As soon as his chubby quarry toddles into range, 31-year-old Robert Rivera levels his bubble gun and fires.
Bubbles spew forth, and so does his sales pitch.
"Check it out now, we got the bubble guns, bubbles, bubbles!" the flea market vendor cries. "Support Mr. Bubbles, check it out! No party like a bubble party! Six dollars! Check it out! Bubbles!"
Rivera's spiel is wasted on 2-year-old Shakira Mason, who is already sold by the rising storm of bubbles. As she attempts to gobble them out of midair, her grandmother counts out the bills to Rivera. He accepts the money solemnly, as if it were a defeated general's sword.
Victory will be his hundreds of times before the Patapsco Flea Market closes on this hot-as-Hades Saturday, as the Hubble Bubble bubble guns fly off the shelves, both the mouse and the duck models, batteries not included.
Every once in a while, though, a cagier customer comes along, someone who seems immune to Rivera's soapy bullets, who puts up a fight and attempts to haggle over the $6 price. In fact, he doesn't know it yet, but one such shopper is at this very moment headed his way.
For now, though, he relaxes at his toy booth, Uptown Trading. Even against the backdrop of dolls and miniature trucks, he is a tough-looking character. He wears a gold chain and a black T-shirt adorned with
winged skulls; a thin strip of beard outlines his jaw. Gangsta rap blasts from a stereo on the booth behind him. Tiny children, some the offspring of other vendors, crowd around his feet. Each time he squeezes off another round of bubbles, they dance crazily, like hippies at Woodstock.
"A lot of vendors do hate me, I just want you to know that," Rivera says. "It's because I stay on top of what's hot. It's because I know that nothing else here is selling but bubble guns."
Sometimes he feels like he was born for this job. It comes that easily to him. After eight years at the same flea market, he's so good that he calls the area around his booth "the Bermuda Triangle," because customers just get sucked in.
Which is not to say that competition isn't stiff at sprawling Patapsco, on West Patapsco Avenue in Southwest Baltimore, home to 1,000 vendors. Buyers have so much to choose from: piles of $6 pants, gently used jelly bean dispensers, discount Ballerina Tea Herbal Dieters Drink, belt buckles that say "oversized load," dried pigs' ears, ringtones, roughed-up Barbie dolls, computers with yellowed keyboards, and what appear to be showgirl costumes for dogs. There is also a booth that says "See the Strange Thing," where $1 buys the curious a peek inside a trunk at - well, we're not saying what, except that it's very strange indeed.
None of these distractions fazes Rivera. A New York native, he sees the rubes of Baltimore as easy prey.
"When someone comes from New York to Baltimore, it's like going into a time machine," he says. "When I was 10, I was ahead of these people."
Maybe that's because most of his customers are still in preschool. But even their parents are no match for his wiles. He scores an easy $6 with practically every volley of suds.
Until Sandra Pittman comes along.
The West Baltimore grandmother is not in the market for a bubble gun. As usual, she's trolling for deodorant and other shower supplies, making a beeline for Scent-Sations, where she intends to snag a bottle of Gucci Rush perfume at bargain-basement prices - at least $10 off what she would pay at a department store.
If the man behind the counter will sell it to her for that, then wonderful. If not, she'll try to bring him down on the Jean Paul Gaultier. And if he still won't budge, she'll turn on her heel and leave. The trip to the flea market will still be worth it to her. She's here so many Saturdays for the thrill of the hunt as much as the savings.
Absorbed in thoughts of designer oils and eau de toilettes, Pittman marches past Rivera's booth, waving away a stream of bubbles as if it was an unpleasant stench.
"Bubbles, bubbles, $6!" Rivera cries.
She hesitates, then stops. Her grandchild might like a bubble gun. But at that price?
In his dreams.
"Six dollars?" she says to her companions. "Maybe $4."
"I say $2," says 13-year-old Ebony Scott, Pittman's mentee, who is learning the ropes of haggling.
Pittman's husband, Charles, adds that they ought to factor in the costs, both monetary and psychological, of bubble refills.
"It could be a headache, with grandkids asking for bubbles all the time," he says.
If Rivera hears the huddled shoppers scheming a few feet away, he does not let on. He's used to such muttering - and worse, he says. Last Christmas at the flea market, a customer threatened to kill him for a PlayStation 3 that Rivera wouldn't take less than $1,000 for, let alone the measly $600 the man had offered.
Though armed with only bubble guns, Rivera was not afraid. He just avoided the parking lot for a while.
At last, Sandra Pittman settles on a strategy. She sends her young friend as an envoy. Ebony is instructed to offer $4; under no condition should she should pay more than $5.
"What about $4?" Ebony says to the salesman.
Rivera doesn't bite.
"He wants the $5!" she calls to Pittman. "Five?" Ebony says to Rivera, who pretends to consider.
"What color do you want?" he finally asks.
Pittman and her crew, now packing a bubble gun, stride away triumphant. Rivera is happy, too. Truth be told, he's been offering a two-for-$10 special off and on all day. He never really wavered from his bottom line. But he lets the customer think she's won.
He wouldn't want to burst her bubble.
Patapsco Flea Market
1400 Patapsco Ave.
8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
25 cents for shoppers older than 7
For more information:
Call 410- 354-3040 or go to patapscofleamarket.com