San Diego You're a banana. For months you and your siblings have grown up in a clump, hanging from a tree in Ecuador. Life is good, basking in the tropical sun and rain showers. But one day, just as your green skin is starting to show the yellow of ripeness, a man climbs up your tree and with a knife cuts you and your siblings from the branch that has fed and sheltered you your whole life. You're dropped into a crate with other bananas you've never seen before. You endure the embarrassment of having a red-and-blue Dole sticker stuck to your increasingly yellow skin. You are put into a huge ship, where you and thousands of other bananas undergo fumigation, which kills any bugs or rodents that may be stowing away. After a long voyage, you are unloaded in a cold place called Los Angeles. You sit in a warehouse for a day until you are put on a truck that carries you to Apple Tree Supermarket in a strange land called Ocean Beach.
The door of the dark, smelly truck opens and in steps Arturo Ramirez, the produce manager at Apple Tree. He's a kind-looking man, about 5´10´´, with dark hair and a trim mustache. He picks you up, inspects your now almost fully yellow skin, smiles, and sets you back down. Then he moves you, your bunch, your crate, in fact a whole pallet of bananas out of the truck and into the back-room storage area of the market. There you see lots of other fruits and vegetables. Most are some shade of green, but some are red, orange, even purple. Mr. Ramirez puts some of them, especially the green, leafy ones, in a mysterious room from which a frosty breeze blows every time its door is opened. You're glad that neither you nor any other banana is put in there.
You spend a night in the storage room. Early next morning, Mr. Ramirez returns. He wheels a table cart out through a swinging door to the store. An hour later he returns, the cart littered with wilted lettuce, split tomatoes, dried cucumbers, and mushrooms that have gone brown overnight. He fills the cart with fresh replacements and goes back out through the swinging door. When he returns, he wheels the cart up to the pallet you're sitting on. He needs bananas. Will you be one of the chosen who go to the shining place beyond the swinging door? Mr. Ramirez grabs the bunch to your left, the bunch to your right, and finally he grabs your bunch and sets you on the cart.
Mr. Ramirez pushes the cart through the swinging door with a thump, down an aisle full of breakfast cereal, and into a cool, well-lit corner of the store. He very gently places you and the other bananas on one end of a table. "Some items," he explains to a man wearing a T-shirt with "Reader" printed on it, "you have to treat like little babies. Bananas are one. You can't just throw bananas out there, because they get all bruised."
From your perch, you have a view of the entire produce section. Sharing the table with you are potatoes, onions, garlic, and small tomatoes. Across an aisle to your left, on a long rack against the wall are lettuce, cabbage, peppers, squash, large tomatoes, bagged salads, zucchini, herbs, ginger root, sprouts, mushrooms.
Across the aisle, straight in front of you, is another table like yours neatly stacked with oranges, grapefruits, pineapples, papayas, and other fruits. That table, as well as the rack against the wall, are refrigerated. Your table is not. It is warm and cozy, like your native Ecuador. "If you put cold air on bananas," Mr. Ramirez explains, "they turn gray. If you've ever seen bananas that are a grainy kind of gray, it's because they were subjected to temperature changes."
The tomatoes on your table complain about the warmth, but Mr. Ramirez says they sell so fast, they don't need to be on refrigerated tables. "Besides," he tells the man, "we put them here because we sell so many tomatoes a day that we have to keep a big space for them. We can't fit as many on the rack. We go through ten cases a day, and we can only fit five out here."
Once he's transferred everything on his cart to the tables, Mr. Ramirez takes a hose from underneath the shelf and applies a light spray to "the greens, lettuce, radishes, green onions, carrots, cabbage, all that stuff." He does this every 15 minutes. "We have to keep spraying them so they won't dry out," he explains. "If we don't, they start to wilt like a flower."
Eavesdropping, you hear the man in the Reader T-shirt ask Mr. Ramirez how he knows when to pull something from the shelf. "It's easy," he answers. "I act as if I were a shopper. You have to act like you are buying this stuff. Everything that you wouldn't buy has to be taken down. Even if it's fresh but it has a scar, you know that you wouldn't buy it if you came to the store, so it has to come off the shelf. If you leave it up there, nobody is going to buy it, and it's going to make the other stuff look bad."
"Do you ever turn away deliveries because the produce isn't fresh?"
"Every single week," Mr. Ramirez answers. "We check everything when it comes in, and if I don't like it, I just send it back. It happens probably two or three times out of the week because I buy daily. I want my stuff fresh. I want quality and a good price. If I don't have the quality, I just return the stuff."
"Have you ever seen rats or insects in the deliveries?"
"In the old days. In the old days it was bad. They came out of the boxes. With the bananas, they used to bring these big spiders and big cockroaches. But now, everything gets fumigated in the boat, and when it comes out it gets fumigated again. When they used to pack stuff in the fields, you'd see corn that had been bitten by rats and stuff like that. But that stuff doesn't happen anymore. The quality control has improved a lot in the last five years."