Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some books are just fun to read...................

By the end of the nineteenth century, the world of banana men - which was a world of shipping companies, warehouses, plantations, ripening rooms, loading bays, and docks - had settled into a hierarchy.  If you step back, you can see it laid out as a cross section, like an exhibit in a museum:  at the top, you have the owners of the companies, men who sit in boardrooms and trade stock.  One of the largest was Boston Fruit, dominated by old New England families.  But there were others, as many as fifty small and midsized importers.  They had names like Tropical Trading and Transport Company, Colombian Land Company, Snyder Banana.  Beneath them were the sea captains who rented cargo space.  These were the sort of salts whose portraits hand in dockside taverns:  bearded sailors in peacoats, their storm-tossed ships painted in the background.  Such men were the backbone of the trade, which depended on speed.  There were tales of ruthless sailors who did whatever it took.  Captain Gus, for example, who rather than losing days in quarantine, dumped a passenger sick with fever into the sea.   Then came the bureaucrats:  dock agents, purchasers, inspectors, and overseers who worked the wharves, filled the hotels and taverns, and spoke only of bananas.  Then the stevedores, loaders and unloaders, African Americans and Sicilians who went everywhere with their baling hooks, always present, never seen.
      Finally, at the bottom of the trade, in the cellar beneath the basement, came the banana peddler, also know insultingly as the fruit jobber,  (For the rest of his life, no matter how high he climbed, the executives at United Fruit referred to Zemurray as "the fruit jobber.")   Almost all were foreign born:  Jews from Russia, Greeks from Anatolia,  Italians from Sicily.  It was the only work many could get.  Bananas were especially disreputable, with the taint of cholera and the stink of the docks.  Most jobbers were small men, feisty, excitable, voluble, prone to anger.  When they argued, it made a kind of symphony.  You saw the crowd whenever a ship came in, fighting for position.  Sam, big, deliberate, strong, and slow, stood out from the beginning.  Nothing could make him hurry.  He had the sort of calm that cannot be taught.  Years later, in a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described Zemurray as "one of few the statesmen among businessmen that I have encountered.  He has the qualities that one usually finds in a great personality:  simplicity as well as size."

-Rich Cohen,  The Fish That Ate The Whale:  The Life and Times of America's Banana King

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