The Symbol of Hospitality


Our Daily Correspondent


Károly Ferenczy, Pineapple, 1911.

Yesterday, I was walking down the street, enjoying the warm weather and the city’s relative emptiness—a lot of people had gone away for the long weekend—when I saw someone who looked familiar, an old man on a bench outside an empty asphalt playground. How did I know that face?

It came to me all of a sudden. It was the old man I had seen some months ago in the supermarket, yelling at the cashier and accusing all and sundry of elder abuse. Back then, his face had been contorted with impotent rage and the terror of senility.

Now, as I stared at him, arrested, he met my eyes. “Can I have a few pennies?” he said. “A few pennies for a pineapple?”

A lot of thoughts went through my head. First and foremost, that a pineapple would cost several hundred pennies. Second, that maybe he was living in the past, when pineapple had been much cheaper—but even then, when a few pennies went further, a pineapple still would have been something of a luxury, right? And third, that rarely in this life are we given so clear a chance to redress a wrong.

And I felt I had wronged that old man in our last encounter; had I not rebuked and glared at him at the supermarket? Had I not failed to recognize the signs of dementia and treated him with the entitlement of youth? Yes. I had to make amends.

“I’ll buy you a pineapple!” I said rashly.

His response was not what I had hoped. In point of fact, he looked at me owlishly. The look was not wholly innocent of cunning.

“A sweet one,” he said.

“On it,” I replied, for some reason both winking and shooting a finger at him like it was a pistol, an action that was in equal parts insinuating and menacing.

I didn’t know where I’d find the pineapple, but I was going to get it. As I peered around for a market or a fruit stand, song lyrics ran through my head:

If you brought me diamonds,
If you brought me pearls,
If you brought me roses
Like some other gents
Might bring to other girls,
It couldn’t please me more
Than the gift I see;
A pineapple for me.

Maybe he knew the words. After a few blocks, I found a sleazy urban supermarket. My heart leapt when I saw the Dole pineapples sitting regally in their bin, and to my delight, I found one that was slightly perfumed and gave a bit when I pressed its base for ripeness. I bore it out in triumph.

I walked a full block before it occurred to me that maybe a whole pineapple wasn’t really the most practical gift for an old man sitting without any visible implements on a park bench. Well, maybe he wanted it for later. But could such a man safely handle a knife? What would be better, surely, was one of those Styrofoam flats of prepared, fresh pineapple. I’d need to find a market for that.

This took an additional eight blocks or so, and then I added another few minutes to the trip when I decided that, just to be safe, I should probably get a can of pineapple, too, in case the ones I’d found weren’t that sweet. (The cut-up one looked pretty pale and woody.)

By the time I got back to the bench, the old man was gone. He was nowhere in sight. I was intensely annoyed. Robbing me of my mitzvah! Leaving me with two pineapples plus a can of pineapple chunks in pure pineapple juice! “Ingrate,” I muttered. Our dealings were back where they’d started.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.