`Bananas' was a generous, joyful hustler

May 23, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE ALL-TIME line about Pete "Bananas" Prevas came from an East Baltimore bookmaker who sometimes did a little side action selling warmed-over merchandise from the trunk of his Oldsmobile.

"Bananas," he said, "has class."

"What do you mean `class?' " he was asked.

"Well," the bookie said with great solemnity, "he won't wear stolen clothing to church."

Bananas got away from us last week, at age 71, but the line sums him up pretty well. He had the roll-the-dice persona of a street hustler, which covered up a sensitive soul long on charity, devoted to his family, and turned all gatherings of two or more into a glad party.

"I'm glad he got liberated," said his cousin, Baltimore Circuit Judge John Prevas, knowing of the long struggle Bananas had with the cancer that he'd mispronounce as "lymphomania." "He had a joy in life, but the pain was too much at the end."

"A beautiful man," said Grace Kwon, owner of the Fells Point Boutique. She stood by a corner stool inside the Broadway Market that Bananas called his second home. "He'd see you walking through here, and he'd buy you lunch. Not just me. He bought for everybody. It was a party all the time, and it's so sad he's not here any more."

"He was a tough SOB, but a pussycat inside," said John Paterakis, the H&S Bakery owner who was close to Bananas for more than a half-century. "He was one of the kindest people of all time. You just wanted to be around him. But what a character."

What kind of character? Go back to his high school days at City College for a sample. Bananas was student manager of the school baseball team. City was playing Patterson High at Patterson Park. Down to their last out, a City batter popped a foul behind home plate.

Then came a blur, so quick that the home-plate umpire didn't see it: Bananas had darted from his bench and knocked down Patterson's catcher. The ball fell safely, the batter had a second chance, and delivered a hit leading to a City victory.

After the game, one of Bananas' pals -- a City baseball player named John Steadman -- said, "Why did you do that?"

"Had to," Bananas said. "I had a 20-cent bet on the game."

He got the nickname Bananas as a kid, playing football in Patterson Park with his cousins, all of them the children of Greek immigrants who still spoke their native language at home. Huddling up before a play, he heard the name "Panagina." It sounded to Prevas like "Bananas."

"Yeah," he said, "throw it to Bananas." Amid the laughter, his name was born, and stuck for life.

He took it to sea after high school, joining the Navy and, after the war, signing on as a merchant seaman. He joined the Longshoreman's International Union, and the Masters, Mates and Pilots union, and had a love-hate relationship with them.

"He was a man of great principle," said his attorney, Billy Murphy. "He was my client, but also a good friend. He was outrageous, but he was outrageous to provoke truth."

Sometimes, he'd stay at sea for a year or two at a time. "His mother had angina," said attorney Gus Prevas, Bananas' first cousin, "and she had no health insurance. Bananas wanted to take care of her. He'd say, `At sea, I got room and board, I got no expenses.' And he'd send all his money home, for his mother and his two sisters."

Also, he gave enormously to Greek churches. "He'd buy these 40-foot containers," said Al "Sin" Kowalewski, a retired longshoreman, "and he'd fill them with soap and towels and clothing, things we take for granted, and send them to this church in Greece."

"He was the softest touch," said his cousin Dr. William Prevas. "He never said no to nobody. He would do for other people what he wouldn't do for himself. When he died, he left his house to the church. And that church in Greece, he helped them build a road."

"Yeah, that church," said Judge Prevas. "He'd buy up every Goodwill store in the three-state area and send stuff over. He sent so much money over there, he called it the Bananas Marshall Plan."

Once, friends say, he saw a teen-age girl with badly crooked teeth and slipped big money to her family for orthodontic work. Asked about it later, Bananas shrugged, "I just couldn't see her going through her whole life uncomfortable just 'cause she didn't have money to fix herself up."

At sea, he helped bring supplies to American troops during the Vietnam conflict. In his spare time, friends say, he'd write long letters to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, telling him how he should run the war.

Late in the game, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Bananas called Dr. Prevas and told him to bring him $500 in $20 bills.

"He said, `I want to reward good service.' " Prevas said. "I told him, `You don't tip people in a hospital.' He said, `Yeah, yeah, ya gotta tip.' So he's tipping nurses, he's tipping the women bringing food. They were coming over from other wards looking for tips."

Prevas was laughing, but the laughter was mixed with pain. Bananas knew he was dying. A few months ago, realizing the end was near, he and Dr. Prevas went to the Ruck Funeral Home to make preliminary arrangements.

"I'm gonna be buried in one of my own suits," Bananas told one funeral home official. "Would it be OK? Because these suits are hot."

That was Bananas, forever cracking a joke to cover a sensitive soul.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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