Lame Adventure 387: Any Given Sidewalk

On a pleasant summer evening in mid-August, I was walking down my quiet residential street on the Upper West Side when I encountered a mother walking up my block hand in hand with her inquisitive son, a lad of about five. His attention was focused on the sidewalk.

Sidewalk in question.

Sidewalk in question.

Lad: What are all these spots?

Mom: Gum.

Lad (in disbelief): No!

Mom: Yes! All these spots are chewed gum that someone stepped on again and again and again.

I blew past them both fighting the urge to declare:

Me: Not me!

Upon reflection, I’m glad I kept my defensive pie hole shut because in point of fact, Mom is right. I am someone who has indeed stepped on all that blackened, flattened gum “again and again and again”.  And so is she and so is the lad and so are you, if you’ve ever pounded any New York City pavement. Everyone that sets foot on the sidewalks of New York steps on it, even if it is grounded into the street for decades, you cannot avoid it. It’s everywhere like rats and pigeons. For added authenticity there could have been a little bronze splat under the foot of this statue of legendary New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

The Little Flower

The Little Flower

Where's the bronze gum splat under foot?

Where’s the bronze gum splat under foot?

Where are these legions of gum-chewing-spitting-sidewalk-defacing masses and furthermore, who are they? One workday evening, while standing on the platform in the Chambers Street subway station, I noticed that I was near three gum chewers: a male hipster in his twenties, an adolescent boy and a plush, middle age woman. I wondered if any of them had ever spat their spent gum on the sidewalk? Then, I took my wonder to the next level, were any of these individuals serial gum spitters? Could they have inherited this trait from a long line of gum chewing and spitting ancestors?

Since I am a natural born weasel with a penchant for self-preservation, I kept these burning questions to myself, but I do think they are something, forgive the pun, to chew on. Someone, somewhere is doing a massive amount of gum spitting on the sidewalks of New York and apparently they’re a-okay with it. Possibly for them, this habit is as natural as breathing, bitching or writing on bathroom walls. Odds are good that these are people we have met, actually know, dated, married or maybe, just maybe,  you’re one of them?

Freshly stepped on.

Freshly stepped.

Confession: for the past twenty years in response to thousands of dollars of dental work, I only chew gum when on a plane. I have never in my life ever spat a wad on a sidewalk, but decades ago, once to impress a date, I spat it in a trash can. I misfired and it landed on the side. Inside the can. But it was a pretty wussy spit. I sensed she thought I looked like a fool and I never did that again.

There are a few blackened gum blots outside my apartment building and I wonder if any of my guests might have put them there? I even noticed a wad of spit gum in the hallway where I work. Who did that? Serf or management?

Wad perfect.

Wad perfect.

When Milton and I toured Louis Armstrong’s house in Corona, Queens, I noticed a blackened disc of flattened gum defiling the front steps of the jazz legend’s home.

Did Satchmo do this?

Not even Satchmo’s front stoop is spared!

The modern chewing gum industry was born in 1876 in a factory on Vesey Street in lower Manhattan that was started by Thomas Adams, the dominant gum maker in the early 20th Century. He produced many brands including Chiclets, Tutti Fruiti gumballs and my childhood favorite, the first flavored gum, Black Jack. When I was a youngster, I would stick this black licorice-flavored gum on my front teeth to make it appear that they were missing. While other girls my age were playing Barbie, I was fantasizing that my front teeth looked like Muhammad Ali had knocked them out. In 1962 Adams was sold to Pfizer. Today, it is owned by Cadbury Adams and headquartered in New Jersey. Even though the Vesey Street factory has long since closed, for the past 137 years, gum chewers have continued the tradition of littering the sidewalks of New York.

Classic gum splat. Vintage or recent?

Classic gum splat. Vintage or recent?

There is a company called Gum Busters that’s dedicated to the thankless task of cleaning gum off pavement. They claim that it only takes 24 hours before a freshly spat wad can turn from a bubblegum pink color to a blackened disc the size of a half dollar where it can live in perpetuity.

Transitioning.

Transitioning.

As for whoever these many closet gum spitters are, I have no idea, but one can only hope that they get what they deserve: sticky payback under the soles of their shoes … or someplace far worse.

Subway seat: don't sit here.

Huge wad of gum on subway seat.

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92 responses to “Lame Adventure 387: Any Given Sidewalk

  1. This needs to immediately be placed (sorry for split infinitive) in the LA Hall of Fame. This posting is quintessential Lame. One of a handful every season that makes me stand (full disclosure, I’m actually sitting right now) in awe of your ability to bring into focus the MOST mundane moments of our life and shine a bright light of gentle humor and education on it. Brava! Brava! Brava!

    Like

    • Hey Mike. Ready for your game? Sweet weekend eh?
      And I agree — love this LA.

      Like

      • Had to sell the Saturday tix cuz D2 has her last HS homecoming dance that evening. So, weather permitting I will jump on StubHub to pick up 3 ducats for Sunday’s regular season finale at Fenway. Who’d a thunk it?

        Like

        • Oh my. Those darn daughters get us every time. Prom was in the night I got tickets in may. I told my daughter she was too young to go. Haaaa. Hey I gotta do what I gotta do. This year that won’t fly. She’s already talking about it. Sigh.

          Like

    • Gee, that’s such a flattering take on a post that was driving Milton straight to the nut-house. I was constantly pointing out blots of chewed gum on the sidewalk to him over the course of the past month. His mantra of late has been, “Oh please, write that post.”

      Like

      • Every once in a while you just knock one out of the ballpark. Yet I guess Milton spends enough time with you in person to get both sides of every story. I imagine even some of my friends and family would appreciate my just shutting up about the local weather forecasts on NBC at 6:35 every morning. I mean, could he just shut the fuck up? All he needs to do is put up a graphic with temperature, % probability of precipitation, and maybe some sense of how fucking windy it’s gonna be and stop droning on with satellite imagery and green radar scopes. And does anyone fucking care about the 2 degree variation in temperature at 6 a.m. in Morristown NJ and Montclair, NJ? It’s all of 20 fucking miles. Hey, if there’s a difference of, say 20 fucking degrees I might be interested. Seriously, by the time I drive to Morristown, what, it’s gonna be 37 degrees warme? Jesus Fucking Christ I just want to know if I need to bring a fucking umbrella or wear a warmer coat.

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  2. Snoring Dog Studio

    Yes – it’s as disgusting a habit as tossing a cig butt on the ground! I’ve been to places where the gum pattern is unbelievable. The danger is when the piece appears in isolation, pretending to be a nickel or a quarter. It’s so embarrassing to find that you’ve been picking at a piece of blackened, flattened gum. I remember being in grade school and finding it underneath the school desks – gave me nightmares for weeks. Ugh.

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  3. Gum and still burning cigarettes… {{{!?!?!}}}

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  4. How enlightening! Every time I walk by the statue of Fiorello, I imagine him carrying a box of Tampax. Not germane to your brilliant metaphysical disquisition on sidewalk flattened chewing gum, but it certainly adds to the statue’s endless possibilities. As for Adams and Black Jack, you did for me today what the madeleine did for Proust. You brought back my entire childhood in one sentence. Thank you.

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    • I thought of you and the Magnificent Arepa when I was taking those pictures, Judy. I must admit that the Little Flower carrying a box of Tampax did not cross my mind, but okay, that image can work. So great to know that I had a fellow Black Jack chewer in Mexico during our youth. Milton and I might be running into you guys very soon in the weeks ahead!

      Like

  5. Okay, LA, this is brilliant–so damn funny, I can barely stand it. Only you would ask about serial gum spitters and pair it with a brief history of chewing gum industry! I like to chew gum when I’m working out, but I’ll have you know, my gum has only ever been disposed of in the proper place.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    Like

    • Wow, you can chew gum while working out, Kathy?!?! When I huff and puff and court a coronary, the last thing I’m capable of doing as I fight to stay alive is chew. I am impressed with your virtuosity!

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  6. V, you are such an entertainer. You make the most mundane things hilarious. This was great and so educational. I’d always assumed that those black spots were fossilized pigeon droppings. I’ve seen a few weird things on the subways and trains when I was there but never a big fat gross piece of gum. I’m surprised an artist hasn’t done something to highlight the gum graffiti that line the sidewalks. You need to jump on this and commission someone. AND gum on Satchmo’s front step??! Is there nothing sacred.

    I wish I’d seen his house. He’s one of parents’ favorites.

    So enjoyed this!

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    • Brig, Milton did not believe all those spots were gum droppings, either. He thought they were tar stains from discarded cigarette butts. Then I shared my extensive research on the topic with him and when he regained consciousness, he became a sidewalk gum stain believer, too. Truly, nothing is sacred, and if I was not so lazy, I would have ventured over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I highly doubt those steps have been spared, but should the pope ever visit Gotham, Gum Busters can count on a phone call from the Archdiocese of New York.

      Like

  7. Euww! Why do peolpe do that? I swallow mine….

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  8. I’ve noted those spots for years ‘n years ‘n years. They’ve gotten much worse in the last ten years or so with the implementation of smoking bans, but I guess it’s sort of a trade off, eh?

    One thing I have found amusing is an aspect of this in the nice shiny “smoke-free” bars out there. Next time you’re at one, particularly if it’s one that’s been around for a few years, run your hand along the underside of the “lip” at the edge of the bar. Feel all those little bumps there? Guess what they are.

    Hmmm… I don’t know how to do pics here… or if it’s possible. If you email me at Cantiloper on the gmail system I’ll send you a nice little pic I took a few months ago. No, it’s not icky/disgusting (at least not simply in how it looks) … but it IS very strange.

    – MJM

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    • Rest assured, MJM, I know what’s lurking on the underside of watering holes and no, I never put my mitt there.

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      • The thing that amazed me when I went down to look (and took the pic) was not just what the lumps were, but how they looked! I would have expected grungy, sticky, black wads. Instead they’re multicolored, bright, hard plastic shiny things.

        – MJM

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      • The thing that amazed me when I went down to look (and took the pic) was not just what the lumps were, but how they looked! I would have expected grungy, sticky, black wads. Instead they’re multicolored, bright, hard plastic shiny things.

        In “Rules For Radicals” Saul Alinsky tells a tale of some students who’d been banned from smoking, drinking, dancing, etc etc etc on their campus and wanted to do something about it. They complained that about the only thing they were allowed to do was “chew gum.” Soooo… Alinsky advised them to hand out thousands of free chicklets and encourage their disposal in front of the schools main admin building.

        The other bans were quickly lifted. :>

        Of course today that might not work: with the SmokeFree Campuses new push for “TobaccoFree Campuses” they can run around looking in students’ mouths just to make SURE that they’re only chewing gum! LOL!

        – MJM

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        • Apparently, if chewed gum is stuck on a surface where it is not trampled, it hardens and retains its color. With that in mind, a chewed gum exhibit might eventually find it’s way to MoMA’s fourth floor, the floor my friend, Milton calls, “The Joke Floor.”

          Like

  9. could be worse..could be dog crap or vomit or loogies or piss or a used condom…

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  10. Now I know, V. Had no idea what they were! And since I don’t chew gum, you won’t find me doing that (I wouldn’t do it even if I did chew gum!). Excellent Lame Adventure!

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  11. It is rather amazing that all that gum resides on the pavement and yet, you never catch anyone in the act of spitting it out. Mmmm
    I’m a big fan of chiclets. Love that minty candy coating at first chomp. I’m a gum chewer — keeps my triple chin in shape. But I never spit it out on the sidewalk.

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    • HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Keeping your triple chin in place. Love that image, Audra! When I used to chew, the best chewing was withing the first two minutes, but after that, it was a one way ticket to flat tasting land.

      Like

  12. Instead of dropping used gum on the sidewalks, Gothamites should stick their gum on the wall. Here’s what they do in Seattle.
    View at your own risk!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gum_Wall

    Like

    • Hey Jackie, thank you for sharing this link to “one of the top 5 germiest tourist attractions in 2009”! Gee, does that mean it got knocked out of the top five since then? I shudder to think what has surpassed that.

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  13. LA, when I was in New York, I thought the pavements – sidewalks, sorry! – were incredibly clean and gum free. Maybe I was there on the day Gum Busters did their rounds; I feel honoured. I can’t believe that someone would use a seat to discard their gum, though, with all of that floor space remaining. What is the world coming to?

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  14. Dear LA,
    We are at a severe disadvantage here in Arkansas due to the lack of sidewalks. In fact, some of our residents (who have never traveled beyond the borders of our fair state) have only seen pictures of them in magazines or on TV. It’s hard to find satisfaction just spitting gum into a wrapper or trash can, and we’re much too polite to spit in the dirt path where it might get stuck between somebody’s toes. So one of my smarter cousins, Cletus, who owns a crop dusting plane, offered to fly our chewed gum to NYC and sprinkle it out evenly over as many sidewalks as possible. Sounds like he’s already hit your part of town. At least it gave ya something to write about. 🙂

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  15. I chew gum regularly (I was going to write ‘constantly,’ which would be more accurate, but it makes me sound like some kind of cow), so I’ve no doubt I’d fall under your suspicion. However, I make an effort to dispose of my gum. It’s something I take seriously. So if I were walking the streets of Manhattan, there’s a better than average chance that I wouldn’t use it as my personal waste-basket.

    Being a lapsed Californian, you might know of SLO’s “Bubblegum Alley.” I am pretty profligate with my gum there.

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    • It was not until Jackie, who commented earlier today, Smak, about Seattle’s monument to germs, the Gum Wall, did California’s Bubblegum Alley cross my radar. Once again, I appreciate the educational component my erudite commenters add to this site. It is also comforting to know that when visiting New York, you’re not inclined to use my city’s sidewalks as your garbage can. You make a great guest.

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  16. Omigosh, I loved Black Jack gum! And I used to do the same thing—put it over my teeth. Didn’t everybody? My other favorites were Beeman’s Pepsin (initially meant for the dyspeptics among us) and Fan Tan gum, which had an Asian, exotic appeal. It tasted pretty much like what I imagine chewing on a stick of incense would taste like—times a thousand. Very perfumey, if that’s a word. Often I’d chew a whole pack at once—what, five or six sticks? It’s a wonder I made it out of childhood with all my teeth intact. Great post!

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    • I was also a Beeman’s chewer in my youth, but I don’t remember Fan Tan, even though I rather enjoyed reading your description of the taste. I recall hating Clove and I was never into Teaberry, but I was one of those idiots that liked doing the shuffle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fk11Acjofu8 Do you remember that commercial?

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      • Ah, yes—the Teaberry Shuffle! Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The background music of our lives. I wasn’t into Clove gum as much as the other kinds. Now, Bazooka Bubble Gum was a whole ‘nother thing. I’d chew that sucker until it tasted like wallpaper paste. I had a friend who used to park her gum overnight in a tiny hand-shaped dish on her nightstand. A true gum aficionado. Either that, or a real cheap kid.

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        • A real cheap kid works for me.

          I was a big Bazooka Bubble Gum fan, too and chewing it until it tasted like wallpaper paste was very true in my part of the world, too. My sister also had the ability to blow bubbles that were about the size of my head, but every so often, she’d overdo it and one would explode. I would then laugh at that for a week.

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  17. My own hypothesis for why there’s so much gum all over NYC? Chicago. All I’m saying is that Wrigley’s is headquartered there and there are a lot of disgruntled Cubs fans.

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  18. Chewing gum is crass. I know because I once put a wad of Bubbleyum in my mother’s hair. Because I thought it was funny, that’s why.

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  19. V., I love your interweaving the disgusting mundane minutiae with research and the history of chewing gum. Once again, intelligent and colorful (shall I say) writing; stories that stick in my mind. (Once again, I couldn’t resist.)

    Even in our little town, I manage to step in odd, sticky things on the sidewalks — gum, loogies, used needles, mystery crud — and then there are the people who walk their big dogs without carrying poop bags.

    My next door neighbors discipline their pair of 4-year-old boys impeccably — make sure they’re quiet and stay on their own property — yet these adults sit on their front steps and toss their finished lit cigarettes into the gutter among the parked cars. The gutter in front of their house is lined with piles of white butts. When the wind blows, guess who gets to clean them up from in front of her own house. It might work out that the user would lose a little weight by making the extra small effort to dispose of their waste properly.

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    • ” … interweaving the disgusting mundane minutiae with research …” thank you Samantha for coming up with the title of my life story. At least it sounds like your loafing neighbors are raising their twins relatively well … I hate it when people do not clean up after their dogs. Most New Yorkers seem to be pretty responsible about scooping the poop, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who spits out his or her gum while out walking the hound. Today, I found even more gum stains inside The Grind, yes, my workplace, which is looking less and less sacred.

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  20. Great post V. I don’t chew gum. I have enough problems with my jaw as it is. As for people who litter, whether it’s gum, cigarettes or trash…well, they’re always going to be there. Best we can do is make sure we don’t litter, and we teach our kids about how important the environment is.

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    • That is very true Wendy. Litter is here to stay like death, taxes, and my personal nemesis, middle age weight gain. And I completely agree with you about being personally responsible about where we put our own refuse (and resisting eating that second cookie).

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  21. Ah, You can make anything Lame and brilliant! Gum is gross. I went through a spell (after much dental work) where I had horrid dreams of regurgitating hairballs of gum. I woke up each morning feel disgusted and then had to have the constant reminder as I walked down the streets and saw the black flecks everywhere. I do chew gum now, on occasion, but always dispose of it appropriately. Nothing is worse than having to step in someone else’s leftovers.

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    • Tania, all it took was one popped and semi-chewed crown to make me reconsider gum-chewing for life. And like you, I am not a fan of stepping in it, either. What kind and creative phrasing, “someone else’s leftovers”!

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  22. You’ve just led me to imagine the different kinds of questions a kid would ask in NYC and here in Cowtown. Q. here could be … “What are all these black little round stuff?” His mom would answer, “Deer droppings.” But I wouldn’t have so much to say about the morals of deer or the origins of their droppings. So, thanks for an informative and thought-provoking post, LA. 😉

    Like

    • Arti, I think a deer is probably a lot more moral than whoever has been spitting gum all over New York City sidewalks for the past 137 years.

      Like

      • Interesting! A solution to the gum problem! Over in one part of England (the councilperson’s name sounds Welsh) they’re really cracking down, realizing that all that’s really needed is proper enforcement. I found a story about one woman being fined for dropping some gum on the sidewalk and then fighting the fine so that she now owes roughly $700!

        ===
        “Nigel Wheeler of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council said: ‘Eco-criminals will not be tolerated. The illegal disposal of gum-related waste is the biggest single problem throughout the area. As well as creating unsightly environmental conditions, the offence can attract vermin. We will do all in our power to eradicate this type of behaviour.’ ”
        ===

        Of course if the gummer in question continues to refuse to pay the fine she can be jailed, and if she forcefullyresists she could end up being shot.

        Interesting, eh?

        – MJM

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  23. As your UK correspondent I shall be checking the streets of London and environs to see whether the above enforcement is happening anywhere near our capital. Horrid habit, though I think dog poo might rank even above gum for distressing pavement litter.

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    • An interesting aspect to the gum thing is that while I’ve seen untold thousands of the old black gum marks on sidewalks, I actually don’t think I’ve ever noticed a fresh wad of gum down there. That’s led me to believe that the problem is more one of persistency than frequency.

      – MJM

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      • It takes 24 hours for it to transform from a minty green color to tar black. Pay closer attention and you’ll catch it undergoing “the change”.

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        • Actually, if you happen to notice a stretch where they’ve laid some new pavement while the pavement to either side is well-decorated, you could do a once per week or once per month photo survey of the three pavement blocks and actually produce a valid study on the frequencies and duration of occurrence in that area!

          All we need is a multi-million dollar gummy grant for ya! Hmmm… maybe a 1 cent per piece gum tax to start it off? Nobody would care/object at that level and then it could be raised up toward a dollar apiece over the next few years. Nice extra income stream to balance the budget, and gummers tend to be fairly unorganized.

          – MJM

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    • Thank you Kate, LA’s UK correspondent. This weekend I noticed a few patches of NYC pavement that actually appeared pristine, like blank canvases awaiting that first splash of paint, or in this case, first splat of gum. Do keep us updated on the pavement of London. I am not a fan of dog poo, either, especially when I find it under my own foot.

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  24. A few years ago, my wife took me to this hidden gem in San Luis Obispo:

    http://www.locallinks.com/bubblegum_alley.htm

    It was both awe inspiring and nauseating.

    Like

    • Our mutual friend, Smak, mentioned this place to me, too! I would not be surprised if he contributed to the abundant wall art. Did you or your wife? Those are certainly not walls I would ever want to touch. Did it smell minty, cinnamon-y, bubblegum-y?

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  25. Looks like somebody beat me to sending a link to Seattle’s gum wall near Pike Place Market, but there’s so many more photos here. Check out the ones where it’s oozing down the windowsills. Disgusting to the max.
    https://www.google.com/search?q=seattle+gum+wall+pictures&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

    Like

    • You’ve got that right! Disgusting, indeed! It would be A-okay with me if I never touched that wall even while wearing gloves, or else they’d have to be extremely thick gloves lined with hand sanitizer.

      Like

  26. Pingback: I Took a Walk | Brigitte's Banter

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