Sunday, January 18, 2009

Occasional Literary Gem #4

Though I've had a busy weekend, returning from a stay-over at Indi's gorgeous beach retreat to the usual round of commitments, I'm still making my way pleasurably through Pat Conroy's amazing 'Prince Of Tides'.

The following passage is one of Tom Wingo's reminiscences, and at this stage of the novel, appears to serve no direct purpose other than to enrich the already kaleidoscopic setting. I don't imagine there will be a need to revisit Mr Fruit, however the brief appearance of this eccentric character adds another dimension to the already multi-textured setting of the novel.

'We came to the intersection of Baitery Road and the Street of Tides and to one of Colleton's two traffic lights. Out in the harbor, sailboats canted into the wind, their sails papery and overwhelmed with sunlight. A fifty-foot yacht made the turn in the river and signaled the bridge tender with four throaty barks of the horn. Mr. Fruit, sporting a baseball cap and white gloves, was directing traffic at the intersection. We waited for him to grant us permission to cross the street. It did not matter to Mr. Fruit if the light was red or green. Mr. Fruit relied on intuition and his own internal sense of balance and symmetry to get the traffic through his corner of the world.

Fantastic, bizarre, and vigilant, he was a tall, lanky black man of indeterminate age who seemed to consider the town of Colleton his personal responsibility. I don't know to this day if Mr. Fruit was retarded or deluded or some harmless sweet-faced lunatic given free rein to drift about his native town spreading the joy of an inarticulate gospel to his neighbors. I don't know his real name or who his family was or where he spent the night. I know he was indigenous and that no one questioned his right to direct the traffic on the Street of Tides.

There was a time when a new deputy tried to teach Mr. Fruit about the difference between a red and a green light, but Mr. Fruit had resisted all efforts to reorder what he had been doing perfectly well for many years. He not only monitored the comings and goings of the town, his presence softened the ingrained evil that flourished along the invisible margins of the town's consciousness. Any community can be judged in its humanity or corruption by how it manages to accommodate the Mr. Fruits of the world. Colleton simply adjusted itself to Mr. Fruit's harmonies and ordinations. He did whatever he felt was needed and he did it with style. "That's the southern way," my grandmother said. "That's the nice way."

"Hey, babe," he cried out when he saw us, and "Hey, babe," we cried back. He wore a silver whistle around his neck and a beatific, inerasable smile on his face. He tooted his whistle and waved his long arms in graceful exaggerated swoops. He pivoted and danced toward the lone approaching car, his left hand at a right angle to his bony wrist. The car stopped and Mr. Fruit motioned for us to cross the street, blowing on his whistle in perfect synchronization with my grandmother's footsteps. Mr. Fruit was born to direct traffic. He also led all parades in Colleton, no matter how solemn or festive the occasion. Those were his two functions in the life of the town and he performed them very well. My grandfather would always tell us that Mr. Fruit had done as well with what he had as any man my grandfather had ever met.'

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