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Cleaner presses for gum control


It's a sticky job, but someone's got to do it.

Dwayne Cummins figures it might as well be him.

After all, he'd been in the dry cleaning business for 15 years, coaxing bloodstains out of pants knees and rust spots off blouses. So it wasn't a huge leap to become an expert - maybe among the nation's first - in chewing gum removal.

"I'm a specialist," Cummins said. "I'm a spot cleaner. That's what I do."

When he tells people about his new career, they're shocked to learn he can make a living from de-gumming sidewalks and hotel lobbies, theater seats and restaurant tables.

Cummins' odd line of work takes him just about anywhere people fling or smoosh their gum, which, he has learned, is just about everywhere. Colleges, airports, malls and zoos, from Philadelphia to Tampa, Fla.

Cummins works for GumBusters, a 5-year-old company founded in Holland with offices in England and Japan.

This year, the company opened its first U.S. office, in Falls Church, Va., hoping to rid the country of its discarded gum. The company's goal is to sell up to 300 franchises across the country.

During a recent job at the Hyatt Re- gency Hotel at the Inner Harbor, sporting a white T-shirt with the company's logo of smiling gum splotches, Cummins explained how gumbusting has changed his life.

"I was stuck in a rut," said Cummins, who lives in Silver Spring.

In the dry-cleaning business, the science was imperfect, and the rewards didn't come easily. Customers weren't always satisfied with the results.

But his new career has a simplicity to it. He does one thing and does it well. The gratification - his and his clients' - is immediate.

And nine months into the job, his clientele is growing fast.

Everywhere he works, lugging a contraption that looks like a vacuum cleaner on steroids, people stop to watch him erase the gum. It's like performance art, and he often draws a small crowd - and potential clients.

"I'm on my second set of 500 business cards," said Cummins, who is one of eight employees and might soon become the company's first U.S. franchisee.

As he worked on a pedestrian bridge on the north side of the Hyatt, convention-goers, tourists and a security guard stopped to ask what he was up to.

"I've never seen a machine like that before," the guard said.

Cummins' machine has two tanks, one containing water and one containing a patented chemical formula that dissolves the gum. A long hose attaches to the machine's belly, and there's a brass brush on the end of the hose, which hisses out steam, then gurgles and spits as Cummins scrubs with the brush.

Most of the gum splotches had turned black from many stomps of shoe soles.

As Cummins scrubbed at them, the grimy black came off first, revealing the gum's original pink or green. Then it smeared for a second and briefly gave off a whiff of its original scent - wintergreen or cinnamon - before dissolving.

It takes about five seconds to reduce each piece to a fine powder.

The traditional method of gum removal is to scrape it or power-wash it.

At the National Aquarium, maintenance workers used to get on their hands and knees to scrape away gum. GumBusters has been a welcome relief.

"It frees us up to do other things," said Bonnie Howell, director of facilities for the aquarium.

Cummins has also aimed his contraption at errant gum around ESPN Zone and at Ocean City outlet stores.

He has cleaned light posts at Georgetown University and street corners in Washington, charging a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. His gummiest job was the cobbled sidewalks of Ybor City in Tampa, Fla.

After that, it's a close call between the Beltway Center in Greenbelt and the Inner Harbor, particularly the bus stop near the aquarium and the bridge between the aquarium and the Power Plant.

Cummins is hoping to get a contract to clean Wisconsin Avenue through Bethesda. And he has high hopes for Philadelphia.

"Gum everywhere," he said. "Just disgusting."

Chewing gum has been around for nearly 2,000 years. The ancient Greeks chewed mastiche from the mastic tree. The Mayans enjoyed chicle from sapodilla trees. And American Indians chewed the resin of spruce bark.

In the early 1900s, chicle-based gum was mass produced by William Wrigley Jr. Americans spend more than $1.3 billion on chewing gum and bubble gum each year.

When Cummins began his gum war in January - "my wife thought I was nuts" - he was surprised at first to see how much of it littered the ground. It seemed especially odd that so many people would drop their gum right in the middle of the sidewalk.

"I've learned more about human nature doing this," he said.

When he's not cleaning gum, Cummins is cold-calling potential customers. He hears the laughs of many secretaries.

"I can tell they think there's probably something more important to worry about than gum on their sidewalk," he said.

"But when they see the results, they're hooked. It does what we say it's going to do."

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