The Black Gums of New York City

The moving pictures always portray New York as a place where one looks upwards: up at the skyscrapers, up at the trees, up at the bright lights, while saying something like this:

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This has not been my experience of New York. I’m not saying that there aren’t skyscrapers and lights to look at, I’m simply saying that I never look up when I’m in New York. This, in part, is because of the wind. The skyscrapers of Manhattan serve effectively as a wind tunnel, turning the mildest of garbage-scented Staten Island zephyrs into whirling garbage-scented tempests by the time they reach street level in Midtown.

To look upward in such a wind is to risk being hit in the face by an airborne rat or falafel cart. Also, people in Manhattan like to scream verbal abuse at people who look them in the eye. So I’ve always walked with my head down in Manhattan.

Your typical New York sidewalk gazer will eventually notice a phenomenon of New York sidewalks, particularly in the more heavily populated areas (okay, all the areas of New York are heavily populated, to the point where it seems that the only way they could fit more people is with a blender.).

The phenomenon is gum. Gum carpeting the sidewalks. Gum that was spat on the ground eons ago, and, in the intervening years, having lost it’s stickiness on the shoes of many an angry tourist, has slowly absorbed the rainbow of particulates that float through the Manhattan atmosphere, combining them all into a dazzling tie-dye of ash gray on grime black on excrement brown.

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Photo: Aoife

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This is on the Empire State Building, by the way. Photo: Nick Traveller

The sheer quantity of gum you’ll come across in a single-block walk is staggering. It is a single person’s lifetime of gum. It is the amount of gum that can be found in the stomachs of an entire school district-worth of elementary students. It is the gum of generations. There’s so much of it that one must imagine that there, underneath your feet, is the expectorant of the stars. Woody Allen’s gum. John J. Astor’s gum. Biggie’s gum. Dorothy Parker’s gum. Jerry Seinfeld’s gum.

What is it, one wonders while searching for rare open patches of cement, that makes New Yorkers such prolific big league chewers? Have Bloomberg’s anti-smoking laws pushed so many to quit smoking that the city’s foundation now consists of 92% Nicorette? Has the Big Gum lobby been particularly effective in indoctrinating the masses of our country’s largest cities? Or do they simply need something in their mouths to keep from constantly screaming in terror?

(One does not wonder why they spit on the ground, however, as New York is a town that runs on garbage. I don’t mean that garbage is big business, I just mean that people literally run — and drive — on garbage. New Yorkers just push their garbage onto the sidewalk and into the streets when they’re done with it, where it waits for 286 years until it is partially fossilized and can then be scraped off the asphalt with a forklift and unceremoniously dumped on the shores of Staten Island or New Jersey.)

More ominously, what is it that New Yorkers are planning on doing with all of this gum? Unless they want to be slowly buried under it’s rise, like some sort of horrible tar glacier, they will have to dispose of it at some point. And lest they be forced off their island, they’ll have to send it somewhere else. This can not possibly be a good thing. Because tar gum is only useful for one thing: filling in cracks. And we all know how much New York hates a pothole.

Featured photo by Nigel Munoz.