My wife and I had finally succumbed to the idea of spending a couple of the winter months in Florida as “refugees” from the ice and snow of the Midwest. We rented a unit at the Surf and Sail condominium complex in Longboat Key just north of Sarasota.
On the first afternoon of our extended visit, I headed for the spa next to the swimming pool for a thirty-minute soak in the warm, bubbling water. My goal was to relax and wile away the time in the sun.
Florida is called “God’s waiting room” for good reason. The spa’s daily visitors consisted of a small group of men in their 70’s and 80’s, often chatting about their golf games and their recent surgical procedures. For some reason, the male-to-female ratio in the spa was usually about 3:1 in favor of the males. I’m not exactly sure why this mix. The ladies probably found better things to do with their time or favored a different form of relaxation.
The conversation in the spa among the men on that particular afternoon ranged from the rapidly escalating price of Florida real estate to the war in the Ukraine. Some of the men did veer close to what I would call “bullshitter” territory. However, the majority were just seeking company and assumed that their little chats would have no consequences beyond their aquatic micro-environment.
On an afternoon two days later, I headed back to the spa and jumped into the jetted water, massaging my back, when I was joined by an older man. He was wearing swimming trunks and a baseball hat, the standard uniform for male spa-goers. He slightly nodded his head as I entered, the usual gesture of someone willing to engage in harmless chatter.
I quickly considered my options for a conversation. At one end of the pool were two women wearing T-shirts emblazoned with FJB on the front. I decided that they would not be my first choice. The discussion of domestic politics with strangers is risky at best and dangerous at worst. Instead, I turned my head to acknowledge the man who had nodded to me and greeted him cordially, saying: “How are you this afternoon?”
“Not doing all that well,” he replied grumpily. “I’m Cedric Jansen, a retired stock broker from Philadelphia. However and in my retirement years, I have maintained a special interest in human nutrition, particularly relating to longevity and disease. Some may think of me as an amateur but my opinions are respected in certain quarters. I frequently post notes on Twitter about the relationship between diet and cancer.”
“Sounds fascinating,” I responded earnestly. I admired the fact that he had turned a hobby into a serious pursuit. “What’s the juiciest, current nugget from the world of nutrition? What special diet should I adopt to ensure my smooth launch into my 90’s?”
“Funny that you should ask me such a question now,” he responded. “I have grown concerned about a recent report from a research lab in California. They maintain a colony of chimpanzees. It turns out that they have seen an increased number of cancer deaths among their chimps. At any rate, a report from the lab suggests that high banana consumption may be linked to cancer of the colon.”
I must have arched my eyebrows in a show of concern about what Cedric had told me because he immediately frowned. “Is there something I said that does not sit well with you?” he asked.
“I was just wondering how accurate this report could be,” I responded. “For example, what was the number of chimps in the study? My guess is that the colony was small. Assumptions based on a small number of animals might lead to a wrong conclusion. One needs to be very cautious here.”
He smiled at me in a somewhat condescending way: “You make an important point but you obviously have no knowledge about the literature in this area. There have been multiple reports in the past from other labs about the potential carcinogenic effects of black sigatoka which is a fungal leaf spot disease affecting bananas and first observed in Fiji in about 1963. This new report appears to be yet one more piece in this puzzle.”
“ I, for one, have been a lifelong banana enthusiast,” he continued. “My habit has always been to eat one a day, usually with my morning cereal. But I now, unfortunately, have come to view this banana fungus as a possible health hazard. I take no pleasure in calling attention to this potentially serious problem.”
He continued: “I don’t know if you keep up with social media, but I post a daily Tweet about good nutrition and have a large number of followers. I would be remiss if I did not share this news about bananas with them.”
“Have you totally thought this through, Cedric?” I continued. “Would it not be prudent to wait to see if there are followup publications on this topic from reputable labs?”
“First of all, you are not taking into account the responsibility I feel toward my Twitter followers,” he said. “Secondly, you seem to be ignoring the high personal price I am paying by giving up my daily banana. Some sort of citrus fruit is a far distant second as my choice for breakfast. I say this to you in a somewhat joking way, knowing that you probably don’t know that bananas are technically a berry.”
The next day, a food truck drove onto the grounds of our condo complex. This was one stop on their morning rounds to offer smoothies to the residents for breakfast. I stood in the queue, ready to order my usual large plastic cup of a mango-strawberry. Interestingly and on that day, there was a notice taped to the plexiglass barrier where you place your order: Due to the recently announced health risk, and out of an abundance of caution, we are no longer able to offer banana smoothies.
This new development interested me so I made it my business to drive to the local grocery store and walked down the produce aisle. There was nary a banana to be seen in the produce section but there was a sign posted on one of the bins. Due to health concerns about bananas, we are no longer selling the product. We will restock bananas as soon as we are notified by the local health department that the product is safe.
I then began to follow closely what now appeared to be a “global banana collapse” on the my Internet news sites. This was obviously a matter of concern to the banana exporting countries, particularly Ecuador, for whom the product is worth about four billion dollars a year. The country had immediately engaged the services one of the most prominent public relations firms in New York to help neutralize the bad news that was spreading quickly and try to dampen the market panic.
I returned to the spa in the late afternoon of the next day to find Cedric sitting at one end with the two FJB ladies at the other. I cautiously slid into the churning water next to him. As I did, his cell phone that he had placed outside of the pool to stay dry began to ring. He pulled himself out of the water, sat on the side, and answered. His posture began to grow more formal as he spoke into the phone: “It’s good to be able to talk to you Mr. President.”
He did a ‘side-eyes’ toward the ladies at the other end of the spa, cupped his hand over the end of the cell phone to muffle the conversation, and then listened intently. He then began to nod affirmatively. “Yes, Sir. I will do what I can to help solve this problem.” He then signed off on the call and turned to me.
He whispered: “That was Joe! He asked me to go a little easier on my ‘banana thing’ and asked if I would be willing to meet with the president of Ecuador. He’s flying to Sarasota tomorrow and wants to meet with me informally to chat about bananas. I told him yes of course.”
The banana crisis had receded somewhat, at least in my mind, when I dipped into the spa the next afternoon. I immediately noticed that Cedric was engaged in a serious conversation with another gentleman of about his age, also immersed in the water but with a somewhat unusual attire. He was wearing a very small bathing suit. His chest was bare but he also sported a broad red, blue and yellow satin sash draped over his right shoulder that was also bound at his waist.
Cedric noticed that I had entered the pool, turned to me, and said: “I would like to introduce you to President Alejandro Salazar of Ecuador. He dropped by to discuss bananas with me.”
Salazar turned to me and said: “Señor Jansen has graciously agreed to meet with me in his office. I have told him that, on the basis of our discussions with the World Health Organization, my country has now begun checking all of our banana exports for the sigatoka virus. He has also graciously accepted our gift of a case of our finest, and now tested, Ecuadorian bananas for his personal consumption. We seem to have arrived at a meeting of the minds here.”
Cedric was nodding vigorously while Salazar was speaking. “This remedial action by the country has assured me that bananas no longer pose a threat to the nation’s health and I have posted a Tweet to this effect. This was a satisfactory solution for all concerned.”
Just as Cedric finished speaking, I suddenly heard a series of whistling noises in the air surrounding the spa and the surface of the water became pockmarked by multiple, circular indentations. It was as if it had started to rain but I could feel no drops. It then occurred to me that there was a sniper hiding in one of the condo towers who was shooting at us in the spa.
I immediately concluded that Salazar was the target of the assassin’s bullets but I did stand a chance of becoming collateral damage. Of course, our fate did depend on the accuracy of the sniper. All told, I thought that the odds of my coming out of this with my skin intact were not good.
As soon as the bullets began to strike the water, two burly men in dark suits and with ear-pieces suddenly appeared and pulled Salazar from the water, attempting to cover him with their bodies as they carried him away. His colorful sash had dropped from his shoulders and dumped on the grass. The hail of bullets stopped as soon as he was carried away.
Within a few minutes, the entire condo property was surrounded by a cordon of police cars and unmarked black sedans. Armed officers surrounded those of us who remained in the area of the spa but huddling under the canvas lawn furniture for cover. I heard one of them talking to his partner about a cell of Ecuadorian terrorists from Miami who had the intention of assassinating Salazar.
So, to recap, it had been an eventful series of days in the spa. The FJB ladies evaporated into the thin air, perhaps decamping to some other condo and perhaps even carrying a white flag. I never saw Cedric again. I am certainly going to avoid bananas, at least for a while. Too many bad associations.
These days, while I continue to soak in the spa in the late afternoons, I often think about the so-called butterfly effect. The basic idea is that small things like spa gossip can have non-linear impacts on complex systems like the earth. And one more thing. No more idle talk from me about anything. My continuing ambition is to reach the age of 90 by whatever means possible. Better nutrition is one path for me but I will also avoid known carcinogens.