By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
I saw The Banana Man last week. He was standing in the middle of the Family Dollar parking lot, sort of teetering. I rolled my window down and said hello. He said hello back and asked how I was. Then he went on his way, shuffling along, leaning side to side as he went.
He is an older guy, well under five feet tall, stooped over. He wears his clothes in the way the farmers did in the town I am from.
What was left of his hair was sticking up and blowing around in the wind. His nose looked the way cartoon noses look, round like a tiny light bulb. A web of wrinkles spread out from it.
Before that it had been years since I last saw him. Back then he lived in an assisted living facility close by to the cafe where B worked. He would come in, wait in line, he would tell her she had nice legs and she would say, now you know you shouldn’t say that to women. He would chuckle. He called her Pony. He always ordered an ice tea and a banana. Then he would walk over and sit down at one of the tables. She would put old music on for him, the stuff she knew he liked. The Banana Man would bop his head back and forth, put pack after pack of sugar into his tea. He’d tap out something close to the beat of the music, but not quite the beat, on the table with his fingers. Then he would usually fall asleep for a while, mouth agape, head tilted back. I used to go there sometimes to get a sandwich from B on my breaks from work. I always thought I was lucky when I caught The Banana Man.
I could tell when he was taken care of and when he wasn’t. It was the length of his fingernails, length of his stubble. I would give him rides sometimes from the cafe or when I saw him walking around. He would usually want me to bring him downtown to his favorite fast food place. He liked it best when my dog was in the car. Usually he was pretty chipper, he had this laugh that could really get you. Sometimes he’d be blue, worn out. He would carry himself like his body was actually something the rest of him had to carry. There was this slow burden of movement, of going through it, of the task of life.
I asked him a lot of questions about himself. He was from a town not far from Pittsburgh. He was older than 70. He hadn’t ever been outside of Western Pennsylvania. The Banana Man ended up in Pittsburgh when he was young because his father remarried and his stepmother wanted him out of the picture. She sent him to the mental hospital. He was there a while, after that, it was halfway houses, in and out.
Then one day The Banana Man didn’t show up to the cafe, and didn’t show up, and didn’t show up, days, a week. It had been too long and B got concerned. She called the assisted living place where he stayed. Eventually they got back to her and explained that The Banana Man had been assaulted, beaten almost to death. He was at the hospital and it looked bad. He was old and he was small. His head was split open. She called almost every day for updates. When he regained consciousness he had lost memory and quite a bit of his motor skills. The story was he had gone to the arts festival downtown. He loved art festivals, any kind of event like that where there were people, things to do and see. He said he didn’t remember what had happened exactly, but he had been jumped.
She was persistent and was able to talk to him on the phone. She told him it was Pony calling. She told him he better get better fast because the bananas were piling up and no one was there to eat them. He didn’t know who she was, he didn’t know much anymore.
He went back every once in a while after the hospital let him out but not like before. He did tell B she had nice legs again though.
I saw him outside of the cafe one day. He didn’t remember me. He was very cagey. There was an enormous scar that ran from just above his right eye into and past his receding hairline. It spread out wide. It was shiny and purple.
Just up the hill the street was shut down for some kind of event with venders. He liked that sort of thing. I asked if he wanted to walk with me. He was unsure but started to warm up to the idea. We started in the direction of the vendors and he started to laugh again, to remember who I was or at least that I was familiar to him somehow. We talked to each other and walked around for a little while and then went our separate ways.
They moved him to a spot across the river where its residents stand or sit outside, stubble faced, smoking cigarettes pressed deep in their knuckles. They wear baggy shirts, ill fitting pants. And there is a man there bent over so far he is nearly kissing his own toes. His eyes in a bed of wrinkled skin. I see him some days when I drive by. He is The Banana Man.