A sticky tradition in San Luis Obispo
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN LUIS OBISPO, California – In the heart of downtown is an alley that runs between two high brick walls – or, at least, brick are what they once appeared to be. For generations, students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, abetted by tourists , have been covering the walls each day with more and more wads of bubble gum and chewing gum.
What may have begun as a prank, or an act of gum-fitti, has become established as a tradition in this college town. You want to be careful walking through this alley – careful to walk in the middle of the pathway and not too close to either side. No, you’re not likely to stick to a wall, but some of its contents are likely to stick to you.
Ray Mullins, an assistant manager of Anita’s Pillow Pets, located a few stores away from Bubblegum Alley, expresses ambivalence about the alley—as do many people upon seeing it the first time.
“I have to say it’s interesting – you get different people who seem to love or hate it,” he said. “You kind of get people talking about it as they come in to our store. Some people are awed by it, how it’s been around since World War II …”
But as for his own personal impression, “it’s kind of a dirty mess!”
Sandy Welson, who works as a pizza maker at Enzo’s East Coast Eatery, which abuts Bubble Gum Alley, is more upbeat. “I think it’s cool,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. A lot of people come in and ask where it is – and we tell them right on the other side of the wall.”
Sometimes, tourists go to the alleyway first for a look see—then come to the restaurant for a pizza.
Enzo carries different styles of pizza, but bubble gum pizza is definitely not on the menu.
As for the tourists, they are as divided as the merchants.
“My first reaction was ‘ewwww, are you kidding?’” commented Karen Collup of Eugene, Oregon. “And then it was like; ‘How cool! Let’s go see it, let’s put our gum up there. And my daughter who’s 17 loves to chew gum, she chews gum all the time.”
The Collup family had a family reunion in San Luis Obispo. Two came from Oregon, one is working on the Cal Poly campus over the summer, and a niece came up from Los Angeles with her boyfriend.
What’s the old saying: “The family that sticks together…?”
My grandson, Shor visiting from San Diego, declared, “My 10-year-old mind is saying ‘awesome!’ and also ‘Gross!’ I would not want this in my hometown, especially all over my hometown.”
Laura Ilger, who grew up in San Luis Obispo, said the alleyway is an expression of San Luis Obispo’s culture.
“There is a very relaxed, free feeling here,” she said. “Something that’s is so natural that it’s disgusting is beautiful here. San Luis Obispo is a place people love to live. They’re proud of it – even their chewing gum.”
Her boyfriend David Ologue, from Los Angeles, said the wall suggests that San Luis Obispo has a “come here and do it type mentality, and whether you’re 5 or 100 you will enjoy it.”
I asked them to estimate how many wads of gum were stuck to the two walls.
“I don’t know, there are so many layers,” said Ilger. Ologue suggested that the total probably exceeds 800,000.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org File: US Canada West 04
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