From a distance, it looks like total madness.
In the middle of Forsyth Park, a group of grown–ups are running wildly back and forth, carrying giant letters. Shrieks of "Peel!" and "Dump!" pierce the afternoon air, and there's more maniacal laughter and skipping than at a playground serving free Red Bull.
Closer observation reveals that this is not in fact the insane asylum on a field trip, but a game. Specifically, a life–sized version of Bananagrams. There are words being laid out on the grass crossword–style out of the large squares, and the exclamations refer to what's happening in the common pile of letters in the middle. All I know is that wordplay and wind sprints looks like my kind of fun.
"I like to tell people it's like Scrabble on crack," crows James Holmes, the affable gent who serves as ringleader of this lexical circus.
If you're not familiar with Bananagrams, the gist is to arrange your allotment of lettered tiles into connected words as fast as possible. When you run out of tiles, you shout "Peel!" and grab another letter until the pile is gone. There's no board or point system, but adherence to Scrabble rules is strictly enforced – no abbreviations or proper nouns allowed.
It's been a favorite at my house since we realized we could sneak in spelling lessons for the kids while enjoying a snack and a glass of wine. As a family of unabashed word nerds, we have found Bananagrams to be an excellent training ground for the epic Scrabble battles waged among the older generations. What's terribly embarrassing is that my second grader can beat me now, which I blame on the Vinho Verde.
Usually Bananagrams is played at a table with a modicum of quiet civility. But James has made it big and let it loose on the outdoors. I met him at the Sentient Bean before last week's epic match in Forsyth to find out more about this brilliant mash–up of mental and physical workouts.
Not knowing I was a seasoned tabletop player myself, he started to pull out the familiar yellow Bananagrams zippered pouch to show me his inspiration.
Because my innate nerdiness does not allow me to pass up such an opportunity, this prompted the inevitable "Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"
Fortunately, James thought this was hilarious. We grammar geeks just get each other, y'know?
James, an active member of the online community CouchSurfing.com, regularly hosts travelers from around the world and was introduced to Bananagrams two years ago by a couple of visitors from New Jersey. After a marathon session that lasted into the wee hours of the morning, he was hit with the epiphany of creating his favorite game on a grand scale.
"The next day we went to Home Depot and bought everything for like, $40," he recalls. The first game was launched in Daffin Park, and James came up with his own moniker for his invention: Savannagram.
Now he and his tiles can be found in parks and other city hotspots and have become a fixture at Ellis Square most Saturday nights. Once he attracts a crowd of gawkers from those dribbling out of the bars and stumbling back to their hotels, he tries to engage folks into the game. It usually works.
"We'll start with me and one or two other players and it'll just grow," he tells me as we walk through the oaks to a sunny patch of grass in front of the new bandshell to meet up with Savannagram regulars Carly Price, Anna Trott and Doug Guild. "People tend join in pretty quickly when they see how much fun we're having."
Spirited competition ensues, and James' battered red dictionary is consulted to solve several word disputes. Someone loses a round over "poe," which elicits a bit of friendly jeering. How can you not love a game where the worst epithet you can call someone is a "rotten banana"?
The game soon swells to six, then 10, then 15. Everyone walking by is invited to play: little kids (as long as they don't steal the tiles), older folks (as long as they can run), black, white, rich, poor – spelling as the great leveler, so to speak (as long as I'm misquoting Kierkegaard.)
What I find most remarkable is that there's no money exchanged in this endeavor, no ulterior agenda, nothing to buy or consume. James wrote to the makers of Bananagrams last year and received some rubber bracelets and stickers to pass out, but other than those few promotional trinkets, this is a venture unspoiled by the branding and marketing that seems to overwhelm almost everything these days, from cereal to charities to churches.
"Sure, I'd love to figure out how to market it because I'm broke," laughs James, who works as an artists' figure model and at U–Haul. "But it's not that important. I just love the game and seeing everyone out here interacting and running around."
There it is: In a mad world where it seems like everyone's trying to sell you something, it's heartening know there is still a good time out there that's as pure as - wait for it - the inside of a perfectly ripe banana.
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