The rules for the five-ball endurance contest at Madfest -- the weekend-long juggling festival held annually in Madison -- are simple. Every participant juggles five balls. The last one still juggling after everyone else drops wins.
“Any questions?” asks 23-year-old Keenan Lampe, a recent UW-Wisconsin graduate with a scraggly red beard and a winter cap with ear flaps pushed back on his head. He’s speaking into a microphone plugged into a lousy portable PA system. But after a lack of response from the roughly 30 jugglers, all in this middle school gymnasium, all holding five balls, all looking at him uncertainly, he just yells out, a hands cupped to his mouth, “Are you ready?”
Nearby is Circus James. He’s ready. In his hands are the five juggling balls that he bought a good two decades ago. They’re more like small beanbags, a dingy white with faded red stripes, appearing as if repeatedly driven over. Still, Circus James insists that they are the perfect weight, having personally unstitched the seams over and over again, removing the tiny plastic beads inside and replacing them with pea gravel, “until just right.”
Circus James -- wearing dark Levi’s and a red crew-neck sweatshirt, sleeves pushed up -- is 48 years old. He’s thin, at most 145 pounds (if including his five 4 ½-ounce beanbags) with longish, brown hair combed straight back. He’s a nice, talkative guy with one of those raspy laughs generally associated with smoking too many cigarettes.
Circus James is a Summit resident who lives in the home in which he was raised. It’s the same house where, back in the seventh grade, he holed himself up for a week until he mastered juggling three tennis balls. It’s the house where he then soon similarly mastered four tennis balls, then five. It’s where, shortly after, he learned to unicycle on the street outside.
This is back when he was simply called James. He’d become known as “Circus James” later, when he was in his early 20s and traveling around the country, performing juggling shows here and there. In fact, nowadays his last name is rarely brought up. He introduces himself as Circus James to everyone he meets -- not only when at juggling festivals but in regular life. And, strangely enough, people seem not to find it peculiar. The name, somehow, perfectly fits. He’ll say that “back in the day” he always drew nice crowds. That he was the juggler that everyone stopped and watched.
Today, however, only moments before the five-ball contest, Circus James isn’t feeling as confident. “Honestly,” he admits, “I haven’t juggled five balls for months,” Or, even three, for that matter, he says.
Circus James is feeling old, out-of-practice, left behind. There are guys around him, juggling seven, even nine balls. There are guys here actually juggling blindfolded. There are guys here -- in an upper gymnasium -- engaged in a heated game of unicycle hockey. (This is just like regular ice hockey, except that instead of a puck, they’re using a tennis ball, and instead of ice skates, they're on unicycles). Still, he feels he can do this. He’s going to throw these five beanbags in the air and see if he can catch them.
. . .
The next morning, Circus James is at home, seated on a rickety kitchen chair, smoking a cigarette and feeding split logs into a wood burning stove. He’s lamenting that he lasted only about 10 seconds in the contest. (The winner went about three minutes.) But, he’s not discouraged. “I’m inspired,” he says.
Circus James says that with a little work he could get back to where he was. That he has “the chops” to do it. He dashes out his cigarette on the stove door before ultimately tossing it into the fire anyway. He leans forward, elbows on his knees, as if about to relay a common truth. “Listen, man,” he says, “if you juggle, people are going to stop and watch.”
A trick, he says, doesn’t even have to be that difficult. All you have to do is keep throwing, keep catching. “And people,” Circus James says, “will stay there with you … until there is nothing left in the air.”