Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chewing gum as history

As an amateur historian perpetually searching for ideas for this column I am sometimes asked "What do you mean by 'history?'" Definitions of the Modern Age assign 1500-1815 as Early Modern History, 1815-1900 as Late Modern History and after 1900 as Modern Times, segueing into Contemporary Times. Me, I just consider everything up to this morning's coffee as history.

This helps, because Maynard as Maynard is not that old. The town was founded in April 1871. It is years away from its 150th anniversary. While a goodly share of the houses are more than 100 years old, fewer of downtown's buildings and none of local businesses surpass their centennial. My guess is that the majority of businesses are less than 15 years old.

A plethora of chewing gum spots (click photo to enlarge)
Some history is not only very recent, but, literally, underfoot. As one approaches the entrance to CVS, which opened for business around 2007, there are stains on the sidewalk and asphalt of the parking lot from discarded chewing gum. Spots start appearing 100 feet from the entrance and increase in density until the numbers exceed 25 per square foot on the parking lot surface nearest the door.

The solution to preventing gum spots is to not sell gum. As people who are chewing gum approach a store, an idea flies into their minds - buy gum!  This thought triggers an immediate, almost Pavlovian distaste for the piece of gum in their mouth, which just seconds before was perfectly satisfying the urge to fruitlessly chew and chew and chew. The old and now flavorless gum is mentally compared to the Platonic ideal of a new piece of gum - and spat out onto the sidewalk or parking lot surface.

Today's gums are made mostly with a synthetic-polymer gum base rather than tree sap. From Wikipedia "The hydrocarbon polymers approved to be in chewing gum are styrene-butadiene rubber, styrene-isoprene copolymer, paraffin wax, and petroleum wax." The non-chewy ingredients include sugar or non-caloric sweeteners, sorbitol, lecithin, glycerin, flavor and color agents, and preservatives.

What this all means is that well-chewed gum is primarily long-lasting synthetic rubber. On concrete or asphalt the three-dimensional, pale-colored blobs are pounded by foot traffic to nearly circular flat spots about an inch across and impossible to scrape away. Over time dust is pressed into the hardening gum and it turns black.

Worth noting - gum spots last a long time, but not forever. The Nason Street entrance to the old CVS building, which has been empty ever since the move, has no more gum spots than the average downtown sidewalk, confirming that years of foot traffic and weather will in time erode these permanent-seeming residues.   

A few companies have developed technology to remove gum. GumBusters has a device which blasts superheated steam blended with a cleaning agent onto the impacted gum. Franchises are available. Given that the most popular model GumBuster requires 3,000 watts to operate, the full package includes a generator. Alternative technologies use a power wash or a blast of powdered dry ice. Out, damned spot! Out, I say!

Example of Ben Wilson's painting on gum spots
Note his initials and year (on the eggs)
Or discarded gum can become art. Ben Wilson, an artist in England, famously paints miniature scenes, portraits and abstracts on gum spots (he uses a really small brush). A computer search on his name with the words chewing gum art will yield articles and images. The example to left is one of dozens.

There is an easy way to avoid creating gum spots - put the gum in the garbage. CVS, Walgreens and some of the local convenience stores maintains a garbage can just outside the front door. Gum, garbage can. Gum, garbage can. It's not complicated.