Before we left Berlin for the United States, one of my mother’s friends told me that Americans always chew gum. “Everyone does it,” he insisted, “even the adults. And when the gum loses its flavor, they just stick it under their chair or spit it out on the street.” My mother told the story about an American soldier who had given her a piece of foil-wrapped gum after the war. She thought it was peppermint candy and swallowed it.
I loved gum. In fact, I often spent my allowance of ten Pfennig into the gum ball machine near our apartment building. I loved everything about that red dispenser – turning the little handle, hearing the ball roll down the metal chute, seeing what color I’d gotten. Then, there was the art of blowing bubbles. Unfortunately, Germans considered chewing gum an abomination, the nasty habit of people without manners. It was strictly forbidden to chew it in school and when I snapped my gum on the street, complete strangers sometimes reproached me. That’s why I didn’t believe my mother’s friend who said that in America, even adults chewed gum.
When we got to St. Paul, Minnesota, I discovered that gum came in dozens of shapes, flavors and colors. For a dime, I could get a paper sack full of sour grape balls perfect for blowing giant bubbles. Women carried gum in their purses, men pulled sticks of it from glove compartments as they drove. It seemed that when they weren’t smoking cigarettes, adults were chewing gum, in a low-key kind of way.
I remember buying a frosted donut in a bakery. Outside, I looked for a trash bin so I could get rid of my gum. “Just spit it out,” my friend coached me. I did. Looking down to see where it landed, I noticed that the sidewalk in front of the shop was mottled with small grayish splotches - old gum. Another time, in a community center, I gripped the seat of my chair and felt little bumps. I leaned down to investigate and saw that the entire underside was blotched with wads of chewed gum. I wondered who’d stuck them there and also if anyone ever scraped those bumps away.
When school started, I learned that not all Americans liked gum. My English teacher Mr Arnold was lenient the first time he saw me chomping it in class. “You just came from Germany so you don’t know any better. Maybe people over there chew gum all the time but here we don’t. Certainly not in school. If I ever catch doing it again, I will stick the gum on the tip of your nose.”
Looking back, I think he was joking. But at the time, I believed he would do it. Needless to say, I saved my gum balls until after school.
When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my next few posts, I am writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul. This is the fourth in the series. Read other anecdotes here and here.