Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Strange Fruit

As I stood in line at the pack-n-ship place in town, an elderly farmer came in. An instant character, raw-boned, scarecrow-thin, with a driftwood face and a jujube-size cyst on the edge of his left eyelid. Baggy, sun-faded denims with permanent dirt stains on the seat and a washed-out, long-sleeved gray shirt sagged on his clothesline frame. The wind had combed his pure white hair for him, and on his shoulder hung a homemade canvas fruit picking bag, as if he'd wandered in directly from a grove.

He seemed a bit antsy, and I had fifty pounds of books to ship, so I let him go ahead of me in line. He smelled of dirt and weedkiller, sunshine and old-guy sweat. He told the clerk he wanted to ship the grapefruit in his bag, which the clerk immediately informed him that he couldn't do. Florida currently prohibits private shipping fruit out of state to prevent the spread of citrus canker.

"It's goin'-a Washington D.C.," the farmer told the clerk. "They doan have no groves so they doan care 'bout the canker."

The clerk turned him down a second time and went to answer the phone. The farmer turned to me and asked if the post office would ship his fruit. I told him that, as far as I knew, no one would. While we were waiting for the clerk, the farmer took a grapefruit from his bag and held it out for me to admire.

I eyed what looked like a pale yellow cantelope, with faint rain-mold streaks on the rind (this is a sign of authentic homegrown; the streaks are always washed off commercially-sold fruit, which is sometimes also dyed and waxed.) I'm not exaggerating on the size, either -- it had to be the largest grapefruit I've ever seen. The farmer told me his trees often produced eight pounders. I imagined he spent a lot of time shoring up his trees with cotton ties and two by twos to keep the weight of the fruit from snapping the branches.

I love grapefruit, and miss it terribly (I haven't been able to eat it for six months because it reacts with my medications) but that farmer's goliath specimen made me uneasy. He mentioned his graefruit were very juicy and full of seeds, but what else was in them? What was he using as fertilizer? Had he planted his trees over some septic tanks? Why bring a bag of just-picked grapefruit directly from the grove to a shipper? Anyone even remotely involved with citrus knows the state law; I know it. And why so adamant to send it to Washington D.C.?

I never thought something as ordinary as a grapefruit could give me the creeps, but that one did.

The clerk finally got off the phone, and for the third time refused to ship the grapefruit for the farmer. The farmer asked if he brought in a box to the post office and didn't say there was grapefuit in it, would they ship it? I shrugged. The clerk said it was between him and his conscience. The farmer bought a big box from the clerk, paid for it in quarters and ambled out.

I may have acted non-committal, but I doubted the farmer would get his fruit past the folks at the post office. Grapefruit has a distinctive smell, very sharp-bitter, that is especially intense if the rind is bruised or scored. Unless he seals the shipment in plastic, the odor will give it away.

The encounter got to me, though. By the time I shipped my boxes and returned to my car, I had worked out in my head five different ways to explain the farmer and his strange fruit:

1. A love gift to the farmer's old flame, who is dying of cancer in some hospital in Washington. A nurse will open the box for her and try to whisk it away, her rich husband will veto that, peel one and listen to her talk about the farmer as he feeds her the sections one by one.

2. Shrapnel bombs disguised as grapefruit, being sent to a certain Congressional Committee that has pissed off that farmer for the last time.

3. The final volley in a life-long feud between two brothers: one who got rich selling out the citrus industry as a lobbyist while his brother stayed home to farm the family groves (lobbyist brother has just been convicted in the Abramoff scandal, has lost everything, and is going to jail.)

4. Alien pods carrying something much worse than canker to Washington.

5. Grandpa's annual late-January, post-harvest box, sent as a gift to his son, daughter-in-law and grandkids, who will have to give half away to the neighbors, who will look at the size of them and wonder what the hell we have in the water here in Florida. One of the grandkids will dig out the designer tulip bulbs in her mother's windowbox and plant some of the seeds.

Or the whole thing could serve as the topic of a writer's weblog post on the method she uses to sketch out story ideas to get them out of her thoughts, onto paper and into a file so she can work on the WIP without mutant citrus dancing in her head.

How do you writers out there deal with your strange fruit?

27 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:22 PM

    I know this isn't an answer to your question, but have you considered the possibility that this guy was filing early with the IRS.....paying with grapefruit in protest?

    HMMM.

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  2. I apologize for not emailing this to you. I couldn't easily find your email address. I'm spreading the word of a contest I'm co-hosting. The contest is to encourage readers to try out a new book by a new author. The second part is to help promote new authors. I don't know if you would be interested but I just wanted to leave you a little note about it.

    Cheers!

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  3. oooohhhhh... paying the IRS in grapefruit... I like that.

    I remember a patient's mom who one time sent her entire bill... over a hundred dollars...in coins. Not because she couldn't send cash or a check. But because she was pissed she got billed.


    PBW, I do the same thing as you when weird little things come around. I think up weird scenarios. Then something else catches my attention and I forget about it and move on to the next weird scenario. :O)

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  4. Aliens! Aliens!

    Always vote aliens. That way when they come, you'll be on their list and they'll be kind.

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  5. I have to be careful typing out stuff like that because my mind might get caught up in the story and I'll forget about my other projects.

    But I do that sometimes, because without it, I have idea constipation, and that sucks.

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  6. My stories ARE my strange fruit.

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  7. I bury them in the soil and hope they grow into trees with character(s).

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  8. Anonymous1:58 AM

    How do I deal with strange fruit? I'm likely to eat it. (I like all kinds--but I'm probably on the same meds as you, because I can't eat grapefruit either. Haven't figure out if that restriction applies to pommelos yet.)

    The farmer has a semi-legitimate thought process there--I brought coconuts through Hawaii once--I delcared them. The agricultural inspectors stopped me. I was heading to Cleveland. They agreed that I could put the coconuts in overnight storage at the airport and take them on the rest of the journey. There aren't many coconut trees in Cleveland, after all. And I needed fresh coconut for an authentic island dish I planned to prepare for friends.

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  9. Okay, after reading those first two paragraphs you are not allowed to tell me that you have trouble with description. Smacks head on desk.

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  10. My 'strange fruit' usually comes to me in dreams - I get weird, colourful dreams that leave me feeling disturbed when I wake. So I write them down, file them away then come back to them one day when I'm in need of a story.

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  11. Strange fruit is always sketched in my idea notebook. Or, when I'm stuck in line at the post office for hours and hours, it's written on my arm...which usually creeps people out and either gets me further ahead in the line, or gives someone else a strange fruit to deal with. *-*

    All strange fruit must be remembered, because I never know when I'm going to need a rampaging, mutant kiwi or two.

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  12. I put all my weird ideas down in an idea page. They're not organized, they're just a big long list (hundreds, now) of snippets, some are a sentence, some 2000 words.

    I sometimes think I should organize it, but I like its organic quality. It grows like a banyan tree, roots everywhere in a big tangle.

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  13. I have a nifty little handheld recorder that stores something like 800 individual files and I carry it with me everywhere. I’m constantly recording ideas, strange vibes or story ideas I get when coming across “strange fruit” and then go back and type them up if they still make sense to me by the time I get around to listening!

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  14. SandyW10:53 AM

    Ideas are like butterflies. They’re bright and attractive and they can zip through pretty quick. They must be captured before they zip away. I try to ‘get the net’ and get them on paper ASAP, while the color is still fresh. Even the small ones that don’t look like much. Sometimes odd little ideas end up fitting in places I don’t expect them to. I have several file folders on my computer, with little odds and ends of ideas.

    I also have a journal that I keep up with pretty regular: ideas, snippets of research, cool quotes, books I’ve read, etc. This is also done on the computer, so it’s all in one place. Besides, my hand writing is lousy.

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  15. Mine get filed three ways, depending on what I have at hand:
    1) I write them down and put them in a file in my desk called 'story ideas'
    2) Record them in the note pad function on my Palm. Sometimes I transcribe them for the folder
    3) Call my own voicemail, then transcribe them later for the folder (this one helps when driving)

    Then the ideas are out of my head, and I can peruse the folder later for material.

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  16. My first thought was the old guy was sending them to someone in Washington who has written a new law that would, in effect, make it illegal for him, and all other small farmers to actually treat his grapefruit trees to fight this citrus canker, and was sending this bozo a sample of what he would be helping to destroy. But I guess that's just me.

    As to the size of the grapefruit. Many years ago when I lived in South Florida, the people who lived behind us had a grapefruit tree in their back yard that mostly hung over into our backyard (it was there long before these particular neighbors) and every morning I would go out and pick a couple of the mammoth things for my mom. As far as I know that tree was never fertilized or even watered, and the fruit it produced were humongous and incredibly sweet.
    Ann

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  17. I have a grapefruit tree in my backyard. It produces huge, juicy, wonderful fruit, a cross between pink and white grapefruit. There's nothing better than home grown.

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  18. Alien pods and they're coming to a town near you! (Picture Kevin McCarthy screaming in the streets...)

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  19. Anonymous3:32 PM

    Little bitty bright orange notebook. Though I find that the vines that grow my strangest fruit tend to weave themselves together so that I remember them as a group. Maybe it has to do with one's state of mind - if one sight gets me thinking about ghosts then that's on my mind when the next three show up and my imagination just feeds a structure to me as the world passes by my window. That's a frighteningly slow process, though.

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  20. What do I do with my strange fruit...I tell the person! LOL! No, it's true.

    I once sat down beside a woman on an airplane and as she started to buckle herself in she stopped and pulled a red ribbon gingerly out of her front pocket then carefully placed it in the cushion pocket on the back of the seat in front of her. Seeming satisfied, she sat back in her seat and buckled herself in.

    By the time she'd finished buckling, my writer's mind had already come up with a story behind the meaning of that red ribbon to her.

    Of course, when she found out during the flight that I was an author and she asked me that one question most authors get, "how do you come up with your ideas for your books?" I laughed and told her authors are very observant people and sometimes it's "other people and their actions" that oftentimes spark story ideas. :)

    When I asked her what that red ribbon meant to her...it didn't have the deep meaning my mind had assigned it...I liked my "made up" story better. *g*

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  21. I turn my strange fruit into scribblings in a spiral bound notebook. I think I'm going to have to live to about 147 to get all those stories written.

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  22. Genghiscon6:07 PM

    Apparently it's a 'strange fruit' sort of day. I tried to leave work early but my plans were thwarted by a very large and very angry beaver who has decided to camp out at the bottom of the stairs leading to my office. I'm waiting for maintenance to come and scoop him up with a loader and return him to a more hospitable local. I've heard of being waylaid on route to the parking lot before but never by a beaver. I haven't quite figured out how to work with this new experience but it's so odd, I just had to share it.

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  23. Paying the IRS with fruit.
    I almost dropped my laptop.
    I love this blog!

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  24. Strange fruit get thought about. Mulled over. Stretched out. Beaten up. Manipulated, rearranged, crushed, re-constituted, shined up, polished and dumped into their very own, brand new story. Hopefully, with little bearing on the truth; you can trust me on that... I'm a journalist...

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  25. You and Dawn Firelight helped me interpret a dream I've been having lately. http://www.mercuryranch.org/blog/2007/01/24/strange-fruit/

    Your post, Dawn's comment, and something hubby said gelled. This is so cool. Thanks.

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  26. I really like your #5 -- it's an interesting exercise how 5 plausibilities could lead to 5 very different stories.

    My strange fruit ends up in a notebook of ideas, or scribbled on the edge of a serviette, or squeezed into a sour juice. ;-)

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  27. The original 'Strange Fruit' is far more grim. It's a jazz song from 1939. The fruit is lynching victims hanging on trees. Read this:

    http://weeklywire.com/ww/05-15-00/nash_8-books.html

    complete lyrics here:

    http://hepcat1950.com/strfruit.html

    Sorry to be a downer, but I'm somewhat horrified that the term could escape it's old meaning and become novel and amusing.

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