By Chris StoneWhen sunsets are at their best, he appears near the Ocean Beach Pier, creating monstrous bubbles that thrill children and awe grown-ups.
On first approaching Alan James, you might pause warily for a moment because he wears a handmade headdress — his body covered in war paint. But a moment passes, and you see he means no harm. Just the opposite.
He’s there for the smiles.
Who is the Bubble Man of Ocean Beach?
“I’m not in it for the money,” said James, a retired exotic auto body painter. “I get satisfaction out of making kids smile. And old people — if I can brighten their day — I’ve done good, I think.”
Cars no longer being his canvas, James adds art to the shoreline.
The largest bubbles reach school-bus size, he says, and some float up to 2 minutes.
“It’s an art in a sense, the beauty of it,” he said. “They are only here for a second, so unless you catch them on film, they are gone forever.”
If the weather is right, James brings his homemade bubble concoction. Using sticks with rope patterns attached, he sets afloat huge bubbles that swirl with colors in the sunset.
Part performer, artist and chemist, James says he spends upwards of 20 hours weekly perfecting his recipe for large, long-lasting creations.
This is not the store-bought kind in the plastic bottle and a tiny wand.
He guards his secrets, but reveals that he uses up to 10 ingredients including soap, beer, citric acid, baking soda and lubricant.
Lately he’s been boiling the soapy water. And he’s been experimenting with food additives and other materials. His goal is to make bubbles stay wet longer, so they last longer.
It takes more than an hour to make the concoction, he offered during a recent outing. The more money he has, the more intricate the solution.
People have asked to buy his formula, but he’s not selling.
James watches the weather and checks the wind. He shows up several times a week when conditions are ripe for a beautiful sunset.
But he doesn’t see himself as the star of the show.
“I’m just a small part of what is really taking place,” said the North Park resident. “What I do is bring Mother Nature and the bubbles together.
“I try to act as a mediator in the process. I try to get them to get along.”
Calling the bubbles “temperamental” and “delicate,” James said the best conditions are humid days.
Bubbles pop when they dehydrate or hit something dry, he explained. Finding the right formula for long-lasting ones is hit or miss.
At times, he’s had to dump a couple of gallons of the soupy mixture and start over again.
And it’s not just the bubble ingredients you can see. There’s a spiritual dimension.
He blows prayers into his bubbles, including a call for an end to elder abuse.
He appreciates the applause. People tell him that he’s made the day special for their kids. Audiences drop money in a hat resting nearby.
“If I don’t get a smile out of somebody, I feel like I’ve wasted my time, which I know that I haven’t because I’ve been praying the whole time,” James said.
And while a child’s wrecking impulse is strong, he is annoyed when kids hop and pop the wonders before the audience can fully appreciate them.
So don’t burst his bubbles.
“I’d rather have them blow bubbles into the ones that I’ve already blown than destroy everything,” he pleads.
(But parents should watch that children don’t run out into the street chasing the bubbles or trip on rocks on the beach.)
After his retirement five years ago, James began this performance artistry, first showing up at Mission Beach and then moving to Ocean Beach.
A graduate of Crawford High School, James has spent his life working and creating art in San Diego.
By the age of 12, he made his own surfboard out of resin. His mother had used that material to create her own art — resin grapes as tabletop decorations.
These days, he works with many media, including paint, glass, metal and paper.
He’s performed in local nightclubs wearing costumes.
The headdress and makeup are thoughts from dreams. He wonders if, in another life, he was an African or Australian shaman.
When are the bubbles best?
In the middle of the night.
James lives near the North Park water tower, and after midnight, into the wee hours of the night, he releases his bubbles.
With humidity rising at night, his bubbles can travel several blocks before disappearing.
There’s no one to distract him, except for police checking on his unusual late-night activity.
“(The bubbles) are like an escape for me, just make me forget about how ugly the world can be,” said the 60-year-old.
“I gaze into them and I’m praying — praying that the world becomes a better place and we don’t just annihilate ourselves,” he said. “We’re not on a good track. We’re destroying the oceans; we’re destroying everything.”
If you ask his name, he will say, “Dead Alan James,” because he feels he has cheated death a number of times, including an accident when he was run over by a car. He broke his neck and a leg.
But now, his life is spent with his art and seeing doctors for his skin cancer.
“I look forward to many more (good sunsets) this year,” he said.
How long will he continue?
“Once I can’t do this, I’ve got no reason to be on the face of this planet anymore,” James said. “I want to be able to make people smile, to make people happy.
“I want to make the world a more beautiful place — even if it’s just for a couple of seconds.”
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