Duane M. Cummins has removed gum from the rooftop of the W Hotel, the entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and from under the tables at Dave & Buster’s.
The D.C. native has made a living — and annual revenue upwards of $100,000 — from cleaning gum off the sidewalks outside commercial office buildings, government institutions and college campuses throughout the Washington area.
Last week, he was stationed outside the Gelman Library at George Washington University.
“When I first did this place years ago, oh my God, it was a mess,” he says. “There was a lot of gum to tackle.”
Cummins, 49, stands on the sidewalk and uses a wand-like contraption to blow steam onto each piece of dried-up gum he encounters.
After a couple of seconds, a black blob on the sidewalk turns light blue — it’s probably a piece of Bubblicious Blueberry, Cummins says — and then disappears into a cloud of steam.
“Once you start looking for gum, you see that it’s everywhere,” he said. “You could be in the ritziest part of D.C. or the poorest part, it doesn’t matter where.”
There are three components to Cummins’ gum removal: a water-based solution he buys from a vendor in Georgia, a “gum cart” that turns the solution into steam, and a generator that powers the entire operation. Each piece of gum takes three to five seconds to dissolve, Cummins says.
“People will say to me, ‘You make money doing what?’ ” Cummins said. “I’m a low man on the totem pole, but I’m getting calls from the U.S. Capitol and the Watergate. Man! I just can’t believe it sometimes.”
For a few years during the economic downturn, Cummins’ clients tightened their belts. Property managers stopped calling, and business fell 20 percent. Cummins said he began contemplating other lines of work.
But last year, business picked up and revenue increased 30 percent.
“I’ve got to knock on wood, but the gum has been piling up,” said Cummins, who now has a staff of three. “Every day I’m getting more calls.”
Rates for gum removal range between 15 cents and 40 cents per square foot, depending on the amount of work needed, Cummins said. Each job brings in between $200 and $10,000 for the company.
Mark Petrusic, vice president of Zalco Realty’s commercial division, said his company uses Gum Busters D.C. at several of its properties.
“As competitive as the real estate market is now, we really have to make sure our buildings are well-kept and nicely presented,” Petrusic said.
Cummins stumbled into the gum-removal business in 2000, when a friend asked if he wanted to help clean the sidewalk outside ESPN Zone in Baltimore.
“I wasn’t quite terrified, but I was tentatively nervous,” he said of his first gum-cleaning experience. “Once I started doing it though, my mind was made up. I wanted to clean every sidewalk I could.”
In 2003, Cummins purchased the license to Gum Busters D.C. for $25,000 and hired one employee.
In the nine years since, Cummins has traveled as far as San Francisco and El Paso to clean up gum.
Last week, he removed 500 pieces of gum from the front of CVS in Columbia Heights and another couple hundred outside Old Ebbitt Grill.
His favorite jobs, Cummins said, are at the American Museum of Natural History, where he has gotten to rub elbows with first ladies’ inaugural gowns and a very iconic pair of red shoes.
“Those ruby slippers — you know the ones from ‘The Wizard of Oz’?,” he said. “Well there was chewing gum all the way around them. I just couldn’t believe it — That exhibit is part of our country’s history, and I get to help preserve it.”