I grew up in the hood.
That’s not meant ironically. I really did. The Maryvale neighborhood in West Phoenix now boasts itself as the most crime-ridden of the entire metro area, surpassing South Phoenix for the first time in the city’s history. Way to go, Westside. As we say in the business of writing about kosher gum: Oy vey. The grocery stores had aisles and aisles of Hispanic foods in my neighborhood, and eventually, those grocery stores gave way to the Food City and Ranch Market varieties, geared entirely to Hispanics. When the changes first happened in the place I’d grown up, it felt strange at first. Signs in Spanish and English, brands I’d never seen. Tastes and flavors that were foreign, odd, different.
But soon, the new became familiar. I got snobby. If people used enchilada sauce in a can, I judged.
Then I grew up, went to college, failed at relationships, changed jobs, moved up, and now I live where Scottsdale and Paradise Valley meet. This has to be the least crime-ridden neighborhood in the Valley, unless you consider spending more on a Prada bag than my family spent on rent a crime, and I do. When I first made my way through my new neighborhood, saw rows of luxury cars, fell asleep at night without the sounds of helicopters overhead, that too felt strange. And the grocery stores here? The Fry’s Signature Marketplace in my neighborhood now has the biggest kosher food section I’ve ever seen, including its own freezer aisle. Now I’ve become a snob in a different way altogether. I’ll pass on the Manischewitz, thanks, but kosher frozen pizza? Kedem juice? Kosher meats? Most of the time the taste difference is negligible, but one area in which it really matters is the greatest love of my candy life: Kosher Bazooka Bubble Gum.
Bazooka Bubble Gum in general fascinates me. It began after World War II and was named for the musical instrument. The weapon, far less kosher, was named for the same instrument, so in that way, the bubble gum and the weapon are contemporaries of each other, like two cousins named after the same grandparent.
But kosher Bazooka? Manufactured in Israel, it is considered kosher for Passover because it contains no leaven, being made with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Because of that, it is one of those rare things considered better for you, while being in no way good for you at all.
What sold me on the kosher Bazooka gum wasn’t actually the corn syrup. Sure, I should stay away from it, and God knows, Super Size Me and Food Inc have terrified me to the point that I equate the words ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ with chemical warfare and people who use the phrase ‘tap that’ in a non-ironic way. What sold me was the comics are printed in Hebrew, and for reasons I’m not fully sure of, I love that. It could be my long-lasting love affair with all things Jewish. It could also be that when people take a piece from the jar in my office, I like watching their faces as they peer down at the comic, confused. The way people uniquely register confusion, their faces evolving in a series of blank stares, wrinkled brows, curled lips, is another one of my favorite things, and that’s just a bonus.
But what I think I love most is the way kosher Bazooka makes the most ordinary thing, age-old, familiar, into something extraordinary, new, unexpected, which is what I have devoted my life to, as a creative professional, as a writer. I like that kosher Bazooka is something I know, but surprise! Maybe I didn’t know it after all.
That is my most favorite thing about life in general, about the world around me, and my least favorite thing, all at the same time. I have come to know, in my years on the planet, a lot of people, a few places, and lots of things. I had a few things happen in life. A marriage ended. I got severely ill for a long time, changed jobs, moved houses, lost friends, gained new ones. Sometimes I feel like I got it all figured out, that I was on the right path, that I had all my ducks in a row, that I now had a hold on all the right people. Invariably, any time I have believed that, life or the universe, or whatever you want to call it, has enjoyed making my certainty the punchline of a joke that is so unfunny to me, it may as well be written in Hebrew.
This evening, as I passed through an aisle of my local grocery store, the one with its valet parking and cooking classes, the one that sometimes makes me feel like a stranger still in my own neighborhood, an interloper from the barrio, venturing into a world that is never going to be quite mine, I saw it there, in the kosher aisle: a little bag of kosher Bazooka bubble gum, at once familiar and unexpected, reminding me that sometimes, the best thing of all, the thing I have loved most, is that perplexity, that uncertainty, that moment when I settle down with what I think I know, only to discover something completely new.
I am starting down new paths left and right in many areas of my life. Starting down paths without people whom I had believed for decades would always be there. Heading down other paths that I had no preconceived notions about at all, they are that unfamiliar. Starting down paths I began long ago, but hedged and fell back, afraid. There is so much new happening every day around me, that I sometimes feel too afraid of all that I don’t know, and want to turn back to all that I do, even if what I knew was painful, sad, unhealthy, or just plain not what I wanted.
I don’t know if this will make sense to anyone but me, but for some reason, a piece of hard bubble gum wrapped in Hebrew comics I can’t read reminded me tonight that it’s okay not to have figured everything out; that maybe it is okay right now that I feel, sometimes, like a stranger in a new world, heading out on my own through uncharted territory.