The Bubble Men

This blog is taking a few days off at the end of the year. Here’s a favorite post from 2011.

The most beautiful woman in the world called me yesterday to tell me a story.

Every day she walks her three children through Central Park, drops off her eldest at school, and then walks her two youngest back across the park to begin that day’s set of activities.  After school lets out in the afternoon, she repeats the journey.

Yesterday was the first sunny day in New York for months, warm enough to shed your jacket.  So hundreds of New Yorkers made a beeline to Central Park to get a whiff of impending spring.

A crowd in New York is a magnet for commerce.  With the first thaw of the year, acrobats, magicians, mimes, face painters, bad caricaturists, balloon dog makers, hot dog venders, etc. seem to emerge from the ground and take their places in the park’s prime walking thoroughfares.  What’s really cool is that you’ll notice that you’ll be able to find the same juggler in the same place year after year.  Commercial territories are respected.  It’s the code of the park.  If the guy who paints his face silver and acts like a statue claimed a spot in the park ten years ago and he shows up every year to the same spot, it’s his.  No arguments.  Move along upstart ventriloquist.

So after the most beautiful woman in the world picks up her big boy after school, she decides to spend the rest of the afternoon in the park.  As is her custom, she likes to walk through the Central Park Mall on her way to her kids’ favorite playground.  The Central Park Mall doesn’t have a Gap or a Slurpee concessionaire; rather it’s a stunning creation that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux described as an “open air hall of reception.”  Wide enough to accommodate several horse drawn carriages with parallel rows of ornate benches defining it’s perimeter and shaded by a canopy of branches from American elm trees, the Mall runs about a half mile between 66th and 72nd street.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Kramer vs. Kramer, the scene that rips your heart out—Dustin Hoffman dropping off his son for a court-ordered play date with Meryl Streep, the son’s AWOL mother—was filmed at the Central Park Mall.  How great a choice was that?  Four divine creations—father, mother, child, and the natural world—tragically incapable of union.  Robert Benton (the movie’s Screenwriter and Director) brilliantly communicated that deep emotional truth in a ten second shot.

A veteran screenwriter, Benton knew the formula for a love story, and Kramer vs. Kramer is one Hell of a love story.  Love stories require a scene when after conflict, the lovers are reunited.  Benton could have had Hoffman just drop the kid off with Streep’s doorman and then have Streep come down and kiss the kid.  Or he could have had a babysitter take the kid over to her apartment.  Those scenes meet the formulaic requirements. But they aren’t nearly as poignant or deep as that shot in the park.   Art requires adherence to formulaic conventions, but the formula itself is not art.

So the most beautiful woman in the world and her three kids start walking through the Mall at 72nd street.  There’s a Bubble man, making incredibly large bubbles that prove irresistible to any being still capable of unselfconsciously skipping (children).  The big boy asks the bubble man…

“How do you make such big bubbles?”

“Sorry kid, but that’s a trade secret,” the man says pleasantly.

The most beautiful woman in the world and her kids smile at the man and continue walking.  They make it to 66th street and whaddya know? There’s another bubble man.  His bubbles aren’t any bigger than his competitor’s on 72nd street.  Big bubbles are big bubbles, right?  Overwhelmed by the moment, the big boy has forgotten all about the other bubble man and his unwillingness to tell him his formula…

“How do you make such big bubbles?” he asks the 66th Street bubble man.

“The trick is to get a big bucket, mix about half a bottle of Palmolive dish soap with about a gallon of warm water…then you take some big pipe cleaners…here let me show you…”

The most beautiful woman in the world digs into her purse and puts $3.00 into the man’s tip jar. She walks over to one of Olmsted and Vaux’s benches, sits down and watches her three children run, jump, and laugh as they chase this bubble man’s bubbles.  She gets out her iPhone takes two pictures and sends them to her grumpy husband who has to work late that night.

Then she asks the bubble man how much it will cost for him to make three sets of pipe cleaner big bubble makers for her kids.  She’ll make the soap at home and then her kids can create their own monsters.  The bubble man tells her to pay him what she’d like.  He’ll be happy to do it.  Meet him tomorrow at this same spot and he’ll give them to her. Then the most beautiful woman in the world calls me.

“I’m thinking $45 for all three,” she tells me. “What do you think?”

It sounded like a bargain to me.

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  1. Janet L. on March 18, 2011 at 5:14 am

    Great story. There is always someone interesting to be watched or found in Central Park. The second Bubble Man gained more by being open to the woman. And I love that seen in Kramer vs. Kramer.

    • Kathrin Seitz on March 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      Shawn, great story! I know Central Park Mall well and I can imagine myself in that park with that woman, with her kids, making those decisions. Perfect! And your note re Kramer vs Kramer makes me want to go and rent it right now. Thank you for an “exhale” — a moment of respite– in my busy day.

  2. Janet L. on March 18, 2011 at 5:15 am

    Great story. There is always someone interesting to be watched or found in Central Park. The second Bubble Man gained more by being open to the woman. And I love that scene in Kramer vs. Kramer.

  3. Debbi on March 18, 2011 at 7:04 am

    Thank you for sharing this daily moment of joy, of being present and for being the moment. The man who is willing to sharing his bubbles is far more powerful to the children because of the magic he can create for them also. Of the two bubble men, who will the children remember? When we connect even in a smile, we make a difference to the person on the receiving end.

  4. P-dawg on March 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Great story, Shawn. About halfway through I’m thinking, “How is Shawn going to get next to this most beautiful woman in the world?” Then, bummer, she’s married. Then, surprise, you’re the guy who’s been on a date with her for at least three kids’ worth.

    And to recognize her incomparable beauty to the whole digital world (most of whom are regulars on this site) — dude, you have scored beyond mega-points. No wonder you sound so bubbly.

  5. Linda Proud on March 18, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Good point excellently made. Many years ago when I was a freelance picture researcher, a ‘rival’ phoned to ask me where I’d found a certain image she’d seen in a book. It took about half an hour to search out the details, and then I phoned her back.

    A year later she called again to see if I’d like a job with Time Life.

    Blogging etiquette absolutely depends on the principle of generosity, and I’m delighted to be following yours. It inspires me every time.

  6. Jeremy Brown on March 19, 2011 at 5:43 am

    Shawn, thanks for the great story and the lesson on formulas behind art.

    I love it that two stories, like Kramer vs. Kramer and this post, can have similar beats and structure, but completely different scenes, characters, and outcomes.

    And reuniting with your wife and kids in this story, even via iPhone, is powerful.

  7. Tricia on March 19, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Beautifully written piece.

  8. Elizabeth Wenig on March 19, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Steven, (may I call you Steven?) I have come late to the Pressfield buffet of literary offerings and am enjoying the spread. This entry touched my woman-soul, thank you. I just finished War of Art; I and my muse are very appreciative of your talent.

    • Kathrin Seitz on March 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm


      Great piece. I know Central Park Mall well and could imagine myself that woman with those kids having those responses. Perfect image moment. And the reference to Kramer V Kramer makes me want to see it again ASAP. Thanks.

  9. JesPace on March 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Just joined your website and I enjoyed reading every article. Nice story also to show how simple life things have tremendous power when built on foundations of love, sharing and respect. Thanks Steven.

  10. William Cobb on March 21, 2011 at 7:32 am

    The second bubble man is a true salesman. He understands the product, understands what delights the customer (kids) and then figured out how to sell it to the buyer (Mom). Just think about how many other families will know about the “bubble man” within a week after he delivers the pipe cleaner big bubble makers. I’m willing to bet his future sales increase.

  11. Prudence on March 21, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    A teacher once told me, “Transformative learning begins with a good story.” Here’s a great example of such a story. Thanks, Steven, especially for that ending that I’d hoped from the beginning would come. 🙂

  12. Rebecca Lang on December 30, 2011 at 10:27 am

    This was a nice story. I think that generosity has a nice ripple effect, as seen here. I also liked the description of Central Park. I’ve never been to New York, but it made me feel like I was there.

  13. Patrick Dodds on December 31, 2011 at 5:16 am

    Give a kid a bubble and they will be happy for a moment. Teach a kid to make bubbles and they will be happy until they get overtired.

  14. Nick Murray on January 1, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Shawn, happy new year! The second bubble guy was clearly in possession of the Supreme Secret: that what goes around comes around, no matter how long or elliptical the orbit!

    • Shawn Coyne on January 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      Yo Nick!
      Great to hear from you. Happy New Year to you too. Don’t forget about 1927.
      Your pal,

  15. Liz Wallace on January 4, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    I usually offer the “how to” speech when I talk about jewelry making. I didn’t alwas tho. The more u try to control information the smaller ur world gets. The more generous the bigger it gets and more exciting opportunities present themselves. There is the oddball now and then that wants the mystery but they are often stuck.

  16. mara on January 6, 2012 at 10:30 am

    I experienced this story as a unique distinction between the aspects of Ego and true giving. The second bubbleman was doing what he did not for money but for happiness and the pure joy of giving. And he was rewarded by a monetary payment, but better then that, he was able to bring joy into people’s lives. That is the sign of a person who loves what he is doing, and who is doing it for the sake of the craft himself. However simple the craft may be. He shared his secrets, and that is what a true giver and teacher would do.

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