Keep an eye peeled for this ba­nana car be­fore it splits

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Han­nah Natan­son

WASH­ING­TON — Steve Braith­waite spot­ted the flash­ing blue-and-red po­lice lights — and promptly pulled his ba­nana off the road.

Braith­waite, 59, has spent the past two years driv­ing his home­made, ba­nana-shaped con­vert­ible across Amer­ica, of­fer­ing pay-what-you-can rides to fund his days and sleep­ing nights on strangers’ couches or in cheap mo­tels. He’s be­come quite fa­mil­iar with the po­lice: Of­fi­cers of­ten pull him over. Friendly but cu­ri­ous, they ask what on earth he’s do­ing.

So when he saw the state trooper ease onto the road be­hind him as he was driv­ing down U.S. 223 near Adrian, Michi­gan, on Oct. 27, Braith­waite thought he knew what was com­ing.

“We chat­ted . ... He checked my head­lights, brake lights, tail­lights,” Braith­waite said.

Braith­waite also ex­plained his ba­nana road trip, which he calls “The World Needs More Whimsy Grand Tour.” The trooper took Braith­waite’s li­cense and walked away. When he re­turned, he handed the li­cense back — but some­thing was dif­fer­ent.

“He had wrapped 20 bucks around it!” Braith­waite said. “[Then] he just said, ‘Safe trav­els.’ ”

The trooper peeled out, and Braith­waite split too — but he couldn’t stop think­ing about the crum­pled $20. He couldn’t wait to spread the word about the un­ex­pected fruit of his most re­cent en­counter with law en­force­ment.

Braith­waite didn’t get the trooper’s name, but Michi­gan State Po­lice posted on Face­book Nov. 22 that the trooper, Bill Strouse, was just a few months away from re­tire­ment when he came across Braith­waite in the colos­sal ba­nana.

“As a trooper, you never quite know what you’re go­ing to see each day,” the post said.

When Braith­waite got to his des­ti­na­tion af­ter be­ing pulled over that day, he posted on the “Big Ba­nana Car” Face­book page about it — and things ripened rapidly. The post gar­nered hun­dreds of likes, shares and com­ments, even­tu­ally earn­ing write-ups in lo­cal news­pa­pers.

Still, news cov­er­age isn’t ex­actly new for Braith­waite. Since he com­pleted the ba­nana car in 2011, it has been fea­tured on “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica” three times and drawn the at­ten­tion of celebri­ties such as Heidi Klum. It also holds the Guin­ness World Record for “long­est cus­tom ba­nana car.”

Braith­waite, who moved to the U.S. in 1986 from his na­tive Eng­land, said he built the ride be­cause he wanted “to do some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent and ridicu­lous.” He was liv­ing in Lin­den, Michi­gan, and sell­ing home address signs: “It paid the bills, but it was kind of bor­ing.”

To break the monotony, Braith­waite re­cruited a few friends, bought a Ford F-150, and set to work on “the world’s only mo­tor­ized ba­nana.” Work­ing mostly on Sun­days, he fin­ished in about 2 1⁄2 years at a cost of roughly $25,000.

“Plan A was build it,” Braith­waite said. “Plan B is drive it around the world.”

Braith­waite hit the high­way in early 2018 and has been zoom­ing across Amer­ica ever since. He’s work­ing on vis­it­ing all 50 states and hopes to cross the globe in his ba­nana.

He typ­i­cally spends at least a few days each week tak­ing people on rides. He posts his lo­ca­tion on so­cial me­dia and pulls into an oblig­ing park­ing lot. There’s al­most al­ways a line await­ing him, he said — longer in the sum­mer months, shorter in the winter.

Braith­waite es­ti­mates he’s given “thou­sands and thou­sands.” The trips typ­i­cally last five to eight min­utes, and pay­ments vary wildly.

“One gentle­man and his two chil­dren gave me a bunch of coins that might have to­taled 70 cents,” Braith­waite said. “And then the very next rider took his two kids and gave me three $20 bills!”

He’s thought a lot about what to do with the Michi­gan of­fi­cer’s $20. He wants to do­nate it to a kid in need.

“I’ll say ‘This is with the best wishes of a Michi­gan state trooper,’ ” he said.

TAKAAKI IWABU/MCT

Steve Braith­waite poses by the 23-foot ba­nana-shaped car he’s driv­ing across the U.S., of­fer­ing trips as he goes.

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