When Papa was a boy living in Russia, he didn’t have a lot of things. Which is not the same as to say that there were a lot of things he didn’t have. If this sounds confusing, let me put it another way. There simply wasn’t that much to be had. The most basic things we take for granted here and now were in short supply there and then. You want your milk? Get up at 7 in the morning and go stand in line. You want a TV set that works? Well, you better have connections at the electronics store. Toilet paper? What are you, an aristocrat? Newspaper isn’t good enough for you?
That is why people never left home without a “just-in-case” in their pocket. A “just-in-case” was a cotton mesh-bag. It took up no space, and could be unrolled at a moment’s notice. Whenever there was something good for sale, out came the “just-in-case”. Shampoo or champagne, bananas or bath-towels, oranges or orangutans – doesn’t matter what, it had to be snapped up fast, before the store ran out. Goods appeared and disappeared following some mysterious laws that had nothing to do with demand and supply. Magically, lines formed as soon as some desirable item went on sale, sometimes even before it did. Over the years of this kind of life, people must have developed a supernatural sixth sense.
You turned a corner, saw a queue snaking towards a store door, and you joined it no questions asked. After all, if it wasn’t something good, there wouldn’t be a queue, would there. Now you could chat to your fellow queuers at leisure, and find out what was being sold. A few hours later, if luck was on your side and the store had not run out of it before you got there, you would emerge victorious, your “just-in-case” bulging with a chicken, a dozen oranges, or a pair of fluffy sweaters from Bulgaria. And as you walked home, basking in the envious looks from the passerby, you had that warm, gratifying sense of achievement that made it all worth it.
See, the rulers of the Soviet Union knew a simple secret. If you want to make people happy with their lot, don’t give them everything they want. They’ll just keep wanting more and more. That’s just how people are. No. If you want to make people happy and to keep them quiet, take everything away from them. Make sure they are truly miserable. Then give them back a little at a time. They will be glad and grateful for every little thing.
Well, little Papa didn’t know anything about that. All he knew was that, like everybody else, he craved things he couldn’t have, and when he did get them, boy, he was in seventh heaven. Things like blue jeans, for example. With a Levi’s patch on the back pocket. Never mind that they were not real American jeans but a cheap imitation from Poland or Bangladesh. Jeans were jeans. Or rather, they were much more than jeans. They were a sign of status, a statement, an attitude. When you wore shabby, ill-fitting Soviet-made pants, you just shuffled along. When you wore jeans, you strutted like the cowboys in American westerns.
In different places at different times, just about anything could be a luxury. It’s a relative thing. Once, at a train station in Bulgaria, someone asked for the yellow plastic bag Papa was carrying, with the words “Coca Cola” on it, and was overjoyed to get it. In another place, it was Marlboro cigarettes, which could be used instead of money. In certain African tribes, plastic bottles or balls of string could be luxury items, coveted and treasured. Anything can be a luxury, as long as it is hard to get.
Well, chewing-gum was one such luxury. It was not made in Russia, was not sold in Russia. Not officially, anyway. It was a symbol of Western decadence and corruption. It was one of the ways the rich in America stupefied the poor into accepting their lot. Chewing gum made them forget they were hungry and unhappy. That’s why there was no need for chewing gum in Russia, where everyone was equal and everyone was happy.
Well, of course America and all the other capitalist countries were evil and corrupt. Of course they would rot and crumble like – well, like old chewing gum, while people in the Soviet Union would eventually live in a communist paradise. Of course. Everyone knew that. But until that glorious day, a little decadence and corruption in the form of chewing gum wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it?
Chiclets. Juicy Fruit. Wrigley’s. Spearmint. Tutti-Frutti. Oh, just the names alone, with their exotic and mouth-watering sound; and the bright, bold letters on the wrappers promising an eternity of chewing pleasure; and the sweet, crisp flavor and playful resilience of the gum; they all spelled America, the land of white teeth and square jaws, of skyscrapers and big cars, of wild abundance and unimaginable freedom.
Chewing gum has been around for a long time. Cavemen, ancient Greeks and American Indians all chewed gun made of tree sap to clean their teeth, freshen their breath, and simply for fun.
Well, little Papa didn’t know anything about that. All he knew was that he wanted it. It was hard but not impossible to get. It was smuggled in by those lucky people who got to travel abroad, even if no farther than Rumania, or by sailors back from some exotic port. Little Papa heard that you could also buy gum from Gypsies. They always lived outside the law. Little Papa never bought it from them though. It was too expensive, and Gypsies were scary.
When there was no gum to be had, little Papa and his friends chewed paraffin wax. Sure, it was crumbly and tasteless. But it was better than nothing. However, when little Papa did get a stick of real gum, he made it go a long way. He would bite off a little piece, and save the rest for later. He would chew that piece of gum until all the sweetness was gone, and then he would bite off another little piece and chew that. He would put it away at night, and pick it up the next day. Only when the gum lost all its rubberiness and taste and disintegrated like a wad of wet tissue paper, only then did little Papa reluctantly throw it away.
For the famous writer Marcel Proust, it’s the taste of a cookie dipped in tea that sets off a flood of memories big enough to fill a book. For Papa, it’s chewing gum. A piece of Double Bubble – and presto, little Papa is walking with his dad through an amusement park. At one of the booths, there are air rifles, and if you hit the bull’s eye, you get to pick one of the prizes displayed on the wall. There are stuffed toys and candy and – oh, what glorious miracle is this? – puffy squares of bubble-gum! Little Papa fires shot after frantic shot – and misses every time. Then his dad takes the rifle – and before you know it, they are walking away from the booth, little Papa clutching a little bubble-gum packet in his sweaty fist.
And after they get home and have dinner, they all sit down to watch a TV movie called “The Portrait of Dorian Grey”. It’s about a young man who keeps doing all kinds of mean things to people, but always looks young and innocent, while his portrait grows old and mean instead. It’s a very good movie, with a satisfyingly tragic end. Little Papa pinches off a piece of the gum and chews his way though the movie, which makes both the gum and the movie twice as enjoyable. The movie becomes sweet and chewy, and the bubble gum takes on drama and meaning. He doesn’t blow bubbles – he will do that tomorrow in school, to the envy of his classmates.
Today, it’s enough for Papa to even smell bubble-gum – and he is immediately transported to the darkened room of his childhood, the small black-and-white TV screen flickering in a corner, the gruesome fate of Dorian Grey unfolding before his mind’s eye.
And then there were times when his craving for gum brought out the worst in little Papa’s nature.
Little Papa is sitting at his desk in the classroom. The teacher, her broad back to the class, is scratching at the blackboard with a piece of chalk. Spring is in the air. The smells of lilac, gasoline and the distant sea are wafting through the open window on the May breeze that ruffles the pages of notebooks and gently stirs the silky blond hair of the girl sitting next to little Papa. Her name is Irina. Little Papa likes her a lot, and she knows it. Sometimes their knees touch under the desk, maybe by accident, maybe not, and then little Papa freezes, afraid to break the magic. Irina leans over to little Papa. “Can I borrow a pencil?” she whispers.
Now, Irina’s father is in the Navy, and he must have just returned from an ocean voyage, because that morning little Papa saw Irina sharing some chewing gum with her best friend. And so, instead of doing the right thing, instead of simply reaching into his backpack and giving Irina his extra pencil, little Papa whispers back, “A pencil for a stick of gum.” Irina shakes her head: “Sorry, I don’t have any more.” “Well then,” says little Papa, “I don’t have a pencil either.” He is already blushing as he says this. If little Papa had a magic portrait like Dorian Gray, the face on the portrait would now be turning into a hideous mask of greed and guilt.
After that, he couldn’t look Irina in the eye. Needless to say, it effectively killed any chance of a budding romance. To this day, Big Papa cringes when he remembers that moment. If he could take it back, he would. But he can’t.
Time went by. One fine day, little Papa and his family left Russia for good and came to the west. Here, the system worked the opposite way: give people anything they want, and then make them want more. This didn’t make them any happier, but they didn’t know that: they were too busy making and spending money.
Well, little Papa didn’t know anything about that either. All he knew was that here were all the jeans you could wear, all the Coca Cola you can drink, all the toilet paper you can use – and all the gum you can chew. The wonder and excitement of it all lasted for a while – and then faded away.
Chewing gum too quickly lost its magic. It became a piece of sweetened rubber, nothing more. To this day, though, when big Papa unwraps a stick of gum, he only breaks off a piece and chews it thoroughly, and keeps the rest for later. And when he sees one of his kids casually take a piece of gum, chew it for a few minutes, and then throw it away, he is appalled. It’s all he can do to stop himself from diving into the garbage bin and fishing it out. “Hey!” he wants to say. “There’s still a lot of good chewing in this gum! You’ve got to chew it slowly, make it last,” he wants to say. But he doesn’t.