Sunday, October 7, 2007

Surface Banana - January 2005

Out on the Airport Road that runs between Bluefield and Princeton, West Virginia, there is a big warehouse with tractor trailers skirting the parking lot. Throughout the 1980s, before we moved to Maine, I drove past that place many times. I was always intrigued by the name on the side of the building, Surface Banana, but never thought to ask anyone about it.

In 1986 after our Micronesia teaching gig was up, we moved to Bluefield, my husband’s hometown, to figure out what we were going to do for the next 60 years. His family had recently sold the daily newspaper that his great-grandfather had started almost 100 years before. Scott was the only one of his generation interested in the newspaper business and the youngest; so, with the paper gone, that door was shut to us just as we finished school. I taught freshman comp and world literature at a state college for a year and realized I didn’t love anything enough to go back and get a Ph.D. and probably wouldn’t find a tenure track job if I did. So I took a job working as a reporter for a weekly called the Twin State News Observer, a start-up paper that covered two counties in southern West Virginia and one in southwest Virginia. The editor, an outrageous character named Bill Archer, loved a quirky story, the odd angle, and the entire Appalachian coal field thang. I worked there for less than a year making practically nothing, but I’ve never had so much fun in my life.

My partner was a photographer named Phil Farmer. It’s hard to explain how it is possible for one person to be so original and funny, day in and day out, except for some combination of giftedness and grace. One day we were coming back from covering a municipal water emergency in Welch, a small city in MacDowell County, that will never, ever recover from the closing of the region’s many coal mines. It was in Welch, early in the last century, that Mingo County Sheriff Sid Hatfield was shot dead on the courthouse steps. That morning I stood on the steps and had Phil "make" my picture, as they say in West Virginia. In the afternoon, we were on our way to Princeton for some other story by way of the Airport Road. We passed Surface Banana.

"Phil, you’ve lived here all your life. What the hell IS Surface Banana?"

"Don’t you know?"

"No, that’s why I’m asking."

"Well, if you don’t know, I’m not gonna tell you."

"You don’t know."

"I do."

"Liar," I said.

"You’re a bird with a busted wing who can’t fly straight," he said, eyebrows raised and looking like this comment trumped all others.

"You’re a bug with a cracked shell," was my feeble reply. And we rode in silence for awhile until I said softly, "You don’t know." And he just clicked his tongue and turned on Bob Marley.

Back at the office the next day at our weekly story meeting , I suggested we do a story on Surface Banana.

Bill asked, "What IS Surface Banana?"

"We don’t know," I said.

"I do," said Phil.

"No. He doesn’t. He’s lying."

"They distribute bananas," he said. "Wholesale."

"In West Virginia?" I asked, laughing.

Bill got a big smile on his face. This was the kind of story he loved.

"This is my story," I said. "Don’t even think about it."

The following afternoon Phil and I were back on the road to meet with the good people of Surface Banana. I’d discovered they did indeed sell bananas, but the meaning of Surface was still mysterious – do they transport them by truck over the surface of the road?

Like many small wholesale business operations, Surface Banana wasn’t exactly set up to receive visitors. We walked in and there was a grubby window with a big lady with big glasses and big hair sitting behind it.

"Hello. We’re here from the Twin State News Observer to see Bob. He’s expecting us." I said. She looked through the window and eyed Phil’s big camera. It didn’t appear that Bob had warned her to expect guests. We stood there while she picked up the phone to talk to Bob. Apparently he gave the okay and suddenly we were acceptable. We were her new best friends.

"Y’all can go in through that door," she said friendly-like and leaning through the window, "and up the stairs over to the left. Bob’s office is right up thar."

Bob’s office was an unfinished plywood affair built up over the busy warehouse. A sign on the door cleared up our fundamental mystery. "Robert Surface, General Manager." Ahhh!

Bob shook our hands and nervously asked us to sit down across from his big metal desk. I started asking questions about the business which he grudgingly answered. He was treating us like were from the IRS or maybe 60 Minutes. I realized he hadn’t believed me on the phone when I said we simply wanted to do a profile about the banana business in Appalachia.

Finally he stopped mid-sentence and asked, "Why do you want to know this stuff, again?"

I explained our benign intentions as well as I could and suddenly, like the big hair lady downstairs, he brightened.

"Nobody’s ever wanted to know anything about us before." And in an instant he was on his feet, leading us down to the warehouse and talking a mile a minute about the banana import business, its hazards (bad bananas, the occasional lurking tarantula), the tricky business of gassing bananas – and tomatoes – with a sweet-smelling gas to help them ripen in the proper timeframe to get them to market. I never knew that bananas were gassed and became genuinely intrigued. Bob became more and more animated. Phil snapped a lot of photos. Warehouse guys followed us around adding helpful and interesting details about tarantulas and the ripening process.

A whole slew of employees followed us to the entry hall to bid us goodbye and to hand us boxes full of bananas and tomatoes to take home. Someone really did say, "Y’all come back now!"

"I’m really looking forward to seeing that story," said Bob, pumping our hands sincerely.

Phil and I put the bananas in the trunk and got settled in his car before we started to giggle hysterically. "That was fun!" I hooted.

"I told you I knew all about it," he said.

This week I thought of Bob Surface for the first time in years and years as I read Walker Percy’s wonderful novel, The Moviegoer. I am compelled to re-read The Moviegoer about once a year as part of my longest-lived literary crush. There is something about the canniness and nuttiness and trueness of Percy’s fiction that I love love love. I don’t pretend to always understand his non-fiction about semiotics but when he translates his deep interest in de-coding the signs we find in language and in the contemporary world into stories about crazy southerners, I get it…sort of. I must because I keep going back to his books, especially The Moviegoer. (It beat out Catch-22 for the 1962 National Book Award. If I hadn’t been a baby at the time, I’d have been so proud!) I also love his 1980 novel, The Second Coming.

The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a young Korean War veteran who works as a bonds trader in a New Orleans suburb and begins, one Mardi Gras week, to entertain the notion of a search for meaning in life.

Binx says in chapter two,

"Before I see a movie it is necessary for me to learn something about the theater or the people who operate it, to touch base before going inside. That is the way I got to know Mr. Kinsella: engaging him in conversation about the theater business. I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see…

"If I did not talk to the theater owner or ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me."

There is something wonderful about being a reporter…especially if you don’t have to cover really nasty stuff. It gives you a warrant to call people on the phone and say, "Hey, I want to come over to your house and talk to you about something. I’m going to ask you a lot of questions about your life or work or hobbies, and you are going to answer them."

I remember a dozen years ago going to a little summer cottage to interview a 98 year-old woman who had been raised in Waldoboro, Maine. As a child she had watched the last five seven-masted schooners be launched in the Medomak River. What a privilege to sit there listening to her stories, drinking iced tea, taking notes.

When I was fingering this essay in my mind, I realized I should google on Surface Banana to see if it is still in business. West Virginia has fallen on hard times, there was a good chance that Surface Banana hadn’t made it to 2005. The first link led me to the following bit of oral history written by a woman named Joan Savilla from Nitro, WV about growing up in a town called Highcoal.

"I had a real penchant for bananas as a child. Of course, we never had enough money to buy them, and the only time I got one was at someone else’s house or at school. Once when I was out playing near the company store, I noticed that the banana crates were placed behind the store after the “Surface Banana” truck ran. I investigated the crates, secretly hoping that they had forgotten a banana or two in the crate. They were packed in a lightweight type of straw or packing material. I carefully slid my hands through all the straw in each of the banana boxes. Oh, it was my lucky day, I found two or three bananas. After that, I anxiously awaited the Surface Banana truck every week. I would wait around until I was sure that no one was watching, and then I would go on my treasure hunt looking for bananas. I don’t recall how long I continued this practice, but am reminded of it many times when I eat bananas."

Binx Bolling would like story that so much. The story of the little girl looking for bananas in a discarded box behind the company store in Highcoal would "certify," in Binx’s parlance, the existence of Surface Banana. Surface Banana wouldn’t be simply a business that exists on the Airport Road in Bluefield, West Virginia, that employs X number of employees and distributes X number of bananas a year, it is a place that exists in the world of individual memory. It lives in Joan, whom I will never know; in Phil, whom I don’t see nearly enough these days; in me, who hasn’t thought about it for years.

It would have been so easy to continue to drive past Surface Banana and to never know the story of the place and to never please Bob with our fleeting interest; to never google on the poignant story of a girl looking for bananas in boxes behind the company store in Highcoal.

How easy it is to live on the surface of this world. We’re way too polite and too busy to stick our heads into the grubby windows of warehouses and say, "Hello! We’re here! We’re expected! We called ahead!" Would people think we were crazy? It is impossible to say.

Walker Percy finishes the last chapter of The Moviegoer with the image of a black man coming out of a church in a middle class white neighborhood at noon on Ash Wednesday. Binx is watching him from a parked car.

"When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?

"It is impossible to say."


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