Monday, September 12, 2011

Bubble Man blows a trail of lustrous wonders

Four-year-old Frankie Latimer reaches for that most elusive of prizes, the soapy bubble. Behind her is neighbourhood legend Terry Wilson, 65, the Bubble Man of Fernwood. Globe and Mail photograph by Chad Hipolito.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 12, 2011


Like a swordsman preparing for battle, Terry Wilson unsheathed a slender plastic rod from a long narrow tube.

He strolled across the street, deliberation in every step.

As he did so, he held out his instrument.

What he held in his hands is for play, not war.

Behind him trailed gossamer clouds.

Mr. Wilson, 65, is known as the Bubble Man. On 363 days of the year, excepting only Christmas and New Year’s, he can be found on or near Fernwood Square in Victoria, where he delights passersby by blowing, manufacturing and otherwise interacting with soapy bubbles.

“Little kids chase them. Middle-aged sophisticated people coming out of the wine bar in their finest clothes jump up to pop them,” he said.

“That little kid inside each of us comes out so easily with bubbles.”

To spend an hour with the Bubble Man on a sunny day is to erase a week’s worth of routine and clock-watching deadlines. Children run up to him to play. Drivers slow as they pass, shouting, “Hey, Bubble Man!”

A caution sign at the corner depicts nine black bubbles of various size on a yellow background. Caution, bubble crossing.

For almost a decade now, the Bubble Man has been doing his thing in Fernwood, a neighbourhood that reminds you of what Haight-Ashbury must have been like before it became Haight-Ashbury.

At the Cornerstone Cafe, where he is a regular, the Bubble Man ordered his favorite cup of joe, known here as a Terrycano (rhymes with Americano), for which he does not pay. The free java is a tribute to a beloved character who helps make Fernwood feel like Fernwood.

In the square, the bubbles quickly attract a gaggle of giggling children, among them four-year-old Frankie Latimer. Watching nearby, her mother can only laugh and smile at her daughter’s antics as she plays with the Bubble Man.

“She absolutely, ridiculously adores him,” Phoenix Demski said. “He’s like Santa Claus.”

Mr. Wilson also has toys for children. He scavenges playthings found on the street, repairing them and offering them to children for free. These used to be available at his old home, a collection of oddball squirt guns, bubble wands, and plastic chickens. “Funny, weird stuff,” in the words of another parent.

Some of the castoffs have been used to decorate the Bubble Man’s convertible Volkswagen Bug. A toy Donald Duck head is attached to a front fender, while plastic flowers adorn the rear bumper.

The Bubble Man recently ran afoul of The Man in the form of a bylaw enforcement officer. He had been living in a recreation vehicle parked in the side yard of a house from which he received electricity and whose bathroom he used for a $350 monthly rent. After being evicted, he found a room in a nearby apartment, for which he pays $875, a steep price for a pensioner.

Mr. Wilson has been collecting a disability pension for 12 years after being diagnosed with “depression, sleep disorder, anxiety.” At a recent meeting of the Neighbourhood Resource Group, he proposed the creation of subsidized housing for poets, artists and characters such as himself. He calls his idea “Keep Fernwood Funky.”

The Bubble Man’s father was a geologist with a the mining company before becoming a professor and dean of geology at the University of Manitoba. Terry Wilson lived as a boy in Europe and Africa before the family settled in Winnipeg, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Environmental Studies. He later got a masters degree at York Unversity in Toronto.

He didn’t care for working in government and wound up back in Winnipeg, where he opened a shop from which he sold handmade toys and other wooden crafts. He came to the West Coast nearly two decades ago. He stumbled into bubbling, a lustrous pastime whose responsibilities he takes seriously.

About two years ago, he discovered his favoured Miracle Bubbles® had been watered down, no longer produced bubbles of satisfactory size. After a period of experimentation, he settled on a mixed solution with Ivory Clear Dish Soap for bigger, better, longer-lasting bubbles.

In the square, brothers Cairo, 3, and Ronin Gates, 5, whirled to chase an elusive prize whose capture is necessarily a short-lived triumph. Pop!

The Bubble Man spreads delight by blowing bubbles. Terry Wilson holds a masters degree in environmental studies. He has been called the patron saint of the Fernwood neighbourhood. Globe and Mail photograph by Chad Hipolito.