was that first day a tentative Chicago starts to trust. We’ve been burnt before by so many days: that lovely Sunday where it was snowing by noon, those camouflaged mornings that only appear warm and sunny through a window. But this day was that one that comes every year, where a wary city peeks its groundhog head out and says maybe, just maybe this is it.
The forecast for the weekend was snow.
I was coming home using my favorite iteration of my former commute from Aurora (the bike-train-bike with the good bike, for frequent followers of my adventures) and I decided to take the lake path up to North and then the suicide run west from there. I pedaled in a helmet, a purple shirt and red tie, naval peacoat incongruously heavy for the day and bike lights. Lots of bike lights.
I saw jugglers by the lake, so I stopped. I believe the philosophy that leads people to stop and watch jugglers should be taught in all the schools and should be considered an attribute when seeking employment.
A large black man in a small brown cap invited me to juggle even before I was off my bike.
Tony, as he introduced himself, taught me to juggle. And taught me nothing else.
I’ve seen stories about juggling as a metaphor for a zesty life, as a metaphor for too many responsibilities and too little time, even as a metaphor for God, whirling and arching the planets through the skies.
This is a story about juggling as a metaphor for juggling. I learned nothing but how to throw and catch leather balls.
There were three of the jugglers, plus another wanderby neophyte. The other newbie was a young man, maybe 22. He was one of those preternaturally handsome young people you want to hate, but can’t. I can’t hate someone who stops for jugglers. Tony was of an indeterminate middle age. Black — as I’ve been told — don’t crack, which always messes up my calculations. His shirt said “Hawaii” and he never stopped smiling. A slender white man with a ponytail was his friend. They talked about mutual acquaintances and the most impressive juggles they’ve seen. Tony would stop their conversation to shout encouragement and advice to me.
“Watch that left hand.”
“Don’t reach up for it. It’ll come to you.”
“It’s just like walking. Rhythm.”
“It’ll get done.”
The third juggler was a dark white man, a young one whose shirt was decorated in skulls. He juggled alone by the water.
Tony juggled the simplest. Simple tosses and returns expertly done. Some not more than inches in the air, an unimpressive sign of true excellence. There’s no room for error when the ball has no time to drop. The man with the ponytail juggled a blur of yellow balls I could not count. More than three, fewer than 10. The man with the skulls, I didn’t watch. Watching him felt like intrusion.
Tony started me with two balls. When I picked up the set the ponytailed man let me borrow, Tony said I was right-handed and had tried to learn to juggle before. Both were correct.
To juggle with two, you throw the ball in the right hand in the air. When it starts to fall, you throw the one in the left hand in a mirror parabola. You don’t reach up for them. You let them fall to you.
As the dusk fell, I juggled. As the bikers and joggers and LSD drivers blurred past, I juggled, tossing and dropping and fumbling and arching those two leathery spheres. Tony and the ponytail man talked shop. The boy with the skulls and the handsome newbie tossed alone. I juggled. I juggled by the lake as Chicago sped by.
They invited me back. They gather on nice days. You can go too.
“It’s a good way to relax,” Tony said as I gave my goodbyes. “You need that sometimes.”
They juggle by the lake, the three men do.
Written in March 2010