November 22, 1976 – just another evening spent wandering the streets of Chelsea and the Village, with my friends; the usual group of suspects that hung out together all the time, smoking pot and Marlboros, eating pizza and knishes, talking about the great problems of the world and our little lives; just an ordinary cold November night, the sky crystal clear, the stars sparkling above. Thanksgiving was in a few days, and we all discussed what our plans were with our families, and how thankful we were for the holiday break from school.
We had just started south from 14th Street when we heard a muffled boom, like some kind of explosion but far away.
“What was that?”
“Damned if I know – sounded big whatever it was”
And as would happen at that time of life, our minds wandered onto other things, the mystery of the boom would just have to remain a mystery; we had more important things to discuss like the Stones going on tour again.
After a few moments I heard a click, then another, like something small pelting the sidewalk – hale maybe? Sleet? Kind of crazy being as clear a night as it was. But then something bounced off my head, then my shoulder; my friends were being pelted too! We all stood looking at each other, at these crazy hale balls, talking all at once.
Me: “What’s’ going on?”
Liz: “What is this shit? Where’s it coming from?”
Angelo: “Weird freaking weather – I hate the winter”
Jane: “It was so nice, came out of nowhere”
Me again: “How is it sleeting when the sky is still so clear?!
Dave: “This doesn’t make sense”
Liz: “Should we get out of here?”
And then finally one calm voice from Dave:
“Um guys…..this is gum….it’s a Chicklet….they’re all Chiclets!”
“Jesus….it’s raining Chiclets!”
And so it was. The streets were been pelting with individual Chiclets!
“Shit….I love Chiclets!”
“Grab some…..grab some…..who’s got a bag or somethin’?”
And there we were, six young people, three girls, three guys suddenly scrambling around the streets of the Village gathering up hoards of the popular sugar coated gum. For a few minutes you could just put out your hands, palms up and soon they would be filled, they were coming down so hard and fast. After a few more minutes we noticed the downpour started to slacken; this, of course, made us rush about even more feverishly in case this sudden good fortune would soon end.
Which of course it did.
But not before we were all loaded down with as much we could carry. That kind of ended the evening; let’s face it where are you going to go with pockets bulging with gum? So we all made our individual ways home. We felt like we had won some kind of bizarre lottery, or were in a Willy Wonka story; I mean who ever heard of flying confections? But there it was and being at that age one just counted one’s blessings and didn’t do too much thinking on causes.
Later, of course, we learned the truth: there had been an explosion in a factory in Long Island City where they made candy and gum. It was pretty bad with loss of life and a fire that raged into the night. When it was done, an entire block of Long Island City where the factory had been was just a hollow shell of smoldering sugar.
Of course, when we all learned how we came into this great fortune, a lot of the joy was taken away. We were on the back end of a tragedy. We all discussed it on a later day, and as you would expect there were different reactions:
Liz: “Throw the gum away! – it’s tainted”
Dave: “Why throw it away!? – it’s still good gum!”
Angelo: “It’s not like we did anything wrong!”
And on it went and eventually, the gum would go stale.
I took all the moral debate out of it. It was true, it was still good gum and it was true we didn’t do anything wrong; we just happened to be in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time depending on how you felt about it.
The one thing that I took away from it and will always remember is how unbelievably surreal the whole night was. To see thousands of pieces of gum come flying out of the dark sky, like the far-off stars themselves decided to descend to earth– I mean that is what stayed with me – like how many times do you get to see a thing like that?
I can tell you.