March 2011

Oranges, Orchids, Bromeliads

listen to this essay
 
“What exactly is a bromeliad, anyway?”

He asked even though I had explained it more than twice during the trip, probably more than a dozen times in our life. I knew he was trying, though. Trying to understand my quest, understand the inner filter that recycled my list of prizes over and over again: oranges, orchids, bromeliads. The first item was comfortable and familiar; the second he could at least picture; the third might well have been an infectious disease as much as it was a tropical plant.

I rolled down the window with the air conditioner still blasting on his side. The humidity was nauseating, even for a heat-lover like me, just 20 or so minutes outside of Miami on I-95. He shifted and watched me, my eyes scanning for signs, looking for anything homemade, commercial, a man with a sack, a woman with a basket. He tapped the touch screen on the GPS quickly, erasing the word he had just written.

“How do I spell it again? With one ‘L’ or two?”

“One,” but I was not holding my breath for a keyword search.

It was midday on a Friday and we were northbound on the great eastern corridor of highway. Four days earlier, on Monday, I was just reaching Florida, stripping off layers at rest stops and listening to radio announcers roar about how they were experiencing the coldest winter in decades. It still felt like I had gone to sleep and suddenly woken in a yellowed 1970’s photograph, one where my grandmother’s so tan I think she’s black. She lived in New Port Richey by the time I was born and I never saw her pale-faced.

On the trip down, hand-lettered citrus signs and orchid stands seemed to be on every corner. I had taken several turns off the highway to look for food, and it appeared I could eat well if I just didn’t mind peeling and driving. I was a fool; all I focused on was reaching the Keys as quickly as possible. My husband and his family had 24 hours on me, as they had flown and I had wept an hour before takeoff. I started for the Garden State Parkway as soon as they headed to La Guardia, all the monstrous anxiety of flight suddenly transferred to the heady ambrosia of a road trip. Some can’t understand why I differentiate between the two; others wrinkle their lip at my preference. I just followed the aching line of the double yellow.

Key West had been fun: touching the penny embedded in cement surrounding Hemingway’s pool (still the biggest on the island), watching my husband and brother-in-law don Snoopy-style glasses and set out in a biplane. But the Conch Republic did not offer much in the way of purchasing tropical plants or crystal-colored citrus, the two things I had dreamed of returning with to our barren northern home. The fruit offered in the breakfast buffet at our parent-paid-for fancy resort had stickers of worldly origin: California, Mexico, Peru. Where was the mythological Florida citrus, so evident just a few hours north? A plane ride these days might allow you to bring a thin T-shirt or two, a paperback and a stick of gum. But a car? This asset would mean I could bring home exotic and rare specimen I could not even fathom. So on the return, I searched.

We had tried to find a farmers’ market or fruit stand before reaching the mainland, but only shell shops and octogenarians were plentiful. The myth of Florida oranges began to materialize; our northern naivety crept up our sunburned necks and intensified the hunt. It felt like when someone tells you you’re wrong, but you persist to prove otherwise, even after the point of knowing better. How could I leave without my prize?

I got on and off the highway at random. If citrus and plants were easy to find four days ago, surely they’d turn up again. We wound our way farther and farther off course, Eric growing quieter by the mile. No signs to give hope and so, we backtracked. On 95 again I saw a billboard for an orchid world or something exciting-sounding like that and the manic glee kicked in once more. I flew across the lanes, wheel maxed out to the right and exited with high hopes. He began searching in the GPS as I scanned for a marker to point the route. In the way that things often rise and fall with mirrored extremes, I passed the road, Eric screamed and finally admitted he wanted to kill me for the quest, there were no turns for miles on the godforsaken endless stretch and I began to cry hysterically that we were so close, but it was not going to happen. When you are in the belljar, it all makes sense.

When we got back moving in the right direction, I thought we might be saved by the sight ahead: Florida Information Hotline. I dialed the number, the crazy rising again in my voice and tried my best to explain myself before they thought I was nuts and hung up.

“Hi, I’m traveling on I-95 to NY and I’m hoping to stop and buy citrus,”(the other two were already by the wayside now, as I didn’t think they’d want to talk bromeliads on the hotline.)

“Ok”

Hmmm…I had been expecting more than this.

“So, can you possibly recommend a place or give me another number to call to find an orchard or market?

The man paused for a while, which I hoped meant he was thinking, looking, anything.

“Well, you could go to the King Kullen.”

Now I paused. “Yes, but I could also go to the King Kullen in New York.”

“Yes, you could.” He said this completely without irony.

“So, nothing else?”

“That’s where I’d go.”

A few hours and 200 or so miles later, Eric was hungry and in a better mood after a few road beers now laying empty in the backseat, so we turned off the highway for dinner. It was still light out, prime Florida early bird-variety dinnertime. Everywhere were strip malls and Long John Silvers. He acted like he was finding dinner spots, when instead, a few turns later, I found myself at a nondescript little shack on top of a hill from the road below, giant plastic netted sacks of citrus overflowing from the display in front of the window.

I gasped and looked at him. He smiled, nodded, and said, “Let’s do this.”

I ran to the display and grabbed the fruit–hollow and light, like a wiffle ball. I couldn’t tell from the car that they were only replicas, grandma fruit bowls. He was already inside and when I followed, an old black man, shouting out that he was hard of hearing, but on his way, shuffled in from behind a curtain.

“Sure are glad to see ya. Only folks been in all day,” he smiled and I wondered if he could tell how happy I was to see him. “We got navels, we got grapefruits, we got tangelos, too–don’t forget to take a look at all the honey we got, orange blossom honey like you never had before!”

I liked this man so much, and I beamed, red-cheeked and with a sticky face from all the crying I had done earlier. Eric asked me what I wanted, nicely, patiently, because he knew I would behave now that the quest was fulfilled. He hated when the crazy took over, when wife morphed into wolf.

I looked at him–what should we get? I wanted it all, this whole room loaded with piles of analogous warmth– orange, yellow, pink, no limes, but more citrus than I had ever seen at once. The honey made amber tiles on the carpet, the late afternoon sun flowing through all those jars in the window. Eric told him we were looking for oranges and grapefruit.

“I’ll start you off with a sack of each,” he said.  “You folks look around while I get them together.”

He shouted from behind the curtain while he filled up the sacks, telling us about how he had been in citrus all his life, a picker since he was barely walking. He could only be in the store now, as his ears and his eyes were no longer useful. He said he liked the store, liked to meet people. I hugged Eric, so glad to finish what we started, to feel my inner rabbit rest, to be near this nice old man. I didn’t like to think of him alone with his fruits all day, no one ever showing up, no one appreciating all those hands and hearts picking and picking. Eric let me keep hugging him and kissed my head where my hair meets my face while the man hefted the bags. We left and headed north with 30 lbs. of fruit and two jars of that honey so I could taste what happened when the bees finally found those blossoms.

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