As a general rule, malls are interesting places. They are public, and depending on location and clientele, they cater to a wide range of people from all walks of life. And, depending on policies set forth by the management, this creates opportunities for artists of all sorts, also from all walks of life, to display their skills.
Southpoint Mall is a prime example of this. I walked through Southpoint one Saturday afternoon, browsing the various stands dedicated to selling anything from hair extensions, to cell phones and accessories, to new age mist-generating lamps good for aromatherapy. The heart of the mall, the intersection from where one could venture into the Belk department store, head upstairs to the Food Court, or go outside and visit various restaurants and more-expensive shops, was home to a caricaturist. His sign, like all the others in the mall, advertised free caricatures. His only wages would be what you paid him in tips. He seemed to make a good living at it, too, as I saw one little girl sitting for a caricature, smiling at the artist's jokes.
Farther along the outdoor path, beyond the fountain adorned with many bronze sculptures of young children frolicking, a young man sweats in the hot April sun. He is practicing one of his tricks for his juggling act, which begins in a minute. The sign behind him calls him "Juggleboy." And that's really all one needs to know as the rum-pum-pum of a traditional circus fanfare kicks in, blasting through his stereo, through the microphone pointed at one of its speakers, and finally out through an even bigger speaker so that everyone in the courtyard can hear that his show is starting.
Juggleboy balances the appropriate amount of shyness, humility, and friendliness in his six-foot frame. He has tanned skin and thin, spiky, dark brown hair. He is dressed all in black – a black t-shirt, partially translucent in its sleeves, black slacks, and black shoes. He starts his show with a unassuming meekness, announcing to any bystanders that may be watching, "Three balls." He juggles them with ease, never dropping them, switching from the more traditional up-throw, to some fancier tricks, pawing them overhand like a cat to any random object dangled in front of it.
He soon ups the stakes, switching the type of ball he uses, as well as the number. He shouts "Five balls!" in an effort to not only inform but also attract more attention to his show. He does the same tricks he did with the three-ball set, yet he mixes it up, building on the previous tension. Now, he's taken to hurling one of the five balls higher than normal, so as to add a little more pizzazz and difficulty. At times he also spins as he does this, pivoting around in a full three-sixty, returning just in time to catch the balls he's left floating in the air.
He switches now to a set of yellow balls that are nothing more than hacky-sacks with smilie-faces on them. He starts with seven, doing more or less the same routine of prancing, pivoting, and pawing, and then slowly moves up to nine. He does this by leaving one or two sacks on the ground. He kicks at them with his foot, moving them so they rest on his shoe. Then, when he's ready to add a ball, he kicks it up to his waiting hand, effortlessly adding it to the mix. This also comes in handy when he drops a ball, which doesn't happen much at lower levels, but when he tries to expand on his skill, as he's still an intermediate, it happens more often.
Quickly, after growing tired of the ball gag, he moves to bats, quickly picking up six, three in each hand, and showing no trouble in bobbling them about. Next, Juggleboy pours a small bit of gasoline into a bucket where three torches are already soaking. He dips them in again, shakes them off, and then with the flick of his wrist he retrieves a Zippo lighter from his pocket, lights one torch, and twists his wrist again so the other two catch fire as well. Typically, he says, "Do not try this at home, kids." before proceeding to juggle the torches. The technique he uses is the same as with three balls, or three bats, but he must be careful not to flip them over. If he misses, it's obvious he'll get a nasty burn. He starts with the traditional juggle, and as the fanfare blares, he keeps the beat and moves to a hand-over-hand pawing. To finish off his trick, he moves to a rotational juggle. One at a time, he takes the third, odd-man-out torch and touches it to his chin while the other two are in his hand. The way he does this is seamless, so it appears as if the torches are constantly moving, never at rest. He finished off this trick by balancing one torch on his chin as he looks to the sky. He holds the other two high in the air as if he is a candelabrum. The crowd applauds his effort.
"Thank you." Juggleboy says, acknowledging the crowd. "Now before my last trick, I want to remind you all that I do not get paid. The money I make is whatever you kind people see fit to pay me. So please feel free to feed the bear," Juggleboy says, as he holds up a clear, plastic jar molded into the shape of a bear, filled about halfway, mostly with dollar bills. "Please put as much money as you feel like into the bear, but the only rule is, don't take any out. That's the only rule.
"Now, for my last trick, I am going to juggle a softball, a basketball, a torch, and a knife. And I'm going to do it all while balancing on this skateboard." He says this as he points to his equipment, and to a skateboard with one big wheel. As he picks up the blade off the ground, he is sure to scrape it against the concrete to convince the audience it is real. "So, who believes I can do it?" He asks the crowd. Not much response, a few sparse claps, as the crowd has died down a bit now. I tap my hand a few times to an ice-filled Styrofoam cup. "So, who thinks I'm crazy?" A smattering of laughter breaks out, with some applause. I smile. "Well, perhaps, it's a little bit of both."
He places one foot on the skateboard, gathers up his tools in his arms, and lights the torch. "Now I'm gonna need your help on this one, ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to need you to count to three for this last one. Here we go." The audience counts out, and he steps up onto the skateboard, sending the two balls, the knife, and the torch flying. He does this for about thirty seconds before stepping off the skateboard and setting down his equipment. "Thank you ladies and gentlemen," he says. "That's my show. Please remember to be generous, God bless, and have a nice day!"
A few people walk up to the bear and put in a dollar or two, and I watch as another man, out with his young son, approaches him to ask him a few questions. This man is a juggler, too, apparently, and they make small talk about how long they've each been at it. They mention videotapes to each other about the hobby – though I'm sure they'd be insulted if they heard me call it a hobby – Juggleboy, at the very least, seems to be a professional. The older man is torn between trying to carry on a conversation with Juggleboy, and keeping his son from stepping into the fountain and splashing around. The young boy is successful once. A few people sitting on the fountain's edge laugh, and so does this father, before pulling him out and trying to keep him within an arm's length. The little boy then tries to go up and touch some of Juggleboy's props. Juggleboy says, "let's not do that" as the father pulls the boy away.
In between trying to keep his son out of the fountain, and away from Juggleboy's various "toys," the man asks him about his tricks, his goals, and his self. They mention the hard tricks, aspirations for completing tricks that only the most seasoned pros can do. They talk about different jugglers and their instructional videos – one of them, by a man named Thomas Dietz, who Juggleboy mentioned as having a lot to do with his learning. Juggleboy mentions he practices several hours a day, and in order to perfect a new trick, it takes him at least a few months, depending on its complexity. He says he would like to be able to juggle ten balls. To "touch," a ball, he says, is to complete it in one rotation, but fail to catch it. In other words, it's not quite a catch, not quite a drop. Juggleboy mentions his aspirations to get in the Guinness Book of World Records, and he mentions he's already capable of one record. Another record, he's not so eager to complete, because it involves sticks, and sticks are basically just clubs or bats. Clubs (which essentially look like bowling pins) are his favorite thing to juggle, and are the hardest to juggle, too, according to him. I am surprised he doesn't consider torches that hard to juggle. After all, they're just sticks – with a little bit of fire at one end. Logically, they have pretty much the same properties as clubs – you can only grab one end successfully.
Soon enough the man has had what he's come for, he walks away, his son literally in tow. I approach Juggleboy and ask him what his name really is.
"Juggleboy," he says, smiling, believing it, "or Chris, if you prefer." He extends his hand, smiling, and I shake it.
"So, uh, this is a pretty interesting show you've got here." I say. "How long have you been at it?"
"Oh, uh, about eight years."
"Nice. So uh, how'd you get interested in this whole juggling thing anyway?"
"My dad, uh, well, I wanted to enter a talent show back when I was about twelve. He said if I learned how to juggle, I could, so I spent about a month trying to teach myself."
"So are you in school or anything? Trying to make your way doing this, or is it a full-time thing?"
"No, well, I was in Bible college for a while – I live in Raleigh – but I left that, and am trying to work on this full-time now. I want to perform at events and stuff, make a living at it. Like halftime shows. That would be great."
Another young man, donning a scraggly mop of dirty, sun-soaked blonde hair, and a wispy pseudo-mustache approaches Juggleboy's altar. His mother, a stocky woman with similar hair, follows. The boy asks Juggleboy questions about what he does, rehashing territory I covered before he arrived. I simultaneously smile and cringe at how redundant some of Juggleboy's day-to-day experiences might be.
"Yeah, I might be looking to perform here as well." The boy says.
"Oh, really? Cool. What do you do?"
"I do this little acoustic thing with various household items – buckets, saws, and whatnot. I guess you could call me Bucketboy."
"Yeah, it's fun. So how would go about looking into performing here?"
"Well, there's this one guy who auditions all the performers for the mall. So you call him, set something up, audition, and maybe he'll give you some space."
"Thanks. Do you have his contact information or something?"
"Yeah, uh, no, not here, actually. Do you have an e-mail address, phone number, or something?" Juggleboy whips out a planner, and he and the blonde kid exchange e-mail addresses. The blonde kid writes his e-mail address down on a piece of scrap paper.
The blonde kid's mom says, "You might want to write your name down on that, in case he gets home, and you know, forgets who gave it to him."
"Oh, that shouldn't be a problem." Juggleboy says. "I mean, I'll do it right when I get home."
"Oh, that's great!" Says the mother.
"Yeah, well, if I don't, I'll probably forget." Juggleboy flashes a charismatic, whimsical grin. The mother-son duo laughs, thanks him, and leaves. I thank Juggleboy for his time as well, wish him luck, and continue my walk through the mall.