Monday, October 5, 2009

Oysters

Excerpt from House in the Attic

No place makes me want to eat more oysters than I can eat than Dobyn's Oyster House. The original wooden bar, all gnarled, warped fits maybe nine or ten stools. A sea of ice and oysters spread right in front of me.

I scarfed a dozen and a half, washed them down with clam chowder and three beers and wiped out a dozen quahogs to finish off the hour. Barney Hogan, working on a day-old growth of beard and his twenty-fifth year at the oyster bar slipped me a couple of extras now and then.

Barney always remembered a face, even if he couldn't put a story with it. His partner Ted Norris, looked sixty, hair gone white with a curl coming off the middle of his mottled forehead. Liver spots on the back of his big tough hands. A driver's license said he was seventy-four. He shucked oysters and quahogs while I ate. Barney and Ted worked the afternoon shift and it seemed like they'd be there forever, but I knew the place was changing. The neighborhood had changed. Oyster bars had sprung up all over everywhere. I knew if I came back at six, the oysters would be pre-shucked and stacked on plates by bright-eyed boys in white shirts and flashy teeth. Ted Norris grinned like he knew just about everything there was to know.

"Why don't you take a break before your hernia pops into the ice," Barney Hogan said in his always-soft wry voice.

"Good idea," Ted said, setting the oyster knife on the edge of the bar and wiping his hands on his apron. "You might as well earn your keep for a change."

"Some kind a guy," Barney said, giving his big nose a pinch and a shake. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and stared off toward the stairs leading to the upstairs dining room. "Some kind of guy."

Mid-afternoon and business was slow, so Ted came around and sat at the stool next to me.

"Beer?" I offered.

"No thanks," he said, clasping his hands together and propping both elbows on the old wooden bar. "Never get through the night."

Barney chuckled under his breath and leaned over the bar. "He'll catch up later."

"Listen to him." Ted pointed one finger at his partner without unclasping his hands. "Listen to him," he said. They both laughed quietly.

"Where you from?" Ted wanted to know.

"I'm from Massachusetts, but I live in San Francisco. Staying with my brother up in Marlboro."

This was the fourth time I'd had this conversation in Dobyn's Oyster House, the third time with Barney. Frankly, I felt at odds because I never had the same address twice. I kept thinking they'd put it all together and decide I was a flake. One week he's a tour guide, the next time he comes back he owns a movie house.. Here comes that nut case again. I just didn't have a permanent address. Not the makings of a good New Englander.

"I grew up in Richland," I said.

"Never been that far west," Barney said with a straight face. He slipped me a small Blue Point. "You like it out there in San Francisco?"

"It's home base for the moment," I said. "I run a movie theater Cinema, if you like that. The Richmond Cinema. It's in the book "

Barney's oyster knife met the shell cupped tightly in his left hand. He probed for a weak spot, slipped inside like a traveling salesman and with a turn of his thick wrist, sliced the muscle and the Blue Point gave up. He cut the meat free from the top, tossed the top half aside, flecked some shell bits off the meat with the tip of the knife, and ran the knife underneath for insurance and the set the oyster aside in a dish of its own making. This was one fresh oyster, with a clear white center sitting all puffed and proud. The edge had the magnificent sheen of blue all around. Cool, clear, juicy liquid. I could tell by looking at it, that not a taste had been lost between the time that oyster had left the sea and arrived in Barney's hands. This oyster hadn't sat anywhere it wasn't supposed to. It had been iced properly. This oyster was clean. Barney had already set another one next to it while I was thinking about it.

"Sounds good to me," Ted said good-naturedly.

"It has its drawbacks," I said.

I could feel Ted shift his weight on the barstool next to me. "I guess you won't be going to the Gulf," he said tongue in cheek.

"Not hardly," I said. "That's all wrapped up. They had it all handpicked back in September. Just like a convention. They plan it a year or so in advance."

"Naw, they don't," Ted said with smirky disbelief. "How many oysters did you eat? Barney, how many oysters did he eat? They're getting to him."

"Must have been the clam chowder," Barney said.

Ted and I watched a woman in a black trench coat with red hair tied in a bun ran by. I eyed the door, thinking she'd come in, but Ted shook his head. "She doesn't like oysters."

"Ted knows them all," Barney confided.

"Barney likes the octogenarians," Ted said. "He likes to hear the creak in their bones."

"You live here all your life?" I asked Ted.

"Not yet," he said with a great big smile full of thick yellow teeth.

I ate another oyster and the three of us just sat in the sweet moment of three minutes after three in the afternoon and moving.

"Say, how cold does it get in San Francisco?" Barney asked.

"Maybe 38 degrees Fahrenheit," I said. "Celsius, I haven't the foggiest.
57, 58 degree average temperature. We have some hot days here and there. Damp cold. Always wear a jacket. We mean it. Afternoon wind will blow you to hell. Along about twenty after two, bingo. In it comes."

"Beats shoveling snow," Barney said.

"You bet," I said, tasting the cold oyster turning warm on it's way down. "How about a half dozen more?

"You got it," Barney said.

I said, "When I was a kid and I got tired, I went in and somebody else finished shoveling." I realized I was in a little deep water so I qualified myself. "Up to the age of eight anyway."

If you grow up in New England, you learn to watch how you couch these little remarks. I was going to say, "If I lived here now, I'd have to get out there and shovel it myself." Saying things like that can come back to haunt you thirty years later. Somebody, and you can bet on it, somebody will remember that Harry Bickham said it was OK to shovel snow when he was a kid, because he could always get his folks to finish it. NOW LOOK AT HIM! I know he's on assignment. But he should have shoveled that walk. Not him. He's waiting for somebody else to do it. What does he THINK? This is California? He's just like the rest of those Bickhams. Never did fit in. His mother isn't even from here. His old man met her in New York somewhere. He went out of town to find her. Probably met her at a dance hall. Probably drunk when he met her. Drunk the rest of the time. Why would he go over there and find somebody? So there you are. She doesn’t look like she ever shoveled a walk either. I wonder what he was really doing in California? Doesn't seem to be married.

"I hate snow," Barney said.

"My son comes over and shovels mine," Ted said proudly.

I finished off the oysters and drank another beer. I realized I felt a little boxed. My left hand dropped instinctively to the bottom of my rib cage. No liver sticking out. Time to quit the booze. And I didn't want to blow the afternoon with Barney and Ted. I didn't want to get flip-stupid. I have the old New England hypocrisy that says you should always look good. No falling down. No pissing in your shoes, or somebody else's. Even if you're dying inside.

And I value the way Barney and Ted cultivate customers. It's classy. None of this, “Just because I wait on you, I deserve 20%." Barney and Ted cultivate you, make you part of the process, your life becomes fuller because of oysters, and the shucking of oysters and people who make sure oysters are served right, so that when you eat the oysters, they are the best high you can imagine. You appreciate the people who bring the oysters on the truck from the boats and you appreciate the cold tough hands that catch the oysters and sort the oysters and you appreciate the ice the oysters sit in and the cool lemon slices and the tangy red sauce and the talk around oysters, the world and snow and life. Barney and Ted make you a part of their life; they make you want to come back. They toss in a free one now and then and they get it all back. Everybody makes money and everybody's happy. The Barneys and the Teds are damn precious in my life and I want them around forever. I left ten bucks on the counter and took my check to the register.

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