Friday, February 25, 2011

Mailing a Coconut: A True Story

While on vacation in Hawaii recently, one of my traveling companions and I decided to mail coconuts to friends back on the mainland.

It turns out that this is significantly more difficult than just dropping a coconut in the nearest mailbox.

We found two likely coconuts under some palm trees on the rocky shores of Onomea Bay, just north of Hilo on the Big Island. After pounding them with sharp rocks for about three times as long as it would have taken a stone-age person, we were able to peel off the green outer husks to reveal the hard brown shells underneath.

We took the de-husked coconuts back to Hilo, where we were staying. I poked a hole in the end of mine to drain out the coconut water while my friend decided to leave his intact. Then we let them both dry out for about a week.

When they were dry, we sanded off all the little hairs on one side to make a smooth writing surface and addressed our respective coconuts with a Sharpie. One coconut was destined for Colorado and the other for Massachusetts.

Feeling a little ridiculous, we then took the coconuts up to the counter at the main post office in Hilo. The postal worker helping us looked concerned and said that he had to check with his supervisor. He took our coconuts into the back of the post office where we heard some low conversation and then some giggling.

When he returned, he said that we had to get our coconuts inspected by the Agriculture Department before they could be mailed to the mainland. He gave us two places where we could get it done: the state office downtown or the federal office out at the airport. We opted for the state office, since it was only a few blocks away.

The State Department of Agriculture office in Hilo is a one-story white cinder block building with no discernible main entrance, just a series of widely-spaced dark-tinted glass doors along one side. We followed a couple hand-written "AGRICULTURAL INSPECTION THIS WAY" signs taped to the outside of the building and eventually came to a locked door with a buzzer and a poster listing prices for inspection of various items (seeds $25, plants $40, bacteria $100).

We rang the buzzer and asked the man who opened the door how much it would cost to get our coconuts inspected for mailing. "You wanna put 'em in a box or just wanna send 'em just like dat?" he asked in a familiar Hawaiian accent. When we confirmed that we just wanted to send them as they were, he said that the inspection would be free, but that he couldn't do it. "You gotta get 'em inspected by da Aggie guys at da airport," he told us.

Were we getting the runaround? Were we ever going to be able to mail our coconuts? No way were we giving up now.

We drove out to the Hilo airport and marched up to the curbside agricultural inspection station, where air travelers have their luggage inspected for contraband plants, soil, and other organisms. We were met by an alert-looking official wearing a crisp white shirt with blue and gold military-style insignia. When we explained that we needed him to inspect and certify our coconuts for mailing, he suddenly became baffled and fearful. He wanted no part of us or our coconuts. He quickly ushered us away from his station and directed us to the main USDA office at the other end of the airport.

The main USDA office was located in a tiny building at the far end of the airport by the lost luggage area. When we went in we were met with an icy blast of air conditioning. The office was empty of people but jam-packed with stuff. Books and papers and three-ring binders filled several rows of shelves on all four walls and USDA uniform shirts and vests hung on hangers from several of the top shelves. We were in front of a tiny counter in a tiny reception area just big enough for the two of us to stand in with the door closed.

We stood there for a minute, holding our coconuts, not sure what to do, until what turned out to be the world's coolest U.S. Department of Agriculture Employee came in through the door.

When he opened the door we had to flatten ourselves against the reception area wall to let him past us and around the counter to his desk. We told him about our coconut inspection needs and he didn't bat an eye. He grabbed my coconut and took a quick look at it and said, "Can you just take some more of the hairs off of this side? I need a flat smooth place where I can put my stamp."

We panicked momentarily but then remembered that we had brought some sandpaper with us. We took our coconuts outside to the curb, hastily sanded down another large patch on both coconuts, and brought them back into the office. With consummate professionalism and flair, our federal "Aggie" made several practice rolls with his stamp on each coconut before actually applying ink. The final result was thrillingly official, with a big red APPROVED BY U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE completely legible on each nut.

We thanked him profusely and headed back out to the car, carefully avoiding smearing the still-drying ink.

Luckily, there is a post office right next to the Hilo airport, so we didn't have too long a drive for the last step in the process. We walked into the post office and proudly presented our coconuts for mailing.

Amazing as it may seem, the guy at the post office clearly had never encountered someone trying to mail a coconut. He hefted the coconuts like a coconut expert, weighing them in his hands. He held each one up to his ear and shook it, confirming that mine was empty and that my friend's still had some water in it. He asked us where we got them and agreed that Onomea Bay was very nice. He marveled that we had ripped the husks off of them by ourselves: "Lot of labor went into these coconuts, then."

He checked out our fresh USDA stamps and nodded with approval. He asked what it took to get the inspection stamps and was interested that the state inspectors had actually appeared less familiar with coconut rules than the federal inspector.

He weighed my empty coconut on the scale and calculated the postage: $2.75. Then he weighed my friend's water-filled coconut: $10.20.

He went through the standard mailing questions for us but answered them all himself. "Do you have anything liquid in this package? Yes, in this one is coconut water. Anything fragile? No, it would be really hard to break this package. Anything perishable?" (This one he had to think about.) "No, it will last until it gets there."

He printed out the postage labels and fastened them carefully and securely to the sanded parts of the coconuts. "I am going to make sure these make it to their destinations," he said. Then he placed them on top of all the other packages on the outgoing mail shelf, in full view of the other customers, "to give other people ideas to mail their own coconuts."

I happily handed over my $2.75 and my friend happily handed over his $10.20 (he said later he would have paid $50, just to be able to see this through). We walked out of the post office into the Hilo sunshine, true coconut-mailing champions.

Both coconuts made it to their respective destinations three business days later, to the awe of their recipients.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Black-White-Yellow Bauhaus Rug

Another book-review-vacation post: check out this pattern for a knitted & felted rug based on a design by Bauhaus fiber artist Anni Albers.

Black-White-Yellow Rug Pattern

Friday, February 11, 2011


I'm taking a break from book reviews for a couple weeks and getting outside for a change.

In the meantime, I thought I would leave you with this excellent passage from A Canticle for Leibowitz, in which a nuclear arms race, ensuing apocalyptic third world war, and aftermath is described by the priests who survived it.
It was said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell, and that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince: “Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike. See to it, m’Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought.”

But the princes, putting the words of their wise men to naught, thought each to himself: If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine.

Such was the folly of princes, and there followed the Flame Deluge.

Within weeks – some said days – it was ended, after the first unleashing of the hell-fire. Cities had become puddles of glass, surrounded by vast acreages of broken stone. While nations had vanished from the earth, the lands littered with bodies, both men and cattle, and all manner of beasts, together with the birds of the air and all things that flew, all things that swam in the rivers, crept in the grass, or burrowed in holes; having sickened and perished, they covered the land, and yet where the demons of the Fallout covered the countryside, the bodies for a time would not decay, except in contact with fertile earth. The great clouds of wrath engulfed the forests and the fields, withering trees and causing the crops to die. There were great deserts where once life was, and in those places of the Earth where men still lived, all were sickened by the poisoned air, so that, while some escaped death, none was left untouched; and many died even in those lands where the weapons had not struck, because of the poisoned air.

… So it was that, after the Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification, when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever persons the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death for having helped to make the Earth what it had become.

… To escape the fury of the simpleton packs, such learned people as still survived fled to any sanctuary that offered itself. When Holy Church received them, she vested them in monks’ robes and tried to hide them in such monasteries and convents as had survived and could be reoccupied, for the religious were less despised by the mob except when they openly defied it and accepted martyrdom.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Book Review: Room to Swing

Ed Lacy
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This novel just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its ridiculous cover – or its teensy size.

It proves that just because a book is short (a tidy 128 pages) and just because it went out of print and had to be resurrected by a tiny publisher who obviously scanned in the original text and then didn’t edit it afterwards so that there are typos, skipped sentences, and "& pound; s" scattered throughout the text, and whose extensive cover design consisted of reprinting a tiny picture of the original 1957 cover artwork (shown here) surrounded by an enormous plain black border, and who jammed the text so close to the tops of the pages that the headers and page numbers are practically cut off, doesn’t mean it can’t be action-packed and establish great characters.

The plot is tried-and-true mystery fare: the main character, Toussaint Moore, is a New York detective hired to track a man who quickly winds up being murdered. Moore is the first to find the body and is of course mistakenly accused of the crime; he then has to solve the murder in order to prove his own innocence.

I loved Moore’s style. He doesn’t take any guff and doesn’t go out of his way to make people feel comfortable. He is abrupt, snappy, and slangy, like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe at his best. But Moore is also human and you see his fears.

Lacy’s writing is fast-paced, clear-headed, and straightforward – which is the only way the book can be this complex and this short and still work. I liked that he starts by dropping you right smack in the middle of the story, so you have to put the background together for yourself as he gives it to you. And what I liked even more was that you got the clues and solved the mystery at the same time Moore does. You might think that would lead to less suspense, but it actually was more exciting.

What makes this novel unique for 1957 is that Moore is black. (He is, in fact, described on the back of my copy of the book and in several reviews as “the first credible black detective” in popular mystery fiction.)

For a black detective in the ‘50s, racism is never far away. Especially when most of the people he has to deal with in the story are white, including the people who hired him, the police who are chasing him, and the man he was trailing and is accused of murdering. This is a constant additional tension, to say the least, that a white detective would not have had to cope with.

In the course of solving the crime, Moore ends up traveling from New York to Bingston, Ohio, a small town just north of the Kentucky border. The contrast is educational for him. Bingston is plainly, overtly racist; Moore can only make phone calls from certain gas stations, can't eat at the cafeteria or stay at the hotel, and is constantly called “boy” and treated with hostility. New York is certainly better than Bingston; black people have a wider choice of professions, have at least the legal right to eat and lodge anywhere they want, and night clubs often have both black and white patrons. (It even has out-of-the-closet Lesbians (capitalized), whom Moore is totally okay with.)

But even with the most “liberal-minded” white New Yorkers, Moore constantly walks a tightrope of behavior, judging when to put up with insensitive remarks or outright insults and when to defend himself. And he still has to fight the pressure, even from his girlfriend and his own pesky conscience, to give up his risky detective agency venture and run to a safe civil service job.
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