I visited England once," said our taxi driver as we sped down one of San Francisco's vertiginous hills, "I was there for a jugglers' convention."
"You juggle?" asked my husband. "Oh yeah," said the guy, with an insouciant air which suggested that most Californians had some kind of circus skill. "Not professionally. I guess I could earn a living from it if I had to, but I don't. Mostly I do it for fun. Juggling helps with pretty well every part of life."
Usually, on our taxi jaunts in different cities of the world, I sit in the back fussing over the children's seatbelts and my husband rides in the front with the driver making small talk. He's better at it than I am; better at deciphering unfamiliar accents over the crackling intrusion of the radio, better at navigating his way out of those awkward political back alleys about 'immigrants bringing the country to ruin', better at asking that supplementary question that leads from the mundane to the interesting and even occasionally bizarre.
But uncharacteristically, he failed to follow up on our driver's last remark, and as our son was making a "what did he mean by that" face at me, I thought I'd better do it.
"You're going to have to elaborate on that," I said. "How has juggling helped your life?"
And he told us.
We've been fortunate enough to travel a good deal in the past decade, but of all the cities we've visited it is San Francisco where I've left my heart. Somehow that hippy spirit of unbuttoned, unwashed abandonment which I find so resistible when it sprawls through London, bothering commuters at times of economic summit, seems less contrived, more integrated into the fabric of a place where the history of the anti- establishment is so strong that it has become the establishment. In San Francisco, I become a more tolerant person than the head-down, purse-clutching, don't-make-eye-contact conformist I am in London. So while in everyday life I would rather flay myself than listen to someone banging on about how clowning workshops would make me a better person, in San Francisco I was willing to give it a fair hearing.
Juggling, our driver explained, had taught him two big lessons. Firstly, it's all about throwing and catching just one ball. It is multi-tasking in its purest form, a series of individual acts which must be completed simultaneously. If you learn to control each throw separately – height, speed, trajectory - you'll have space to deal with the uncontrollable – wind speed, broken fingernails... I don't know, ask a juggler. But chuck everything in the air willy-nilly, and you end up with a total balls-up.
"So when I'm driving, for instance" he said, "I'm aware of my speed, how long it'll take me to stop, whether I can safely make it between those rows of moving cars. That way I can factor in the unpredictable nature of other people's driving. Sometimes I juggle for 20 minutes before I get behind the wheel; it slows down my thoughts, but speeds up my reactions."
And the second lesson? He glanced in his rear-view mirror and addressed the children.
"When I first started juggling," he told them, "I was hopeless. Of course I was. It's not a natural thing, not something some people are born with. But then I worked at it, and I got pretty good. And when it got too easy, I wanted to make it harder. Most things in life aren't about talent, they're about skill. Everybody starts out bad at stuff and most people stay that way, but you don't have to. The only thing that stops you getting better at something is not trying."
I looked at my kids, drinking all this in. It was of course the same speech we give them over their maths homework every week, but somehow I knew that learning about perseverance from a guy who had struggled at the beginning with burning clubs was going to have more impact.
We pulled up at our destination. My husband handed over some money, and the driver began rummaging around in his bag.
"It's OK, you can keep the change..." my husband protested.
"No, wait..." said the guy, and producing four little coloured balls, he showed us some of his skills.
We thanked him for the making a short taxi ride unforgettable.
"Well you know, I always think the world would be a better place if everyone knew how to juggle."