A story in the fashion of the object at hand.
Header image: A small, yellow and white bouncy ball is pinched between two fingers against a mint green and yellow background.
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I don’t think he actually said “think fast,” it’s just something my brain auto-completes in those moments. You know, when a tiny, theoretically-catchable bouncy ball ricochets off the ground right towards you, and your arms sort of T. Rex awkwardly into your chest. I know how to catch a ball, I swear, you think as your fingers crinkle inwards around air, and the ball taps your thigh weakly before dribbling away. You feel stupid, but also kind of giddy? Absolutely triumphant if you do manage to palm the ball—(high on the adrenaline, maybe you go so far as to toss it in the air and attempt a second catch, you daredevil, taunting fate. Or, playing it safe, slip it coolly into your pocket, like it’s no big deal)—triumphant, and superior to those around you chasing after their wayward quarry in the grass or under furniture, beholden to its strange, rubber gravity.
Over the last month, I have had the privilege of being surrounded not only by the unexpected and delightful appearance of bouncy balls, but by a reliable trickle of first- and secondhand bouncy-ball stories. They arrive and depart in the fashion of the object at hand. Appearing as sudden non-sequiturs. Ushered out by a burst of hearty and full-throated, genuine laughter.
But this, dear readers, is the best tale of them all.
This is a story. A story about 2,206 pennies, a bowling alley, a rooftop cafe, 5,000 bouncy balls, and a sword. It’s a story about mutual aid (maybe?). And about the multi-colored, lemon-flavored rubber that binds us together.
December chill arrived at November’s tail. By 7 p.m., it was already dark, and had been dark for hours. In the gleam of the streetlights, you could still spot small crunches of snow in the grass, lingering from the first snowfall the day before. When the back service door to the kitchen opened, cold air swooped into the hallway and a window of warm light shone onto the loading dock. I donned my mask and hurried inside.
Garth, Brian, and I sit in an awkward triangle, perched on chairs and a sofa spaced perhaps slightly further apart than necessary. I turn on my phone recorder.
“What’s your favorite bouncy ball?” I ask. Brian pauses before pulling one with yellow and white swirls out of his pocket. “I tell people it’s lemon-flavored,” he says.
I’m holding it right now and it’s definitely not lemon-anything. None of these rubber bouncy balls smell like anything other than the faintly chemical fragrance of treated rubber. But, holding it, I can see the allure. I would be one to hesitantly lean forward for a whiff, late to the joke.
The story really begins, Brian says, at Monona Terrace.
PART 1: THE MAKING OF BOUNCY BALL GUY
FREIGHT ELEVATORS AWAIT. WILL THE BALLS BE DELIVERED?
“My sister has two kids, and we’d go to Rocky Rococo’s on the Beltline all the time [alas, no Microtones crossover here], and we’d give them tons of quarters to play games,” says Brian. But instead, they used their windfall to unlock a bounty of bouncy balls. “And my sister was like ‘I’ll be damned if I have all these bouncy balls around.'” (Honestly, not relatable.)
Just like that, Brian became the benefactor of a steady supply of bouncy balls. He began bringing them to work with him at Monona Terrace, “just to lighten the mood up.”
“We had these big freight elevators and so we’d have a handful of balls and as soon as the doors would close we would just like whip ’em. Comin’ in hot! Balls bouncing everywhere, you know. Just something to keep people on their toes.”
At the same time that Brian was cementing his status as Bouncy Ball Guy at Monona Terrace, he began collecting coins. “I worked at the cafe on the rooftop,” he says. “We’d share tips, so I’d get a lot of loose change, and so I’d start playing a little game of collecting silver and copper coins.” Specifically, silver coins—those minted before 1964—and copper pennies—minted before 1982. Since 1982, pennies have been made of zinc with a copper coating. “My real goal was to maybe one day cash in the copper pennies for a few extra bucks, you know, if copper ever skyrocketed,” Brian says. “But, I mean, I really didn’t have that much of a plan.”
Now, dear reader, the stage is set. Enter J.
J. also works at the Monona Terrace. J. and her husband run a bowling alley. They attempted adding bouncy balls to the toy dispensers. Big. Mistake. “Naturally kids throw ’em down the lane, and they screw up the machinery, so they took them right back out and they just sat in a box. So she had asked me about a year ago, hey, ‘We’ve got this box of balls, do you want them?’ I’m like hell yeah,” says Brian. “I’m your man.”
Alas, even months later, no bouncy balls had appeared.
“Over the course of this year, like two different times I brought it up,” says Brian. “‘Hey, how are my balls doing, I really would like those.’ But I didn’t want to push too hard, you know. It’s like feeding a baby deer, you know. You don’t want to scare it away.”
PART 2: ENTER SWORD CASTING GUY
Sword Casting Guy is from Austin, Texas. Sword Casting Guy travels around the country teaching people of all ages to make aluminum and bronze swords. A former science teacher, Sword Casting Guy turned to homemade weaponry “To get his students interested in ancient civilization and science,” according to a video on his website, in which he also shows off an aluminum cast of a fire ant nest.
“They call him the Walter White of sword making,” says Brian.
Oh, this is not a well-sourced Microtones, btw. It has exactly one source: Brian. But in the name of research, I did go down a rabbit hole of sword making videos (like this and this and this and this and also this one). So I can say with authority that among the many, many materials that swords can be cast from, are pennies. These swords might not be exactly historically accurate, but like bouncy balls, their allure is both undefinable and undeniable. A sword! Made out of pennies!
Penny swords happen to be a specialty of Sword Casting Guy. It takes 500 pennies to make such a sword, says Brian. And not just any pennies. Pre-1982 copper pennies.
Well, this story is really coming together now, isn’t it.
PART 3: AN EXCHANGE IS MADE
With just days to go before Sword Casting Guy arrives in Madison to teach a workshop, J. posts on Facebook. She needs pennies. Pre-1982 pennies. 500 pre-1982 pennies, in fact, within the next four days.
Brian has pennies. 2,206 pennies to be exact. And Brian needs bouncy balls.
A date is set, and the exchange is made.
The box of bouncy balls, when new, contained 5,000 balls. A number of those 5,000 balls were lost forever to bowling lanes. By the time they reached Brian, they numbered somewhere between 1,200 and 4,000.
PART 4: JOY A-BOUNDS
This is where the story ends, but also where it begins. “I’m not even close to halfway through that box and I’ve been just hemorrhaging balls left and right,” says Brian.
“I’ve gotten to the point now where I like, hide them. Like, if I see a jacket on a coat rack I’ll put one in each pocket. Or mailboxes, or just anywhere, you know, that will be found by human hands.” Brian is careful not to litter them, to leave them places where they might not be discovered, or accidentally wreak havoc.
“Are people getting sick of the bouncy balls, or do they inspire, like, universal delight?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. No, day one they were sick.” But—”It gives me delight every day, that’s for sure,” says Brian.
Unfortunately, the transformation of quarters to bouncy balls to pennies to swords is not quite complete. Word is that Sword Casting Guy didn’t have the right equipment with him for making penny swords during his visit through Madison. But in a matter of months, he’ll return to the midwest, where Brian’s pennies await.
I thank Brian for his time. As we walk out, he tosses me the butter yellow and cream ball. “But it’s your favorite,” I protest. Brian shrugs. “I’ve got more.”
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