No, not Scrabble tiles, although I wouldn’t blame you for guessing that. Not golf balls, either, or marbles or a rock collection or tent pegs or jigsaw puzzle pieces. When we moved into this house I shoved the bag into a closet, and last week Isaac came downstairs with it around his neck. He was most interested in the bag itself, but that’s only because he didn’t know what was inside:
Now, you’ll either know immediately what this is or you will not. And, I would venture to say that whether you recognize it immediately as a gum wrapper chain says something about you. What, exactly, it says I’m not at all sure. Rachel seems to think that the fact that I have managed to, over a 28-year span, transform untold numbers of chewing-gum wrappers into a multicoloured chain that measures — one sec — approximately 59 feet long is a sign of some kind of weird, tenacious, obsessiveness. I say, if you want obsessive, here’s obsessive. But the truth of the matter is that I have never passed by a stray gum wrapper on the street without stooping to pick it up.
The chain began in fifth grade as a joint project between me and my friend Adrienne; she in particular supplied a range of Carefree gum wrappers and boundless enthusiasm. But, apparently, not as much enthusiasm as me, the Keeper of the Chain, the grown woman who still adds to it.
When it became apparent, back in the early 1980s, that the chain and the wrappers that make it up needed some kind of permanent home, my dad tossed me the purple bag, thus continuing the great Canadian whiskey’s double life as storage provider for random stuff. Wrappers include Carefree Gum; Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, Double Mint and Spearmint flavours; Fruit Stripe Gum; Beeman's; Orbit; Dubble Bubble; Beech Nut; Big Red; Freedent; and others whose names I can no longer piece together from the origami mix. My elementary school friends used to bring me exotic brands from their United States vacations. It used to smell sweetly fruity; I would drape it over my shoulders or bury my face in the Crown Royal bag and inhale cherry, grape, cinnamon. Now, when I inhale, nothing: the scent is almost completely gone.
As are gum wrappers, aren’t they? At least, the long, thin flat sticks — first sheathed in tissue paper or foil, over which were folded the colourful paper sleeves. Typing that now, I can see that the wrappers were utterly overpackaged, contributing no doubt to global warming and our landfills, but I — in case you haven’t noticed — still have a soft spot for them. I think that Juicy Fruit is still in production, but the wrapper has changed from its sturdy paper to a slick, plasticky stock that just isn’t as satisfying.
I haven’t actually chewed gum for years, and I can’t remember the last time I found a suitable wrapper on the street. They’ve become hot commodities; currently, there’s an auction on eBay for two chains, found at an estate auction, measuring 15 and 18 feet each — “folk art chewing gum wrapper chains,” no less — plus 3500+ wrappers. Current bid is $120. I can’t say I’m not tempted, but that would push me over the edge from nostalgic to just plain weird, wouldn’t it? Or maybe we just say that I’m committed to my art. Maybe I need a patron. Actually, I definitely need a patron: feel free to send me your wrappers, and know that you are contributing to a storied folk art tradition.