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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 13, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Cart Thief, No Bananas, Grab Bar

It was the day before a threatened snowstorm, and my wife was rushing to run errands. She had just enough time to stop by the Harris-Teeter at Friendly Center and pick up some needed items.

She already had toothpaste in the cart when she remembered that we were low on eggs. Because of the impending snow, the egg display was crowded, so she left her cart some distance away as she worked her way to the egg cartons.

Then she quickly got the rest of the items -- a month's supply of Cottonelle Ultra toilet paper, a half-dozen boxes of Kleenex. She was standing in the checkout line when she happened to see that at the bottom of the cart there was a package of ground beef.

She hadn't picked up any ground beef.

Her first (admittedly insane) thought was that someone was going around the grocery store dropping meat in people's carts. Then rationality returned, and she realized that when she returned from getting eggs, she must have put them in someone else's cart and taken off with it.

Immediately she left the line and went in search of the unidentified ground-beef buyer. Going up an aisle, she saw an elderly woman ("elderly" means "about ten years older than us" these days) coming down the aisle pushing an empty cart. My wife recognized her as being one of the people who had been choosing eggs.

"Did I steal your cart?" she asked.

"Well, someone did," said the lady.

Profusely apologizing, my wife transferred all her toilet paper, eggs, and Kleenexes to the lady's empty cart and then gave the cart with the ground beef in it to her. The lady recounted her saga; after searching for her own cart, she solicited help from a store employee, who brought her a new cart -- what else could he do?

"There's a cart near the eggs with some toothpaste in it," said the lady. "Could that have been yours?"

"Oh yes," said my wife.

Later, my wife imagined what it must have been like for the old lady. If she's at all like us, she questions her own memory, and certainly, with her white hair, some of the people witnessing her quest for her missing cart must have been thinking, "Poor old dear, she's losing her mind; I hope I never get like that."

So my wife wanted me to tell this story so it could go on the record. The elderly lady in Harris-Teeter who was searching for her cart was not losing her mind. Her cart really had been taken.

As my wife points out, the people who thought the old lady was losing her mind were only half wrong. They just had the wrong old lady.


Speaking of grocery stores, I wonder what we'll all do when grocery stores no longer contain bananas.

No joke. Bananas in America may soon go the way of elm and chestnut trees.

Think about it. How many varieties of apple are there in the grocery store? Now, how many types of banana? If a blight were to strike golden delicious apples, we might still have Granny Smiths, honeycrisps, golden russets, and McIntoshes.

But in all our stores, all our bananas are of one breed: Cavendish. And a fungus is killing them all. It has wiped out the Cavendish bananas of many tropical countries; it has not yet reached Latin America, but speaking realistically, it's just a matter of time.

I read about this in the current (January 10, 2011) issue of The New Yorker. (Yes, their editorial comments are so far left they make Nancy Pelosi look sane, but they still publish superbly fact-checked, well-written articles about important but out-of-the-way subjects that nobody else is covering.)

Mike Peed's article "We Have No Bananas" follows the work of scientists who are trying to curb the blight. But what startled me was his history of bananas in America.

Did you know that we've already had one blight that wiped out all the bananas imported into our country?

When bananas were first imported into the U.S., starting in 1870 when fishing boat captain Lorenzo Dow Baker brought 160 bunches into Jersey City, the kind he brought was not our familiar Cavendish, it was a variety he found in Jamaica: Gros Michel.

Gros Michel could be eaten raw -- many varieties of bananas (plantains and others) have to be cooked to be edible. But its flavor was far superior to what any of us today have ever tasted. The skin was resilient and the bananas did not bruise.

By 1910, 40 million Gros Michels were being brought into the U.S. every year. And Baker's company, United Fruit (now Chiquita) was so rich and powerful that it was toppling uncooperative "banana republic" governments -- or getting the U.S. government to do it for them.

Before cocaine, it was bananas that took over Latin American economies because of the high profits from American demand.

Then there came the Tropical Race One blight, and it became impossible to grow Gros Michel bananas; it's a fungus that is transmitted with dirt, which tracks everywhere that banana workers and executive go. It was sheer good fortune that the Cavendish variety was found growing in a garden in China; Americans soon learned to settle for the less-tasty, easily-bruised, faster-ripening Cavendish, and all the banana plantations for the export market made the switch.

But monocultures can be wiped out by a single blight; the one killing the Cavendish bananas today is Race Four. Now that it exists, it seems impossible to stop. Quarantine is working so far to protect Latin America, but the thing about quarantines is that over time, if the infestation can't be destroyed at the source, something leaks through. All it takes is one Race Four intrusion anywhere in Latin America, and in a few short years the Cavendish will be gone.

What then?

When I lived in Brazil, I was astonished to discover that there really are dozens of varieties of bananas that are regularly available in markets in tropical countries. Many of them can't be exported -- they ripen too fast or don't travel well. Others don't fit our banana-eating habits -- plantains are fibrous and unsweet until they're cooked, so there's no joy in peeling them to eat them raw (or, as our granddaughters call it, "monkey-style").

When the Cavendishes are gone, they'll probably find some other kind that makes a decent second-rate substitute and start bringing it into the U.S. But my hope is that this time, they'll find five different varieties and import them all, so we can get to know and use several kinds of bananas.

Why set ourselves up for another wipeout by establishing a new monoculture? We may discover that we like having a choice of bananas the way we have a choice of apples.

That's certainly better than having no bananas at all.


When you suddenly find yourself prone to tipping over at unpredictable moments, you begin to think about safety features in your home. For instance, our stairway was designed with a gap in the handrail -- three steps where there's nothing to hold on to.

While I was still in the hospital with my recent stroke, my wife called our friend and remodeling contractor, Tim Davis of Tim Davis Home Improvement, and asked him if there was any way he could add a short length of railing to that gap, so I could safely get up and down the stairs. Tim created a large enough hole in his schedule that the railing was already in place when I got home.

But I soon found another safety gap -- the shower. Fortunately, we have never remodeled the master bathroom, so we don't have the currently-fashionable all-glass enclosure (which we would certainly have installed if we had remodeled). Tim hates putting those in, because when people fall in the shower, there's a good chance they'll go right through the glass and get cut to ribbons by eh shards.

Our shower is safe enough -- it even has a built-in seat so if we go down, we can usually keep ourselves from going all the way to the floor, and if we fall into glass, it's a door that pushes open instead of a wall that breaks.

Still, there's that awkward moment of stepping into the shower, when you put your weight on a floor that may or may not be slick, and then the moments when, eyes closed to keep soap out, you need to turn around. I used to be fine with that. Now I worry that my left leg will buckle under me and I'll go down.

I assumed that what I wanted was the same kind of matte-finished metal bars that they have in hospitals. But Tim pointed out that with soap on your hands, you still can't be sure of your grip.

And I was definitely not going with a suction-cup design. "Maybe for delicate old people who way 90 pounds," I said, "But I'm three times that weight. Think 'ox,' not 'gazelle.'"

"No bar is going to be able to bear all your weight," Tim said. "Not unless we bolt it to studs, and the way your shower was constructed, we'd have to tear out the wall on the other side to get to them."

So he went in search of a safety bar with a good grip even when your hands are soapy, which can be attached securely enough to allow you to keep your balance. He found it.

Moen makes a grab bar in their Home Care line, and its "securemount" technology seems convincing to us. Certainly it feels solid. And my hands never slip on the plastic surface.

It does the job of making me feel safer in the shower, because I actually hold on as I step in and whenever I turn around. (Safety features are pointless if you don't use them.)

Once again Tim Davis came through for us. We've never gone wrong following his advice, he has found far better solutions for various problems than we thought of ourselves, and his workmanship has never been less than excellent -- whether he was building us a new mailbox, supervising a driveway pour or a new fence, or building wagons or balconies as set-pieces for plays.

That's the nice thing about living in the same place for decades: when you find people who are good at their job and a joy to work with, you can stick with them.

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