“They go really high, almost to the point where you can’t see them anymore, and they come down real slow.”
Maybe you’ve been in the Gaslamp at night and noticed purple lights ascending above the mayhem of partiers and rancorous lines outside the clubs. Those lights are Comet Copters flying, courtesy of Charlie Griffin, who makes a tidy gig-living from the rubber-band-powered contraptions as well as from blowing huge soap bubbles around town.
Griffin, 32, who goes by the self-assigned moniker of “The Bubble Guy of Coronado,” has tried a lot of ways to make money, but his role as a dispenser of novelties has proved the most lucrative; he’s just moved to Coronado and life does seem to be all (as the quaint saying goes) “Skittles and beer.”
“I was having the worst day of my life, a really, really bad day. My friend said, ‘Make some bubbles.’ I wasn’t into making bubbles. I said, ‘Fuck your bubbles!’ She said, ‘Just try it.’ She wouldn’t leave me alone, so I tried it, and when I did, the craziest thing happened; all the bad, negative energy I had started flying away with those bubbles. By the time I was done, everything was okay. The happiness it gave me... I decided to pursue it. I fell in love with it. And I thought, If the bubbles were able to do that for me, maybe they could do the same thing for somebody else. That was several years ago.”
Before his bubble epiphany, Griffin says there wasn’t exactly an overabundance of joy in his life as a wage (or commission) slave. “I worked at a gas station and at a Big 5 Sporting Goods, and I’ve been a car salesman. Just before I started doing the copter thing, I was working as a maintenance guy at a run-down place that used to be a bed-and-breakfast. The owner was a hoarder, so it was pointless.”
By late 2012, Griffin, wielding what looks like a divining rod of sorts, was shaping soapy loops five days a week, three or four hours a day, hoping to entice admirers to buy $10 bubble kits. “The smallest one is the size of a big beach ball; it all depends on the wind. If it’s windy, there will be hundreds of thousands of smaller ones, but when there’s no wind, I can put people inside of them. Summer is better because bubbles are cheaper to make then. I have my own secret recipe, and the ingredients are a lot easier to find during the summer because stores stock them more.”
Griffin says that during San Diego’s modest winter, he can’t sell many bubble kits but can still work birthday parties. “Those are mostly at Spreckels Park in Coronado; I try not to do them inside because it gets messy. I charge $50 for a half hour; any longer, the kids get bored.”
Griffin admits that the bubble biz is a dicey financial proposition. “That’s where the helicopters come in. When I was doing bubbles one day, there was this guy downtown selling these things you shoot in the air; they have a little light on them and they look cool. He asked me if I wanted to sell them and I thought it would be perfect because once the sun goes down, I can’t really bubbles anyway. I started selling the helicopters and it just took off from there. I thought the helicopter business would be seasonal like the bubbles are, but it’s not. It’s down since last summer, but it’s still way better than a minimum-wage job, even if I were to work 50 hours a week. Worst-case scenario? I will not take less than $64 in a day; I won’t stop selling until I make that much. Some days I make $400 to $500, other days only $100. But I make more money selling helicopters than I ever have in my life, even selling cars.”
Charlie and his comet copters
Charlie Griffin talks about making a living selling his comet copters toys on the streets of San Diego.
I asked him about the micro-economics of selling toys to the passer-by. “They’re one for $5 or three for $10. I buy them at a right price, 75 cents each, so it’s all profit.”
When I ask, “What about competition?” Griffin answers, “These things are getting more and more popular. There are already a couple of people down there at Market and Fifth. I try not to go too close to them.”
Do the Comet Copter guys have territories, turf?
“That would be nice, but unfortunately, it’s not like that. One of the guys I brought into the business who was helping me — I don’t know if he just can’t find his own spot, but every time I go, he shows up and it really frustrates me, and I haven’t found a way to overcome it. He lacks courtesy.”
While there might not be a lot of busted kneecaps or shakedowns, catering to bubble fans and toy-copter buyers does present occupational hazards in the form of local hoteliers and gendarmes. “It was weird,” remembers Griffin. “For about seven or eight months, I was making bubbles right in front of the Hotel Del; there’s a grassy area at the corner off Orange where tourists cross through coming from downtown Coronado. One time, the hotel people finally said something, told me I needed to move on; but the very next day it was okay.”
Was it private property?
“Funny you should ask that. There were bikes left there one night, so I called the hotel and asked for the security department, because bicycle theft is all over Coronado. “They said, ‘Call the Coronado Police Department. It’s not our property.’ Also, let’s say I’m in the heart of Seaport Village. The cops will tell me I’m not allowed to sell the helicopters because they aren’t ‘home-made or hand-made.’”
Before he hangs up, Griffin tells me, “Right now, I’m setting up at the Kissing Statue. It’s gonna be a good day. But just in case…luckily, I live with my girlfriend, who makes pretty good money as an RN.”