Gum Factory Memories Offer Some Lessons to Chew On

I worked at Fleer bubble gum factory in the Logan section for three years in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That factory closed about 10 years ago and last week the Mount Laurel based Fleer was sold to its rival, Upper Deck, for $6.1 million. The sale reportedly included Fleer’s name, trademark, and sports collectibles business.

Not included were the memories of the thousands of people who had toiled at Fleer at one time or another. A stint at the factory was almost a rite of young adulthood for many who grew up in Olney, Logan, and North Philadelphia. Anyone who wanted to work stood a chance of being hired during the plant’s busy season, May to September.

I had been shuttling in and out of college and jobs, searching for the meaning of life, and just generally being a pain. I was adrift, a stage not unusual for many in their early 20s. Having no plan and needing money, I latched on to Fleer one spring. But when fall came, and the young people I’d been chatting up in the break room returned to their colleges, I stayed on.

Even now, I feel ambivalent about Fleer. I hated the assembly line work. My coworkers, though, were some of the nicest people I’d ever met. The older guys who’d been there for years would tell you in the initial conversations to get out. “Don’t stay here, man. You don’t want to do like me for the rest of your life.”

This wisdom was shouted above the roar of the factory’s floor from someone appearing in a cloud of cornstarch. The powder was patted on the pieces of gum to keep them from sticking. Cornstarch clung to your clothes, your hair, your keys, your wallet. By the end of the day you looked as if you’d rolled in it. Time crawled. There were clocks everywhere. You’d look up after what had to have been a half hour and see that only four minutes had gone by.

I was a “gum-slinger.” This involved pushing carts full with long cords of the stuff to the tables where the product was sent through a machine that chopped and wrapped it in paper that said “Dubble Bubble.” The slinging part was draping the cords over your arm and laying them on the table for the machine operators. I didn’t stay a gum-slinger. For about a year and a half, I put the plastic covering over boxes of “Razzles” using a shrink-wrap machine. I wanted out. Most of the young people did. If they weren’t planning to go back to college, then they were trying to break into one of the building trades.

In the 1930s, the French philosopher Simone Weil actually interrupted her teaching career to experience the type of factory job that the working class experienced.

“A team of workers on a production-line under the eye of a foreman is a sorry spectacle,” Weil wrote, “whereas it is a fine sight to see a handful of workmen in the building trade, checked by some difficulty, ponder the problem each for himself, make various suggestions for dealing with it, and then apply unanimously the method conceived by one of them, who may or may not have any official authority over the remainder.”

Weil here describes the difference between a job and a craft. In fact, she’s describing a story meeting at any media outlet. Hmmm.

Say “epiphany” and you think of spirits appearing to lead you through the tangled sand dunes of life or, if you’re of a scientific bent, light bulbs popping on above your head. My epiphany at Fleer was a rat jumping on my back when I was cleaning out one the big garbage dumpsters on the lot. It wasn’t that dramatic. The rat didn’t stay long and then, neither did I. I quit shortly thereafter, one of the few times in my life when I left a job without having yet had another one lined up. 

I had already been stepping out the factory gate. By my final year, I was on the maintenance crew, working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. Sometimes on Friday mornings, when our weekend started, the guys and me would head to a bar on 5th Street.

Out front said “John’s Tavern,” but that, the bartender explained, was two owners ago. He was always meaning to change that sign.

So there we sat: me, Leroy, Alvarez, Big Jim, and about three or four others whose names I can’t recall. The faces, though, I remember. I’ve already remembered them much longer than I remembered the faces of the sports superstars who stared out from the trading cards Fleer lived, and eventually, corporately died for.

At some point on those long-ago mornings someone would ask me about school and say that, this time, I’d better tough it out.

“And,” he added, “don’t ever forget us.”

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