In the early days of the pandemic as people looked for ways to occupy themselves amid stay-at-home-orders, Kurth Reis discovered -- bubbles.
Since then, the aspiring bubble artist has become a frequent sight around San Francisco, launching giant car-sized bubbles that seem to drift endlessly, surprising visitors and residents alike.
"I’ve definitely taken it to another level," laughed Reis, who's become obsessed with bubble making.
At the beginning of the lockdown, in the San Francisco apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Reis scoured the internet looking for directions on how to make giant bubbles. He experimented with different combinations of soap solutions and crafted his own stick and string bubble maker.
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Four days into the lockdown in March 2020, he set-out into the city streets and parks launching massive bubbles the size of small cars, carried along the breeze along San Francisco's Embarcadero.
"I was just addicted to try to make bubbles," Reis said during a bubble making session in a park along the Embarcadero. "I don’t know why."
Every day since March 2020, Reis has made daily strolls around San Francisco making his bubbles -- often for fifteen hours a day. He visits parks, street corners in the Tenderloin and even pays nightly visits to Grace Cathedral where his bubbles look like giant crystals floating toward the church's towers.
'It’s a really good way to give back," Reis said. "It’s nice to see people smile, you know what I mean? And people really need to smile right now."
Reis and his bubbles have become a familiar sight in the neighborhoods he frequents. His bubbles carry across the intersection of California and Leavenworth Streets, wafting along the California Street cable car line giving riders an unexpected sight.
"I love the bubble man; he’s marvelous and brings a little light and happiness and joy and frivolousness," said San Francisco resident Roz Bowser who frequently sees Reis around. "Reminds me of the old San Francisco."
Reis said the key to making giant bubbles is in the solution, a mix of household soap detergents he said are also used by wildlife rescuers to treat oiled birds impacted by oil spills. It's a point Reis emphasizes, since children are excited to pop his bubbles which results in cascade of soapy water.
Reis said science is at play every step of the bubble-making process. A strong wind is the enemy of the bubble maker. So is low humidity and direct sunlight.
"They’re spherical so when the sun hits them it’s like a magnifying glass, it goes right through them," Reis explained, "causes a little bit of evaporation on the other side and then, pop."
Reis believes the sight of his bubbles has a redemptive effect for some. He said he's often approached by people in a state of depression who cited his bubbles as lifting their spirits.
It's been a curious journey for Reis who doesn't recall seeing large bubbles as a kid, and never had the inclination before Covid to make them himself.
"This was not on the bucket list," Reis said. "I could’ve never told anybody that I was going to be doing bubbles. I would’ve said 'you’re crazy.'"
Reis new pastime has not only fed his soul, it's also providing him with a living. Through tips and private bookings, he says he can make several hundred dollars a day, though he insists he's not motivated by the money. He's motivated by the bubbles.
"Really you don’t have to give me money at all," Reis said from beneath the red bandana he wore as a mask. "Just have a smile -- I can see it in your eyes."
On a recent day, Reis wheeled his cart of bubble supplies -- a skateboard serving as the cart's hub -- into Sue Bierman Park along the Embarcadero and began plunging his homemade stick and string mechanism into a large industrial bucket of suds.
As he effortlessly hoisted the sticks in the air, a long effervescent stream of bubbles began to pour from the contraption drifting skyward. Within minutes, groups of children began chasing the bubbles, tourists whipped out camera phones to capture the sight, and even business people paused to watch the scene.
A man dressed in a business suit leapt up to pop a bubble with his index finger, and a toddler clapped as a bubble drifted past her. At the center of the scene, Reis calmly applied his craft, a small radio playing Sinatra as the soundtrack.
He described his pre-bubble making life as a rough journey in and out of prisons over fifteen years. He hasn't always been a nice guy, he said. But in bubble-making, each sphere he launched seemed to carry off the molecules of the past. Reis said he'd learned from his mistakes and was now letting them go.
"It really feels good," he said. "When you take, take, take all your life, you miss out on all those small little things in life."
Now it was Reis' time to give -- a late-life calling, that for some reason, had come to him during the heavy time of the pandemic, and left him feeling as light as the bubbles he was now sending into the sky.
"I’ve never found anything in my fifty years that I love," Reis said. "And I can honestly say I love doing bubbles."