“Can you be Bananas the Monkey tomorrow?”
I was seventeen years old, punching my time card as a waitress at Casa Bonita, a massive Disneylandish restaurant sitting behind a bright pink storefront in a strip mall near a wig store and a check cashing place.
Casa Bonita proclaimed itself to be Tulsa’s favorite Mexican themed restaurant — more for the atmosphere than the food. The interior of the 35,000 square foot restaurant replicated a Mexican village, with a jail (El Pokey), a waterfall, puppet theatre and winding caves made of nubby brown plaster.
Randy, the front-of-house manager, stood in front of me with his clipboard, hurried look and rubber soled shoes. He smelled of fried dough, or sopapillas, a house specialty served at every table with a jar of honey.
Bananas the Monkey. I followed his pointing finger to the orange fake fur costume of the restaurant’s furry mascot. It drooped from a bent wire hanger, in a narrow hallway near the staff restroom. It was surrounded by bright frilly dresses and embroidered tunics waiting to be worn by the Treasure Room Attendant, Arcade Cashier, or Host/Hostess.
I’ve never been one to shy away from the spotlight, but dressing up as Bananas seemed more scary than fun. And the risk factor for ridicule was a little high for my teenage ego.
“Pays fifty cents an hour more than waitressing,” he said.
“OK,” I said.
Fast forward one day
I’m standing in the narrow hallway again with Randy. Up close, the costume looked like a skinned muppet.
“There are three rules for Bananas the Monkey. One, never take the head off in public. Two, Bananas the Monkey does not speak. Three, if a child starts crying, Bananas must leave the room.”
I nodded that I understood and eyed the large, fiberglass head, covered in a thinner orange fur and topped with a tall yellow and orange hat with a plastic banana affixed to the front. Randy, about to scurry away to his next task, stopped and said over his shoulder, “You can have all the free soda you want on your break.”
I donned the suit with its rubbery backing, pulling it on over the shorts and t-shirt that I was told were suitable undergarments for Bananas. My sneakers filled out Bananas furry paws nicely. I asked one of the waiters, a thin black guy named Harold who was studying radio technology at the Spartan School of Aeronautics, to zip me up and he did, snickering as though I had lost some dignity. More money and free soda, I told him, but he was not impressed.
“What exactly are you going to do out there, Bananas?” Harold said. The little bit of satisfaction I’d gleaned from being asked to be Bananas evaporated. I took his question as a vote of no confidence in my ability to entertain children.
“Leave the room if they cry,” I said in a huff. But he’d pierced the heart of my anxiety. I didn’t have any skills like juggling or dancing the moonwalk. Right now I wasn’t even sure if I could walk straight in the costume. I was worried I didn’t have the kind of enthusiasm expected of Bananas by the patrons of Tulsa’s favorite Mexican restaurant.
One of my favorite waitresses, Catalina, a tall Romanian whose family immigrated to Tulsa the year before, rushed through the door with two deluxe platters to refill at the steam table next to us.
“Cat, Harold thinks I don’t know how to be Bananas,” I said. No need to acknowledge he was right.
She plopped two cheese enchiladas onto one of the plates.
“It’s not hard. You either hug the kids,” she said in her thick accent full of rolling R’s. “Or dance.”
Yup. Pretty much the options I had come up with on my own.
Let’s Do This
I picked the head up by both ears. It was surprisingly lightweight, which renewed my confidence, and I lifted it over my head and onto my shoulders. Immediately my breathing filled the head with moist air and my vision was reduced to two holes covered in black mesh that were actually looking through Banana’s mouth.
“Your paws,” Harold said. I tried to look down at his hands but saw only the inside of the monkey head. I could really only see what was right in front of me and at eye level. Finally he grabbed my hands and put the fur covered gloves on for me.
“Knock em dead,” he said.
“You’re supposed to say ‘break a leg,’” I said, surprised at how distorted my voice sounded as it bounced around inside the big head. He just stared at me.
“I can’t understand you,” he said.
I shuffled out of the kitchen with what I hoped was a jaunty monkey stroll and into the Acapulco Room, where diners sat near the indoor waterfall under fake palm trees and plaster parrots in bright colors.
I raised my arms in a V for Victory salute and pretended to tap dance. A few adults looked up and then quickly back down, with that kind of wariness usually reserved for door-to-door evangelists or the girl who sold long-stemmed roses.
Then I saw her — a small red-headed girl in a booster seat who pointed and smiled at me, which made her parents smile too. I pointed back and she became delirious with excitement, bouncing up and down in the booster seat so it rocked dangerously from side to side. I did the jaunty monkey walk to their table, as the mother slipped her arm around the girl’s shoulders to keep her in the seat.
The little girl’s starry eyes and smile evaporated by the time I reached the table. Now that I was close, she was shy. She pushed the top of her head into the armpit of her mother’s corduroy blazer and waited for me to disappear.
I stood there while the mother whispered into the little girl’s ear. The father reached an arm across the table to touch her hair. Sweat ran down my spine, and the sound of rushing water from the indoor waterfall was making me think I should have gone to the bathroom before I got into the suit. Catalina came over and wrapped her arms around me.
“Hi Bananas!” she said. “Is this your new friend?”
The little girl peeked out from her mother’s armpit to survey the situation. She gave Catalina a small, tentative smile, then dove back into her mother’s blazer. Catalina shrugged and moved on to the drinks station, and I considered my next move. I scanned the room for another family with kids but only saw adults, none of whom would meet my eyes. Or my mouth, I guess, since that was really what I was looking out of.
I decided to try to bring the little girl around. After all, she was excited to see me at first, so maybe all she needed was a little encouragement. Maybe she was worried that she’d offended Bananas the Monkey. I reached out quickly with a soothing pat on the head. Before my hand even reached her, her shy expression dissolved into a dropped-jaw scream of terror. Water poured out of her half-shut eyes like a faucet on full blast. I put my paws to my mouth in what I hoped was a sorrowful gesture.
The little girl screamed louder and the mother waved me away with her hand. “Time for Bananas to go,” she said. The father pushed back his chair, as though he would forcibly remove me from the room, so I abandoned the jaunty monkey walk and darted out of the Acapulco Room into the plaza in front of El Pokey. My bangs were plastered to my forehead, and the suit felt itchy. I felt like hiding in the caves and never coming out. Fifty cents an hour and free soda weren’t enough.