It was 1993, and the name Lorena Bobbitt single-handedly drove the sales of flower bouquets through the roof. Sultry alligator wrestler-turned-attorney general Janet Reno ordered the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian Religious Sect in Waco, Texas. And the whirring, humming automated residential housing algorithms of Michigan State University matched me up with a snag-toothed, pumpkin-headed man-child from suburban Detroit named Mark (for legal, moral and humanitarian reasons, I won’t print his last name here but I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes quite symmetrically with oh, smell…).
When I wasn’t knocking over the soda bottles of chew juice he’d left strewn about our floor, or dry-heaving from the rancid, composting piles of soiled clothes he’d leave lying out on his squalid mattress, I was flushing the gurgling mallow he’d left in the toilet or splashing away the dried toothpaste spittle from the sink basin. One night, over a few rounds of Trivial Pursuit in the study room with some other guys from our floor, Mark excused himself. When he returned, he had with him an unassuming shoebox that he set out onto the table in front of everyone. Without uttering a word, he lifted the lid, revealing a Christmas-colored, loaf-sized mound of what looked like fermented moss.
“It’s my booger brick,” he said. Quickly shoving ourselves back from the table, we listened as Mark went on to explain with listless sentimentality that what had begun innocently enough as a few, leisurely booger-wipes against a square of spare cardboard at around age twelve became a lifelong craft he would dedicate himself to building upon, one glistening little mucus-y glob at a time. To the rest of us, he may as well have displayed a severed human head and it was at that moment that I decided Mark was just off enough that I could no longer tolerate living with him and would pay the extra cash for a single room for the remainder of the year. Even though Mark was an extreme case, I pretty much decided from that point on to paint all potential roommates—no, all people, in general—with the same germ-covered brush as gross and vile…and this isn’t even accounting for those who think grossness should have some sort of redemptive artistic value.
On November 10, city officials in Seattle steam-blasted the city’s Gum Wall; a 50-foot long corridor of brick in Post Alley near the city’s famed Pike Place Market. While standing impatiently in the long lines for a local improv theater to open back in 1993, tactless patrons began pressing their wads of chewed-up gum to the alley’s walls.
Proving that we live in a vast and diverse world that allows people to be idiots in entirely different ways, the trend caught on. Throngs of germy hippies from around the Pacific Northwest turned out in throngs to leave their own microbial contributions to the wall, leaving a germy, gummy glob of messages, mosaics and various slogans of the cause du jour that would ultimately stretch 50 feet long, 15 feet high, become several inches thick, and weigh a total of 2,350 lbs.
Considered among the five germiest tourist attractions of 2009 (second only to the Blarney Stone), according to TripAdvisor, it appeared as if the wall’s grody history would be effaced for good. But within hours of having been scrubbed clean, guerilla artists pressed a sugarless rendering of the Eiffel Tower into the wall in the wake of the Paris attacks.
In the popular imagination, art is one of those things that comes about as the product of a diverse range of human activities usually involving imaginative or technical skill. I guess in that sense, whether Seattle’s gum wall conveys some imaginative and workable canvass for artistic expression is still up for debate. Although, if you’re willing to buy that, then I’ve got some used toilet paper to sell you…just think of them as Rorschach imprints.