Pandemic Life: Unsolved Mysteries

I'm still haunted by the mystery of my hometown's banana peel pile. What strange things can you just not shake?

In my small hometown of Okemos, Michigan (population ~23,000), there’s a five-mile loop that circles the “downtown” area, several neighborhoods, two middle schools, a few office buildings, and a small nature preserve. It’s frequented by walkers, runners, and cyclists, and is referred to as “The Five Mile,” though I don’t think that’s any kind of official designation. It’s just what people call it. Growing up, my friends and I would often make plans to walk, bike, or run The Five Mile. But “often” became “all the time” after we discovered the banana peel pile.

The banana peel pile is exactly what it sounds like: a large heap—probably six feet in diameter and several feet tall—of rotting banana peels. I can’t remember exactly when I first discovered the pile (probably sometime in high school), but I do know that it occupied far too much of my mental space for years and years. I would go out of my way to look at the pile and gaze upon the gentle ombré palette representing every stage of decomposition, from freshly peeled at the top, to black ooze at the bottom. 

The pile sat maybe 25 feet from the sidewalk, down a gentle slope and into a wooded area. If you knew what you were looking for, it was clear to see, but I imagine most people never spotted it. I never found anyone who knew where the banana peel pile came from, and very few who’d ever noticed it at all. Trust me, I asked a lot of people. Somehow it didn’t smell, and never really changed size—as if someone added a single peel, or maybe a few, every single day. It was a sleepy, low-key mystery in a sleepy, low-key town that never called attention to itself. Looking back, if I’d been a true Harriet the Spy, I would have knocked off school and performed a stakeout. But if I’d done that, we might not be here now (still pondering the mystery, I mean. Not dead). 

My friends and I developed a few theories over the years about the banana peel pile. Here’s a Google Chat exchange between me and a childhood friend from long after we were already away at college:

Friend: maybe every morning someone eats a banana on their way to work. they leave their house at the same time every morning and it takes them the same amount of time to eat the banana every morning. so when they finish the banana they are always at the same spot on the road and throw it out their window!

Me: thats actually not a bad hypothesis. i’ve never carefully looked at the gradation of rotting. it would be pretty impeccable aim to land the peels in the pile if the person were driving, but it might be an early-morning walker who gets their potassium as they pound the pavement?

We circled similar theories for years, but the most lasting guess involved a nearby house and the man who occupied it—an infamous local figure named Doc Corbin Dart.

Doc Dart (his legal name) is probably best known as a musician who played in a punk/hardcore band called the Crucifucks in the ‘80s, but that description barely begins to touch on his full mythology. He owned a baseball card shop in nearby Lansing and was a candidate for mayor there in 1989, running on a platform based almost entirely on building a rape prevention center. He also hated police (he’d been arrested several times for disturbing the peace and antagonizing cops) and in a June 29, 1989 interview with the Lansing State Journal (which lives behind a paywall, but is headlined “Candidate For Mayor Has Record”), he said he’d “weed bad officers out of the department if elected.” When election day came, Dart received 568 votes and came in third out of three candidates. 

Dart, who’s now 67, is also a member of a prominent family that owns both Dart National Bank and the Dart Container Corporation. The family reportedly asked Doc not to run for office at all. In 2004, he changed his name to 26. He’s also called himself “a weirdo” and “the Messiah.” You get the picture. 

Dart is probably best known among the people of Okemos, however, for his house. Following 9/11, he installed plywood over his windows and covered his house, which is located at a prominent intersection, with signs. The most notable was: “SEPT 11 JUSTICE IS SERVED!” 

Others included:

“DEMOCRACY: A MYTH”

“DEAR CHILDREN; REMEMBER YOUR HISTORY LESSON? REVOLUTION IS GOOD BECAUSE IT PUNISHES BAD PEOPLE.”

“AUTOGRAPHED CIA BOX CUTTERS FROM GROUND ZERO: $19.95.” 

“FREEDOM: A SUPERSTITION”

“BUSH: WHITE TRASH IMBECILE MAGGOT CORPORATE SLUT”

“PATRIOTISM REFLECTS A SECRET WISH TO BE SODOMIZED”

“U.S. TERROR IN IRAQ MAKES SEPT 11TH A TINY MIRROR IMAGE”

“U.S. TROOPS TERRORIZE AS COWARDS FROM THE SKIES. THEY SHOULD BE IN BODY BAGS.”

(Full disclosure, several of these are quoted in a 2002 article my dad wrote about the signs for the Lansing State Journal. The story is online, but behind a paywall.) 

Needless to say, the neighborhood did not greet these messages with open arms. The house was vandalized, egged, and paint-balled. Dart also displayed upside-down American flags and his phone number, so threatening calls soon followed. People knocked on his door looking for a fight. The police were called. Eventually, the signs came down.

There was one sign in particular that’s relevant to the banana peel pile mystery. It read: “ANIMAL LIBERATION FRONT.” In a 2008 interview with VICE, Doc allowed reporter Sam McPheeters into his home. Here’s part of McPheeters’ description of the interior: 

“Inside, a bright light shone upward on a floating staircase, spotlighting long, two-story front windows and the unpainted plywood underneath. In the living room, we had to step around a half-dozen 50-pound bags of bird and animal feed neatly arranged by the sliding glass doors leading to the backyard.”

McPheeters wrote that Doc was fond of the local wildlife and that he spent time imagining the interior life of raccoons and feeding deer. Did he feed them bananas perhaps? Thanks to YouTube, I can safely say that both deer and raccoons eat bananas, though frankly, for the sake of the mystery I like to imagine there’s something more exotic living (humanely) inside those walls.  

I don’t know whether Doc still lives in that house—public real estate information seems to suggest he might—but the signs and the drama are long gone. So is the banana peel pile. It has been for a while, but I’ve found myself particularly fixated on the whodunit once again during the last few months. It’s my version of reaching out to an ex at the end of the world, I guess — a different form of obsession resulting from nostalgia and a lack of closure. Did Doc Dart, the loner/activist/attention seeker/black sheep/caricature from the house down the road, create the pile? I’ll probably never know, and frankly, I don’t really need to know anymore. The mystery is part of my childhood folklore, and a source of strange comfort as life’s more pressing unknowns become overwhelming. 

And so, Discourse Blog reader, I have a request: I want to hear about your own persistent mysteries, local urban legends, strange happenings, hometown eccentrics, and niche enigmas. Let’s distract and entertain each other, revel in inconsequential unknowns, and maybe even solve some mysteries. 

Sound off below! 

Image: Tony Wilson