Needless to say, I returned for a command performance a couple of weeks later. There Manuel was, alone, flipping through the channels on his TV. With no more than a “Buenos días,” he threw himself into another transformative performance and created another new Joel. Wow. After I left the shop, I stopped at a truck-farmer’s corner. The heaps of colorful fruits and greens out in the open air suggested to me Adjuntas, Aibonito, and other Elysian places in the mountains where I imagined the plátanos grow as big as sheep. I was fairly certain the guy who sold the goodies had cheated me the last time I stopped there, but I was in a great mood and convinced that I possessed a seductive, possibly overwhelming charm that swept away all vulnerabilities and flaws of character, even my bad Spanish. Indeed, the man offered me “un precio muy especial, hoy solamente” on tiny, jewel-like pineapples, a dollar each, I should buy three or four. But of course, including a couple for Manuel.
I popped back into the shop and took a pineapple out of my bag to give to the barber, but he was aghast. “Where’d you buy that?” he asked. He saw I had four. “How much did you pay for those? A dollar? Each? They’re not worth a peseta altogether. Pineapples are supposed to be this big.” He told me I should return them. “But Manuel,” I protested. “The guy’s not going to give me my money back. Besides, they have their sabor.” “Yeah,” he said, “and it’s not very good. Hey,” he called out to a passerby, “Look at this. He paid a dollar each for these.” Another friend of Manuel’s showed up. They were all hooting at once, and with each carcajada I knew I’d have to go back to the cart.
My return to the produce-seller was uneventful, as it turned out, although god knows what he was thinking. When I passed back by Manuel’s and waved the four dollars at one of his sidekicks, the man shouted towards the back where the barber was getting something to eat and this was followed by much bonhomie and admonishments from all of them that I should be shopping at the neighborhood supermaket, the odious Pueblo, and buying large, good pineapples.
Is there a lesson in all of this? The forlorn south-coast city of Ponce where my wife works has a sprawling, multi-level shopping mall so undistinguished — a mind-numbing effusion of the usual Sears Roebuck, JC Pennys, Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Champs Sport, Gap for Kids, Sunglasses Hut, cel-phone kiosks, credit-card hucksters, reeking food court, blasting arcade, you name it — that this ruined nexus of a once-stately hacienda culture has finally achieved a kind of heartland nebbishhood, an almost unthinkable achievement for a sun-dappled tropical manor-town. On my last visit there, in a surreptitious and ultimately fruitless attempt to find a wireless internet connection so I could download some tunes on someone else’s dime, I saw, at the entrance to the mall, a little thatched hut with bounty from the lush countryside: ñame, batata, guineos, plátanos, mangos, mandarinas, presided over by a nut-brown little guy in a conical straw hat. “Hello,” I said. “Any nísperos today?” He gave me a look I’ve grown accustomed to in the land of short shrift for the gringo, one that says, “Why don’t you get over your grade-school Spanish.” Only in this case, I discovered, it was the word “níspero,” a common local fruit which apparently my bumpkin friend, not a real bumpkin, had no acquaintance with. “No, we have no nísperos,” a well-scrubbed young guy in shirt-sleeves butted in, sitting at a nearby table sipping a latte from another little hut which was dispensing fresh-squeezed juices and groovy coffee drinks. “They’re just in season. Stop back in a week or so.” Aha. The actual owner, I believe. The tropics were returning to Ponce. As a brand. Coming soon.