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.
Lad: What are all these spots?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.