A matter of personal taste

One tourist, Gary Ward (not pictured) of New Orleans, said, 'If this (the gum pole) is supposed to be a highlight, I need a sign, a big sign that says: 'Gum Pole.'

Melissa Haneline

They stand as monuments to mastication, three utility poles plastered with the petrified remains of hundreds of gnawed-over chewing gum wads.

Known simply as "the gum poles," this trio of sticky shafts borders a main gateway to Charleston's famed City Market. Not exactly how city officials want to greet the thousands of tourists who descend on the landmark each year.

Yet the gum poles at East Bay and Market streets have endured for years, surviving any number of attempts to scrape, blast and pry the lumpy clumps from the timber. Old wads might go, but new gum quickly arrives to take their place, forming a rainbow-colored cornucopia of discarded yuck.

Some people view the gum poles as intriguing examples of pop art, a chewing-gum-as-still-life, if you will. Others see the poles as vulgar repositories of germ-laden debris. As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the poles always draw, be it an admiring glance or a simple "Eyyccchhhhh!"

Vendor Kristin Halvorson has watched with a mixture of fascination and revulsion as people from all walks of life — young and old alike — have helped cover a nearby pole with gooey gum, along with the occasional mushed candy, cigarette butt and wrinkled Band-Aid.

"I think it's absolutely gross, but I'm entertained by it," Halvorson said. "I've seen it so covered you couldn't even see the wood. I've even seen people get on someone else's shoulders to get the gum as high as they could on the pole."

No one is sure when this odd practice started. Van Leak swears visitors have been chewing and sticking for the entire seven years that he's been hawking carriage rides on the corner. He doesn't see much difference between the collective endeavor and a pile of cigarette butts accumulating alongside a curb. "I think it's just a case of litter attracting litter," Leak said.

Charleston is hardly the first place to experience this phenomenon. Seattle's Pike Place Market boasts the Wall of Gum, an entire expanse of gum droppings and adhesive art that dates back to the early 1990s. San Luis Obispo in California is home to Bubble Gum Alley, where passers-by have created a similar chewable pastiche.

Ashley Joiner, another Market vendor, doesn't get the magic. When he looks at Charleston's gum poles, he sees only the detritus of myriad mouths. He gives the poles a wide berth. "It's disgusting. I don't want to go near those things."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.