I eat a lot of fruit.
When I worked in a building at the very bottom of Wall Street I passed four or five fruit vendors on my morning walk from the subway to my office. Two Asian guys a block apart, but on the wrong side of the street. A super big set-up with two guys -- I think they were South Asian -- on Broadway just North of Wall, whose prices always seemed to be just a little bit higher than the others. And about halfway down the street, in front of the Deutsche Bank Building, hanging out with the post 9/11 security guards and car service drivers waiting for their clients, my fruit guy.
He seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 50, hefty, but not fat, of indeterminate ethnicity, with an impressive black mustache, more than adequate English and pretty much the same inventory as everyone else.
I was a good customer. Bananas, granny smiths, fresh figs in season, cherries, I bought pounds of fruit every week. Our conversations were cordial, but limited; "How are the apricots?" "Beautiful day." That kind of thing, and every once in a while he would give me something extra, "Take an orange, it's very healthy." Or he'd give me five plums for my dollar instead of the three promised by his little handwritten sign.
Our morning fruit conversations slowly began to expand. Me: "My son likes persimmons, I'll take six." He: "How old is your son?" "Oh, very old -- thirty six" I replied, and asked him: "Do you have any children?" etc, etc. Leading to, "I have a son and a daughter, but I don't live with them; they are with my wife."
That year, it must have been 2005 or 2006, my fruit guy was at his post on Wall Street every morning from early spring until December; then he wasn't there any more. We hadn't said "goodbye, have a nice winter, see you in the spring" -- nothing like that. From then on I simply crossed the street and bought my fruit from whichever vendor had the shorter line.
Crossing the street on post 9/11 Wall Street is not actually that simple. The street has been closed to ordinary traffic since 2001. Dirt-filled concrete barricades holding dead flowers that somebody thought would suggest planters rather than security, funnel pedestrians into narrow columns at the top of the street and at many points block access to the curb. Soldiers with machine guns stand in front the Federal Building and police with dogs hang out near the Stock Exchange. Movable spiked wedges reach from curb to curb, flattening to permit an official vehicle to drive down Wall Street, but remaining raised, poised to rip open the tires of a lost tourist's car, a taxi in a hurry, or, I suppose, a truck loaded with explosives.
Despite the dogs and machine guns, security on Wall Street feels random and sloppy. The Stock Exchange has its own portable wrought iron fence and guard booth. There are often satellite trucks, lots of tourists, local reporters doing standups in front of the Federal building -- and then the rest of us, the trabajeros hurrying to work in the morning and home in the evening.
Then one day my fruit guy was back. The days were longer, the weather warmer, the fruits more plentiful -- whatever had caused his absence was over and I stopped crossing the street to buy my fruit.
I welcomed his return: "I hope you were someplace warm when you were away." "Oh, I went to my country -- a very beautiful place, but not warm." Okay. "And can have I have a pound of grapes and two bananas?" The fruit guy's winter vacation was only somewhat interesting to me and I had to get to work.
Later that week, I crossed a line and asked, "Why did you go to a cold place in the winter?" He replied with a passion that had never come up in our chitchat about plums. "It is high in the mountains, I have many horses, I have orchards. It is the most beautiful place in the world."
"High in what mountains?" "Ahhh the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- very beautiful." The geo-political sector of my brain slowly focused enough for me to ask, "isn't it dangerous there?" "Oh no," he reassured me, "why would it be dangerous?" "The war, the Taliban?" I ventured.
He moved a little closer to me and bent toward my ear. "I am Taliban," the fruit guy whispered.
In the next week or so, we had longer chats over fruit. He is divorced. His wife lives in Queens with their two teenage children. He misses his daughter very much and is concerned about his son. He is not permitted to see his kids. It was not clear to me whether there was a court order involved, something about allegations of abuse -- "Not true," he assured me.
The fruit guy (I never learned his name) talked about his son. "He has bad friends; my wife cannot control him. He is very angry; it is serious."
My Upper West Side/Lower Manhattan heart was full of sympathy: immigrant family, acting out teenager, hints of violence, this was the stock in trade of the social service organization on where I had worked for 20 years. And in a general way I knew how to respond: but the fruit guy certainly wasn't a client and he wasn't asking me for help.
As late winter became spring, I continued to buy my apples and pears, apricots and tangelos; after the almost-intimacy of our earlier conversations, we stayed carefully focused on our business relationship: salesman and customer; fruit purveyor, fruit eater.
However, a feeling that there was something I should be doing about the Taliban vendor with the troubled family shadowed my fruit buying.
It was unsettling. I talked to friends about my fruit vendor. "Are you scared?" asked one. "No, all I'm doing is buying fruit on Wall Street, not scary," I replied. And the other point of view: "You can't turn him in: they'll send him to Guantanamo," sums up the message from my family and colleagues.
Not scary, but not nothing either. I read the papers; the Taliban aren't an isolated Amazon tribe to be studied or an immigrant group adapting to life in the U.S.A. The Taliban are brutal; they bomb, they stone; they destroy and they hate this country.
Not every Taliban is a terrorist; neither is every prisoner at Guantanamo. Nor is every--or perhaps any -- person who was "expedited" by the U.S.A. to a prison in Bulgaria guilty of anything. My country is breaking the law and defying its own Constitution in its terror of terrorists. My family were shocked that I would even think of turning my fruit guy over to the authorities. My brother, the civil rights lawyer, was aghast.
But they didn't have to consider an actual person with an actual "very bad" teenage son. If the fruit guy's son was very bad what was the risk that the bad people he was hanging out with were dangerous?
Did I have a responsibility to go beyond my somewhat peculiar relationship with a fruit vendor who wasn't do a bit of harm selling bananas on Wall Street? He had confided his family troubles and love for his horses and beautiful mountains to me and I had listened willingly. If there was something I should be doing, what was it.?
I did do something. I talked to a friend who is a high-ranking police officer. He was unequivocal. I had to talk to the terrorism guys at the NYPD. One sunny afternoon, a nice, friendly plainclothes policeman came to my office. We walked to the empty spot where the fruit guy parked his stand almost every morning. There was nothing much to see and the cop promised to return in the morning when the fruit stand was open. He phoned a few weeks later to say he had gone back, but didn't see anything unusual.
I never saw my Taliban again.
Last week a different fruit guy, silent and small, was minding the cart and the scale.