Show Me the Way to Go Gnome

Mesa, an East Village resident for more than 28 years, peers through a soapy kaleidoscope at the large throng that has gathered around the Astor Place cube for the Bubble Battle.

"Who organized this?" he asks.

"New Mind Space," replies a woman with a tiny battery-operated bubble fan, but the answer seems to float away on the wind. What's important are the bubbles, shimmering in the current of crosstown traffic. As suggested, people have arrived with bubble fans, bubble guns, bubble blowers, and bubble wands in every size, shape, and color. There is even a giant handcrafted bubble machine brought from Delaware by Felix Cartagena.

"I haven't been to New York in 25 years," admits 58-year-old Cartagena, who is moderator of a soap-bubble-fanciers group. "But a member of our group in England forwarded us this announcement. . . . . It's incredible."

Three-year-old Buenos Aires resident Lucia Shpunkoff waves a small bubble-blowing lion from atop her father's shoulders while Chris Kieffer, a 22-year-old West Harlem resident with dark shades and a mohawk, brandishes a two-foot-long bubble sword. "Lucia just discovered bubbles this week," laughs Richard Shpunkoff, a native New Yorker who brought his daughter home to visit family. "Can you imagine what sort of memory she is going to have of this place?"

The heat of summer, the tumult of traffic, the steamy jazz trio serenading the end-of-week commute, and a horde of laughing people frolicking with bubble-blowing lions, elephants, cows, ray guns, swords, UFOs, hoops, horns, pipes, and kazoos. Just your average summer day.

"Bubble battle!" shouts 22-year-old Jason Eppink, engaging me with a two-hooped variation on the tradition bubble wand. Eppink looms over me and, without much wind to assist in up-current, I am sorely outmatched even with my three-hoop wand. A shimmering avalanche of bubbles falls over my head and I discover firsthand two often overlooked maladies in bubble battle: hyperventilation and bubble-lung.

"The trick is you have to breathe very deeply while you're blowing bubbles, so you don't hyperventilate," warns 31-year-old veteran Nick Asbell, "but when you breathe deeply you run the risk of inhaling soap. It's a hard-won skill. That's why I stick to batteries."

I admit defeat and retreat to the outskirts of the throng, where spectators have gathered. Five-year-old James Malmude-Davisdances wildly with a nearly forgotten bubble blower dangling in his fingers. He pauses for a moment as a few young men start spinning the cube at the center of the bubble melee.

"Your grandfather and I used to come here and spin that cube," explains Anna Malmude as a halo of bubbles breaks in her hair.

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