It’s a sticky situation

For GTA workers, scraping up chewing gum is just one of the tasks they tackle daily

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Jerome Thompson has become an expert at guessing the age of chewing gum smashed onto the floor of GTA buses: Still pink or green, it is relatively new, but black means it has been there a while. (Michelle Mogavero/Staff)

His name is Jerome Thompson.

You can call him the GTA Gum Buster.

His job is to clean up chewing gum where it hides. Whether it is stuck between bus seats or spit onto bus floors, Juicy Fruit, Big Red, Dentyne and Bubblicious are his nemeses – a hindrance for public transit systems nationwide.

The brand makes no difference toThompson.

“Believe me, we do get some gum,”says the Greenville native, grinning and shaking his head as he climbs aboard one of the 17 full-size buses that make up the biggest part of the Greenville Transit Authority’s present fleet.

“We don’t find a lot stuck to the seats, but I can tell you where we do find it,” he says, pointing to a hole about the size of a pencil eraser down low on the back of the seat – a slot for the screw that fastens the royal blue GTA-print seat cushion onto its metal slot.

“For some reason, they like to stick it right in there,” he said. “It takes five or 10 minutes to sit there and pick it out.”

It’s an especially sticky situation on buses operating on routes students take to and from school. Students who attend Greenville County Schools ride free between 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. and between 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on school days with proper identification.

In a variation of graffiti vandalism, a single bus can be tagged with dozens of gum wads in a day. The most frequent repositories of the bright pink, purple and green gum pollution include the underside of seats, floors and an occasional grab bar, Thompson said.

“We’re old-fashioned,” he says,as he picks up his putty knife from a shelf above a row of plastic chemical storage barrels inside the GTA maintenance facility on Augusta Street in the shadows of the Greenville Drive’s Fluor Fieldat the West End.

“We used to have this freeze spray that would harden the gum up to where it would come right off,” hesaid. “But we can’t get it anymore, so we’re back to old-fashioned scrapers.”

Thompson, along with four other GTA sanitarians, begins tackling the day’s gum and other trash produced by 11 fixed routes about 6:30 p.m. each evening. The last three buses roll into the facility about 7:30 p.m. On a good night, they are finished by 8:30 p.m.

“If we didn’t clean, in a month’s time these floors would have leopard spots,” said Brian Such, GTA’s chief financial officer.

Three buses a week get a heavy-duty cleaning with a $2,500 steam machine that uses a mix of hot water and nontoxic chemicals to blast gum and grime away in as little as a few seconds.

In an instant, the machine can wash away gum that has been stepped on repeatedly and mashed into the floor by hundreds of pounds of foot torque – gum that could take up to 20 minutes to get up by hand.

It is a process that begins by heating water in the pressure cleaner’s tank to 290 degrees Fahrenheit to create the steam. The tip of the machine’s nozzle is pointed over a patch of gum or a spot of grime to release the steam solution.

What doesn’t dissolve is washed away in seconds.

But the steam cleaner can only be used on Saturdays.

The buses don’t run on Sunday, and that gives the upholstery time to dry.

There is a chance Thompson and his crew might get at least a little relief soon. Inside and outside cameras are currently being tested on two GTA buses in an effort to stop vandalism and make the overall ride a little safer.

The idea is that in the near future, all of the buses will be covered from every angle.

Just not in a gooey watermelon flavor.

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