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HE STOOPS TO CONQUER

Porkey has a pretty good explanation for why he drops the tennis balls so much while he is juggling. It does not take very many minutes of watching Porkey to establish the fact that the tennis balls do indeed fall to the ground with some regularity. The tennis balls drop so much in fact, that Porkey has inserted BBs into them. This prevents them from rolling, and disappearing under parked cars, where it would take some stooping for the 61-year-old Porkey to reach them.

Instead, the tennis balls just lie there, bizarrely motionless, almost accusatory. Juggling, for Porkey, seems more like a contest of wills, a final pitting of man against unresponsive nature, than it does a street performance.

You may have seen Porkey juggling, or dropping, his tennis balls near the corner of Second Street and Adams, just outside the Arizona Museum of Science and Technology. The museum's almost-life-size dinosaurs made it a good location for a street performer, what with the large numbers of schoolchildren and dinosaur lovers on this Earth. More important for Porkey, however, is the museum's proximity to El Matador, and its bar.

That's where he is now. That's where he is a lot. In fact, Porkey's natural habitat seems to be the dim, quiet confines of a good daytime barroom, where the bartender has plenty of time between washing glasses to swap tales about life, of which Porkey certainly has many.

"Coast to coast on a piece of toast," he says, lighting up a unfiltered Camel and sipping his Budweiser. Porkey is a tiny, grizzled old guy, with big bifocals and thrift-shop clothes. His eyebrows go up in the center so he has a permanently quizzical look. Since he hit Phoenix last fall, he's been living at the New Windsor Hotel, where you can rent a room for a couple of hundred a month, sit around the lobby watching television, and be comfortable with a bunch of guys pretty much like yourself.

For forty years he's been traveling, first on boxcars and his thumb, now on Greyhound buses. "The road just catches onto you, then it grabs you and once it's got you, it's hard to get it out of your system," he says.

One day in 1947 he was on his way to the store for a loaf of bread and some lunch meat. He ran into his cousin, who said, "Hey, let's go in the Army." It had to be easier than school, Porkey thought, where he had failed the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. This was back in Pittston, Pennsylvania, where Porkey had already declined to follow his father into the coal mines--"underground farming"--or his brother into a settled working-class existence as a pipe fitter.

The next forty years were variations on his trip to the grocery store. He worked in the Heinz cannery in Iowa. He worked in a paper mill. He'd hit town and go to the casual labor pool. He'd go to the back door of a restaurant. He gravitated especially to resorts. Palm Beach, Key West. He "manicured dishes" at Lake George, New York. He saw celebrities.

"Burt Lancaster, he's a regular guy. Jackie Gleason, he tries to buy everybody," Porkey says, the fly on the wall talking. Porkey loves to talk. He talks so much in fact, it interferes with his juggling. But what he says to the crowd is probably more interesting than watching him throw BB-loaded tennis balls in the air, and not catch them. "The more you give the better I live," he tells them. "I'm taking up a collection to go to jugglers school!" That's after he drops the balls.

Porkey has a well-practiced way of telling a story, one apparently honed through years of elbow-bending at beer joints, and occasional stretches in jail. He starts off by tossing out a topic--a doctor he knew back in Pennsylvania, say. Then he proceeds to the development, in this case, his visit. This might have been the time he went to the doctor because he was hit by a train on his way to the bar, after spending the night sleeping on a baseball field. Then, just before the punch line, Porkey begins chuckling, a sign that the zinging finish is fast approaching.

But it never does. Sometimes it's because he's already got his nose in the beer glass so you can't hear what he says. Sometimes it's because he's already laughing so hard he's begun coughing so you can't hear what he says. Sometimes it's because you hear what he says, but there is absolutely no joke.

"I tells him, if he don't do okay, he won't get paid!" is the punch line about the doctor, surely an observation not worthy of gales of laughter. The form of the story is perfect, but the content is not there. Luckily, very few barroom conversations are much different.

Around fifteen years ago, when street performing was revived as a modern-day equivalent of medieval troubadours or Elizabethan Punch and Judy shows, Porkey got an inspiration. For every concert violinist manque sawing away at Vivaldi, there are half a dozen guys like Porkey, for whom street performing is a polite, nonthreatening way of asking for public donations to the beer-money kitty. "I learned out of a book," he says. Porkey grudgingly slides off his barstool to demonstrate. He does the three-ball crossover, the most basic element of the juggler's trade. The balls drop, and lie peculiarly motionless on El Matador's rug.

Porkey says he drops the balls so much because it attracts attention. People stop to watch the show. It sounds like a pretty good explanation. After draining his beer, he agrees to go out on the street to demonstrate its efficacy.

A bunch of schoolchildren are waiting outside the museum to see the almost-life-size dinosaurs. Porkey starts juggling. He drops the tennis balls. They lie there, looking uncooperative, maybe even faintly sullen.

"I learned juggling from a book," Porkey tells the kids while he corrals the uncooperative balls. He spends a good deal more time chatting, dropping and retrieving than actually keeping the balls in the air.

That is what makes Porkey so interesting. That is what makes him lovable. That is what makes him, ultimately, worthy of admiration. Porkey is, if not a rotten juggler, a mediocre one at best. And yet, he has plied his trade, if you could dignify it with that term, all over the country, and with some measure of success. He has no boss. He refuses to worry. And he seems to be awfully happy.

"I'm a street performer," he tells the schoolchildren. They look puzzled. A few of them, nicely brought up boys and girls, toss dollar bills in the cookie tin Porkey has on the sidewalk. They are following one of the unwritten rules of life, the one that says if you watch the performance, you should pay for it, even if it stinks. Another says when you use the bathroom, you should buy something from the store.

Porkey had a bus ticket back to Pennsylvania in his luggage. He checks into Pittston occasionally for a change of clothes and to say hello to the folks, and to pick up the disability check he gets from the government. "I'm crazy," he says. After that, who knows. "I never plan nothin' in my life," Porkey says.

The kids go into the museum. Porkey heads back to the bar, taking the recalcitrant balls with him.

Juggling, for Porkey, seems more like a contest of wills, a final pitting of man against unresponsive nature.

"Coast to coast on a piece of toast," Porkey says, lighting up a unfiltered Camel and sipping his Budweiser.

"Burt Lancaster, he's a regular guy. Jackie Gleason, he tries to buy everybody," Porkey says, the fly on the wall talking.

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Anna Dooling