Something to Chew On

A coin! A coin!


This was the thought that rushed excitedly through my head as I stood on the street corner waiting for the lights to change. But when I looked down and fixed my gaze on the small, circular shape I’d spotted with my peripheral vision, my dreams of quick financial gain were once again dashed. Instead of a shiny, gleaming and commercially exploitable metal token, all I found was a black patch of congealed gunk.


I considered it for a moment with some puzzlement. What was that…? Suddenly, the answer hit me. I was looking at the remains of a long dead piece of gum. Ordinarily, my thoughts on the matter might have ended there, but on this particular day, I was delighted to have something—anything—to take my mind off the impending bank visit my feet were so unenthusiastically dragging me toward.


Goodness, so this was the final resting place of what had once been an eager young piece of gum! How incredibly fascinating! Immediately, I threw together a few deeply ponderable questions of the kind likely to distract a jittery mind:


  • Did pieces of gum sit hopefully in packets wondering which sidewalks they would eventually become part of?


  • In whose particular mouth had this piece of gum served? Had it been in and straight back out again, or was it tumbled slowly around and around like a rubber boot in a washing machine?


  • Speaking of which, what was gum’s footwear of choice? In other words, what did the average piece of gum prefer to be trampled by?


The lights changed and I began moving forward again, over the road and onward. This was when I realized the splotch I’d left behind was far from a solitary case. In fact, the entire sidewalk around me was strewn with little black stains of flattened gum, as though some delinquent Hansel had staggered drunkenly to and fro, leaving an impossibly chaotic trail for me to follow. I hoped he and Gretel didn’t expect rescuing any time before they were ninety.


But this fanciful notion merely begged the question: who was really dropping all this gum everywhere? When I had to wait again at another busy road, I casually and without raising the slightest suspicion gawked directly at the mouth of each pedestrian around me. Yet despite being fairly generous with the time I allocated per set of chompers, I detected no telltale signs of chewing whatsoever. Of course, whether this meant the various jaws around me were entirely free of gum or were just cemented tightly together by it was difficult to say.


Hmm… Did office workers even chew gum? I thought for a moment, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing anybody with it at work. I certainly didn’t use it. The thought had never even occurred to me. Besides, I had the strong impression that any such chewing during working hours would be frowned upon by my boss and our customers. Admittedly, this wasn’t something I’d ever asked about. Rather, it seemed to fall into that category of actions not explicitly mentioned in the company rulebook but which were nonetheless unlikely to enhance your promotion prospects, like commuting to work in a tutu or attempting to conduct all meetings in Klingon.


On reflection, it seemed office workers might not be the most likely source of the gum carnage at my feet after all. The pleasures of a surreptitious chew seemed slight indeed when set against a career in tatters. A more likely group of culprits might be the students from one or other of the various colleges in the neighborhood. This held particular plausibility for me since in my student years, I had known someone who chewed on gum more or less continuously throughout his waking life. Even now, as I sit here and try to recall his appearance, the part of his face I can picture most clearly is his ever-moving lower jaw, around which I then have to sketch in his other features.


Interestingly, when asked why he chewed so much gum, he didn’t always give the same answer. He generally said it was to keep his breath fresh. He did tell me on one occasion, however, that he’d started it years earlier as a way to prevent nail-biting. He found his constant use of gum expensive, he’d said, but at least it was not nearly as painful as chewing fingernails down to the quick. I thought he had a point—particularly if they were his fingernails.


Although either or both of these explanations may have been true, I did also hear him mention to a female classmate that chewing was scientifically proven to increase concentration and mental focus, and that whenever he’d been allowed to chomp, chomp, chomp his way through a test, he’d always performed much better than those around him. Whether this was because his score had gone up or theirs had gone down, he hadn’t gone on to say.


I vaguely remembered other students chewing gum at college too, although none of them in the same industrial quantities as my friend. Yet I couldn’t recall ever seeing any of them carelessly tossing gum onto the ground. On the contrary, the chewers had shown nothing but the greatest consideration for their fellow students, disposing of their unwanted gum well away from the feet of their classmates. Instead, they’d attached it to the underside of whatever chair or desk they’d happened to be nearest at the time, from which convenient location the cleaners could simply and hygienically remove it at a later date with nothing more than a few quick taps with a mallet and chisel.


But this still left a puzzle. If it wasn’t office workers or students who were strewing gum all over the sidewalk, who else could it be? I wondered if it might be children. Perhaps on their way to and from school, they covered the entire neighborhood with their “mouthiwork,” turning innocent-looking walkways into what amounted to fly paper-laced death traps for other pedestrians. It made a certain amount of sense, but given that I was seldom on any stretch of street at the same time as children nowadays, it was difficult to be certain.


I tried thinking back to my own childhood. Had I discarded gum on the sidewalk? I was fairly sure I hadn’t, although I had remarkably few memories to base this confidence upon. I’d tended only to buy gum if I could afford nothing else in the store since it’d seemed to involve ten times the work of other confectionary, but with one-tenth the payoff. I remembered it tasting pretty good to begin with, but then my lower jaw being caught in a painful and seemingly endless cycle of chewing something that was soon totally devoid of flavor. For all the joy it brought me, I might as well having been chomping on a bicycle tire.


I’d persevered with my chewing through the pain barrier mainly because I’d been told it was easier to blow bubbles successfully when the gum had become tasteless. Unfortunately, bubble blowing—like knuckle cracking, tongue rolling and finger whistling—was just one more thing my young body seemed physically incapable of doing properly. I’d begun the same way as everybody else, flattening the gum against the back of my teeth, slowly opening my mouth, pushing a little of the gum forward with my tongue, and then blowing into the proto-bubble thus created in order to get it to inflate. But no matter how hard I’d blown, the process had always seemed much harder for me than for everybody else, as though I’d been the only one trying to inflate a rubber welcome mat.


Occasionally, after what seemed like hours of excruciating effort, I’d managed to create a barely swollen, bright red bubble, which then formed the perfect complement to my massively swollen, bright red face. Far more often, though, I’d succeeded only in sending the gum shooting at high speed toward whatever happened to be directly in front of me at the time—be it a TV screen, a streetlight or the back of the school janitor’s head.


Remembering this period of my life, I looked down again at the haphazard scattering of black dots around my feet. It was entertaining to imagine every single one of them representing some earnest eight-year-old’s failed attempt to blow a bubble. I smiled and then I sighed. Ah, here I was yet again treading the grim, familiar path to the bank. However much I preferred to dwell on what had long gone, my thoughts were always eventually dragged back kicking and screaming to what was yet to come.


Like so many people around the world these days, I spend much of my time worrying. I have a mortgage I have to meet, a son starting college this year, tax demands and utility bills I can barely pay. Too little money comes in, too much money goes out—and the entire rickety edifice of my finances is built upon a job with no security. What if I get sick? What if I’m made redundant?


Perhaps this was why I found myself looking on the black marks scattered here and there across the sidewalk with such wistful nostalgia. I didn’t miss the gum. Not really. What I missed was the carefree nonchalance with which I had once chewed it.


© Bun Karyudo and the BunKaryudo Blog (2017)

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