SAN FRANCISCO: The massive bubble Kurth Reis conjured last month, rising like a genie from a bucket of soap, startled a small girl visiting San Francisco's Embarcadero, almost enveloping her as she scampered away.
The bubble popped. She then jumped and clapped, and turned to Reis, eager for another show. This city's hard-working bubble man had succeeded once again in bringing a little joy.
The 48-year-old Californian travelled a rocky path to his novel métier. Reis was in the military and later did jail time, burning bridges before a motorcycle crash hospitalized him in 2018, he recounted. Waking up, surgery after surgery, "it was like being reborn."
He walked out 88 days later with a titanium rod in his leg and resolved to change his ways. In 2020, when Covid-19 emptied the city's streets, he found his calling as a bubble performance artist.
His girlfriend, Kelly Sullivan, deserves much of the credit, or blame, for what she calls his soapy "addiction." She gave him a bubble-making gun for Easter, and after the batteries died, he rewired the toy to turbocharge it and crank out 1,000 bubbles a minute, he said.
Dipping a string that hangs like a "V" from two rods into solution, Reis learned to fashion spheres "the size of a Prius."
Reis bid farewell to his food delivery gigs and committed to full-time bubbling. "I went out to dinner yesterday. In my mind I thought, should I bring my bubbles?" he said.
He rides a tricycle across San Francisco to perform his craft in parks and on street corners for hours, making up to $150 in tips a day from tourists who visit Alcatraz.
Money is not what moves him. A woman approached Reis not long ago, on Bush Street, to say his bubbles uplifted her when her dad died. Eyes squint and cheekbones flex when people smile behind their masks. Reis felt like an essential worker who spread joy in the pandemic.
He has his bubble-making down to a science. For his solution, he squirts a bottle of Dawn dish soap into a bucket - never Palmolive - then pours in half a cup of guar gum and stirs with an eggbeater. He adds a third of a cup of baking powder. Then he fills the bucket with water from a hose he holds at the bottom to minimize foam.
For his stage, the higher, the better. A rear wind propels his bubbles and prolongs them. Under the sun, they evaporate, so he prefers nightfall. And humidity - 50, 60, 70% - is key. "Bubbles wouldn't work so well at Burning Man, you know what I mean?" he said.
Reis finally conducts a ballet with his rods, like batons, widening his arms to form the bubbles and narrowing to release them.
Bo Smokoska, a 29-year-old tourist, witnessed the show on the Embarcadero. "He's bringing joy to so many people."
Police have borne witness as well, and they wave hello to Reis, a cop's son who once felt antagonized by the criminal justice system, he said.
Reis has metamorphosed in this role, like his bubbles that stretch, squiggle and subdivide.
"I don't ever look back," Reis said. "I can't save the world. I'm not trying to. Just trying to put a smile on somebody's face by doing some bubbles."