Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Real People and Pearls in the Crescent City

He reached into his pocket between spoons of etouffee and leaned over to us, showing the picture on his phone of the fish he’d caught that morning. What kind of fish is that, I asked, knowing a thing or two about the practice and the appropriate questions.

“That there is a redfish,” he said in low tone muddled with an accent, nodding and grinning in one motion. He was young and thin and had a stiff-capped baseball hat, turned to one side.

On the phone the fish was splayed out on the ground next to his boot – footwear included for scale, I assume. Then he wiped his finger on a napkin and swiped his screen, revealing an even bigger redfish next to the same boot. It was at least twice the length of the shoe, it’s white belly bulging a bit and the rest of it emitting a rusty hue beneath its long dorsal fin.

What did you catch it on, I asked. A rod he said. And I said, no, I mean what lure. So much for me knowing the right questions.

“Just a shad,” I think he said, pulling his phone back and picking up the utensil again with his free hand and digging back into his first course as we waited for ours to arrive.

It was loud and crowded in the restaurant, a dark space with neon lit signs on the walls and costumed customers at each table, and a long line out front of people waiting to get inside -- a line we skipped for the most part by having a small party and opting to sit at the bar.

And it was unlike any bar we’re used to. Instead of the makings of drinks and liquor bottles behind it, this bar was perched over sinks packed with unopened oysters where three men in black shirts and red aprons, donning gloves and wielding blunt blades, stood and shucked all night long.

The oyster shucker in front of us, named Michael, was also our waiter and our wisecracking host. He saw the exchange about the redfish between my wife and I and the other customer, and he put his knife down for a second, “You catch something today, Dee.”

The way they addressed each other breathed of familiarity, with knowing nods and grins preceding the words.

“Shore did,” Dee boasted with the subtle pride of a decent fisherman, turning the screen in Michael’s direction.

He bent over the sinks for a better view, the light from the screen illuminating his face for a moment. His brown eyes widening at the image on the phone.

“Wow-wee,” Michael exclaimed.

“You put a plate under dat and it’ll cost you twenty-two dollars,” Dee said.

“Or more than that,” Michael laughed, flashing the big bright smile we saw quite often during our brief time at the Acme Oyster House. Then, he was back to shucking.

He grabbed another black, stone-like lump from the pile in the sink, placed one angle of it down momentarily in a small, warn metal vice. Then his knife hand prodded and pried at the up-facing edge, almost instantly he popped off the top half of the shell, discarding it down a waste hole in the countertop, revealing the pale silky flesh of one of the most sought after culinary treats in the world. He then slid the knife underneath the meat, to make sure it was free from the bottom shell and placed both oyster and shell on a metal tray. Then he did it again. And again. And again, all while taking orders, fetching drinks, and greeting customers as they came in with jokes and wise comments. When one purple, green, and gold festooned woman upset about waiting in line with her party of ten came in asking for the manager, Michael flashed his smile again and said, “I’m the manager.”

He wasn’t the manager, he confided in us after she went back outside slightly appeased that her impatience was acknowledged. We figured he wasn’t, because of his youth and the mountain of shells before him. But, based on his skill and ease, he could’ve been.

In our brief time at the counter, eating oysters, raw and chargrilled, and crawfish ettoufee and bread, and having a few drinks, Michael shucked more oysters than we could count, several trays full and a few plates, too, as needed for those wanting to eat them raw, for which the place has been renowned for more than 100 years. The others were bound for the grill or the fryer or some other concoction. He told us he shucked close to 1500 a night, as he grabbed another giant mesh bags of the unopened shells from a crate below the counter and dumped it into the sinks, a new pile to be worked. And he’d been doing this job for four years.

The math on the number of oysters tumbled through my head, and I got lost in it for a moment. That’s a lot of years of prying and plating and playing jokes on the customers of this little restaurant with a big reputation. And, I imagine he was smiling the whole time.

As we ate and drank and watched him work, while next to us Dee ate his main course, Michael’s smile infected us. I wondered about his story and his life, and how long one could shuck oysters for a living.

We certainly enjoyed our first night out in the Big Easy, and our oyster shucker had another treat for us.

“Well, lookee here,” Michael exclaimed, after his hands and knife had worked over another, prying and gliding without pause. He tipped the opened oyster on it's side and a small pearl fell onto his hand.

He reached across the divide between us and handed it to my wife. It was small and dark, not like a pearl you see on a necklace.

Does that happen often, my wife asked.

“About once every few weeks,” Michael smiled, as he grabbed another oyster to start again.

“That’s pretty cool,” nodded Dee, just finishing a plate of twelve chargrilled.

We nodded back, as the math tumbled around in my head some more.

Pretty cool, indeed.





Here's other articles you may enjoy: Learning Lessons from a Little Boy, One Smiling Moment -- The Truth Behind an Okay Photo, and To the Lost Little Girl in DC: Watching You Find Your Mom Made My Day.

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