Once upon a time, somebody heading into the Market Theatre on Post Alley took their chewing gum out of their mouth and stuck it on one of the exterior bricks of the entryway. I bet that person goes around now saying “I started the Gum Wall. It was me. I started the Gum Wall.”
That’s what I would do if that had been I, because the idea caught on. There are now thousands of gum wads on the wall. There is gum high and low, gum on top of gum, gum of all colors, gum in the shape of people’s names. Yes, I agree. Disgusting. And yet…
I pass the wall, which has achieved some notoriety among bloggers and travellers, every other day or so when I walk up Post Alley from my building in the 1000 block to the market to chat with Abbie, Alexander, Annette, Ashleigh, Anna, (can you believe that?) Kayla or Evan while whichever one of them is at the steam valve makes my small decaf latte. During summer, there are invariably several parties of visitors to Seattle standing in the alley taking pictures of the famed gum wall, pictures of each other in front of the famed gum wall or of each other adding new wads to the famed gum wall. Even in winter, though, there is almost always somebody there marveling.
The first time I walked up the alley and noticed this I jumped sideways like a cat, but soon I became as accustomed to the phenomenon as to the smell of hops wafting out from the brewery nextdoor, and after a while I found it irritating that I had to fold up my elbows in the narrow lane and wend my way through the invariable cluster of celebrants with their eyes pressed against their cameras while trying not to end up in their photographs.
But I’ve been watching people, and I’ve started to soften up a little. After all, the vision is undeniably arresting, and the very idea of so much DNA clinging to the bricks here is staggering. Some people who have since perished might conceivably be physically reassembled through cloning if you could locate their wad (I’m not advocating cloning humans – in fact I think it’s a bad idea. I’m just sayin’, the genetic repository is here. And on the other hand, the opportunity for mix-ups is, as you can see, enormous). You can’t really blame people for wanting to be part of something as singular as this.
I had my camera with me the other day and took it with me up the alley on my coffee run. Several groups were there paying respects to the wall. One was a family, which stood around in a close circle, almost as if at a christening or some other religious ritual, as their junior member appended her contribution in just the perfect spot.
Another was a young couple. They unwrapped a stick of gum each and chewed for a few minutes, then chose a place above the ticket window while their friend prepared to take a photograph. The way they leaned into the moment together made this low-brow activity seem like some kind of transcendant act. What promise, what request was made silently in that instant? “I’ll stick to you. Will you stick to me?”
Watching these various participants, I was put in mind of the Western Wall (a.k.a. the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem, where Orthodox local Jews as well as travelers from across the globe bring “wads” of another kind — small pieces of paper with prayers written on them wadded up — to stick in the between the stones of the only part of the ancient Jewish temple that is still accessible to the faithful, and cry their hearts out to God. This reminded me of that a little, only this is more like a larking wall… a laughing wall. I know the Market Theater wasn’t crazy about the gum thing; twice over the years the establishment has hired out to have it all cleaned off, only to resign themselves eventually to their wall’s dubious fame as the wads have returned each time. But I bet what God sees, if heaven regards such things, is the implicit wish in the hearts of these gum-stickers to be joined with a thing larger than themselves, something that will outlast them even if their particular wad falls off or erodes away. That wish is a wish not to be forgotten, a wish for the immortality that we know we cannot give to ourselves.
I’m not saying that people consciously pray here the way they do in Zion, where serious and timeless soul anguish is brought forth. I just think there is something inherently upward-wishing in the act of adding one’s Big Red or Trident to this grand adhesive enterprise.
Of course, from a property value point of view, what this is is a lot of gooey gum stuck on a wall. And it’s disgusting. Sometimes, when I’m in a particularly snarky mood, and especially if I happen to be well dressed, I’ll stroll past the gawkers, smile mayorally, and say “Welcome to our fair city.”