'Oysters': Roy Blount Jr.'s Love Affair

11/05/2010 07:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
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Roy Blount Jr. is the author of 21 books and a panelist on NPR's "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" On the surface Blount's essay "Oysters" is an homage to the polarizing oyster, which one either loves or hates; but dive deeper and discover that this essay is a love letter to New Orleans and its residents -- orphans, and oyster lovers, shuckers, and waiters -- all hard and tough on the outside, gooey and fragile on the inside, just waiting for someone to love them back.

by Roy Blount Jr.

"I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion. . . .They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being perfectly horrid to them. Once they arrive at the supper-table they seem to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing. There's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster." -- Clovis, in a story by Saki It was at Felix's that I first ate an oyster raw, that is to say, live. A rite of passage. Felix's was a good place for it, because I don't like to be talked through things, and the shuckers in Felix's are not solicitous. As a rule New Orleanians in service occupations are by no means boundary-conscious. You'll hear a couple arguing at a restaurant table, the wife saying, "I need validation!" and a passing waitress will say to the husband, "Yeah, cher, she needs validation." Rosemary James recalls entering a stylish restaurant and seeing one waiter slapping the other with a napkin as if challenging him to a duel, and the other pulling off a tablecloth to play him like a bull. "I realized," she said, "that everybody in the place was drunk." But the shuckers of Felix's have perhaps been involved in so much opening up that they keep their own counsel. I loaded my first raw oyster with catsup, horseradish, hot sauce, and lemon juice, said a little prayer, and slurped it down.

It hit the spot. Now I eschew all seasoning but a spritz of lemon, and chew a few times for the savor before letting each little mollusk ease on down. Raw oysters give you a coolish inner-lining collateral to the sheen that New Orleans humidity gives your skin. And I have seen too many people swallow oysters in Felix's in July without dying to worry about the Rs in the month.

Across from Felix's Iberville entrance is another venerable oyster bar, the Acme. You are either an Acme person or a Felix's person. I am the latter. For one thing, in New Orleans oysters are pretty much oysters, because they all come from farms in the brackish waters where the river meets the gulf. When the river has been low they have more flavor, because their habitat has been saltier, but they're seldom as flavorsome as Atlantic or Pacific ones. If you want splendid briny oysters, go to Apalachicola, Florida, where you can also get a local brand of hot sauce that proclaims itself "An Oyster's Best Friend." But there's no such thing as a bad oyster, unless it has gone bad. And there's often a line outside the Acme, whereas you can almost always walk into Felix's and lean against the place where the shuckers are shucking and call for a dozen and an Abita, the beer du pays.

At one point I resolved to capture the essence of New Orleans by tracing it through everything associated with the city, from the simplest form of life, the oyster, up the chain to the most complex: the prose style of William Faulkner. While writing his first novel, Faulkner lived for a time in a ground-floor room that is now part of Faulkner House Books, on Pirate's Alley, around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral. My friends Joe DeSalvo, who operates that excellent bookstore, and Rosemary James, founder of an annual literary festival celebrating New Orleans culture, now live above the store. At the end of the book, I figured, I could tie things up by quoting Faulkner on oysters. Maybe he had taken the point of view of an oyster, whose life was all digestion suspended by ice now open to light not knowing it light yet knowing it the better for the flood of it once, just once, not knowing love nor lust nor even affection but just this fond violation of privacy by light, and knife, and now again dark, and digestion.

If Faulkner ever wrote anything about oysters, I couldn't find it. Neither New Orleans nor my resolutions ever work out orderly. But in these times of culture-clash entanglements, when subjectivity vis-à-vis objectivity has become so vexed an issue, we might well dwell for a moment on the oyster. Why is Lewis Carroll's "Walrus and the Carpenter" such a lasting monument to cold-bloodedness?

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size.

Because who can honestly put himself in an oyster's place? A fish has a face, a snail a pace. An oyster, without its shell, is all morsel.

"Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?" the Fool asks King Lear as he is being rendered homeless by his folly and his daughters. "No," says Lear. Can a grape coat itself in bark, a baby generate armor out of itself? An old man survive on his own?

Eating a raw oyster is like exchanging a soul kiss with the sea. But not much like it. We may think of Dickens's sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff, and certain attempts to jog his memory:

"The name of those fabulous animals (pagan, I regret to say) who used to sing in the water, has quite escaped me."

Mr. George Chuzzlewit suggested "Swans."

"No," said Mr. Pecksniff. "Not swans. Very like swans, too. Thank you."

The nephew...: "Oysters."

"No," said Mr. Pecksniff, . . . "nor oysters. But by no means unlike oysters; a very excellent idea; thank you, my dear sir, very much. Wait. Sirens! Dear me! Sirens, of course."

My memory is jogged by oysters. New Orleans madeleines. In Felix's, especially, they make me think of my photographer friend, Slick Lawson, who lived in Nashville but hailed from Louisiana and loved New Orleans--maybe even more than I do, because he could stay up longer. I'd stagger off to bed, and he'd go find the bar where the waiters went after work.

Over the years Slick and I went out into the Alabama woods, to observe the Ku Klux Klan; and into the hills of Hazard, Kentucky, to interview an opponent of strip-mining (Slick was delighted when the man said, "You know who owns this property here? Doris Day"); and to Paris and the palace of Versailles to chronicle one of the many political escapades of Edwin Edwards, then the roguish governor of Louisiana, now in prison. In 1981 Slick and I went to New Orleans for the orphans.

Parade magazine, for whom we had covered the Klan, wanted us to do a heart-warming Christmas story on orphans. Sounded like a refreshing change from hanging around with Klanfolk, who had made us feel like taking a Lysol bath. My mother was an orphan. She had recently died. Slick and I were both fathers of children of broken homes.

And we wanted, as always, to go to New Orleans. We figured we'd go to New Orleans and eat, drink and--New Orleans had everything else, why not orphans?

We ate, we drank, and we discovered that orphans, strictly speaking, were an outmoded concept. The line of would-be adoptive parents was so long that almost any small American child left legally parentless would be snapped up. There were, however, plenty of troubled children who had been taken into custody by the state because their parents had abandoned, neglected, or abused them. These children weren't candidates for adoption because their wretched parents hadn't given up their rights to them. Nor had the kids given up their longing for the parents.

Some of these children could be placed temporarily with foster parents, but many of them had to become less troublesome first. They had to be weaned to some extent from their sense of what love was like. "These kids have never found handshakes and nods and smiles rewarding," said an administrator. "The only interaction that's gotten them attention has been negative and obnoxious."

So these kids were kept in group homes or other residences, where they could earn points for making eye contact, shaking hands firmly, and eschewing temper tantrums or at least cutting their tantrums back from hour-long to half-hour. If they accumulated enough points, they were told, they might be able to go back home.

"Adult attention is so important that kids will take violence," said a man who, with his wife, ran a group home. "They'll make you mad at them." Because that's what it had taken to catch their parents' eyes. The man told of a boy who'd been "beaten by his mother. Badly. His body all . . . broken." When the boy cried, and the man's wife tried to comfort him, he'd say, "Nobody holds me when I hurt like my mama does."

"I'm a criminal," said one blond thirteen-year-old, with what seemed to be a mixture of bemusement and pride.

"No, you're not," said his teaching parent, a man whom the kids called "Zap" and whom we liked a lot. "You made some mistakes, but you're not a criminal."

"I stole a lawnmower," he said.

"A lawnmower?" I asked. "What did you want with a lawnmower?"

"His parents threw him out of the house," explained Zap. "He took the family lawnmower with him so he could support himself."

"I ain't staying here for no year," one boy told us. "I'm going home." He had recently complained, when served black-eyed peas and turnip greens, "We always get white people's food. I want some black people's food."

What did he call black people's food?

"Weenies," he said.

Another boy, "Ethan," practiced his "guest skills" by showing us around his group home. He showed everything, including the cabinet where they kept the salt. And the salt in the cabinet. Every time I turned to talk to another kid, Ethan showed me something else. And shook my hand. He had scars on his neck that looked like claw marks. He was earning points toward going back home.

"They come in here," an administrator told us, "with, oh, the mark of a barbecue grill on their back. Or . . . there is so much sexual abuse today." Some kids would go home and get beaten some more and have to come back. "And they still defend their parents to the death. If the other kids say, 'Your mama is mean,' they get mad. They say their parents are the best thing in the world."

Slick and I should have known that New Orleans was not the place to go for unalloyed heartwarming. We did find poignant loyalty. I didn't hear anybody say, "He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother," but we met one nine-year-old who had been going from foster home to "residential treatment agency" to foster home since he was three, when authorities discovered that he was being left at home all day with a loaded revolver to guard his infant brother. And we met a ten-year-old whose twelve-year-old sister was in a different residence. Christmas was coming up. The administrator who introduced us told him he could list his first, second, and third choices from the Sears catalog.

"A tape recorder," he said, "and if I can't get that, a typewriter."

The administrator looked surprised. "You want a typewriter?" he said.


"But you said..."

"For my sister."

"What's your third choice?"

"A typewriter for my sister."

"That was your second choice. What's your third?"

"A typewriter for my sister!" he said.

Our problem, from a professional standpoint, was this: we couldn't report these children's real names, or tell their full stories, or take their pictures, because their parents might sue for invasion of privacy. The damn Klanspeople had welcomed publicity, but these kids might as well have been in the witness protection program.

Everywhere we went, the kids wanted to pose. Well, there was one girl who, with two kittens in her arms, declared, "You aren't going to take a picture of me. Like that man did in the paper once."

"Well," said Slick, "but if I did, where would you like to be photographed?"

"Standing over there on top of the monkey bars," she said.

She would have been perfect for the cover shot Parade wanted, but we couldn't shoot her. A boy came running up holding a flaxen-haired three-year-old, whom we will call "Greg." "I think Greg likes you," he said. "He keeps doing things and looking at you and saying, 'Daddy, watch!' "

Greg ran over toward the swings. An administrator said Greg had been found, in a dirty diaper, with his sister, wrapped in a man's coat, and with his mother, who was eager to get rid of them because their father had ditched them all. Greg sat in the swing and said, "Daddy, watch," and did a somersault out of it. I said, "That's good, Greg," and his eyes lit up.

But no pictures. Then we heard of a small fundamentalist Christian institution on the outskirts of New Orleans that might be persuaded to let us get some touching shots.

We went there. Our mouths watered at all the cute kids we saw running around. We found the spiritual head of this institution reposing in a trailer home on the grounds. We were prepared to plead with him for pictures.

He was old, pale, and shapeless, a blob floating in the carapace of a Barcalounger. He breathed with a faint wheeze. He had had several bypass operations, he said, and was living only for his charges. Nestling nervously in the middle of him was an aged Chihuahua. We explained our mission, at length, as founder and dog eyed us narrowly.

Then we waited.

"On one condition," said the founder at last. A shudder went through the Chihuahua.

We waited.

He asked for a pen. I gave him one. He asked for paper. I tore him a scrap from my notebook. He wrote out a few words, slowly, deliberately, and handed the paper over. I believe he kept the pen.

His handwriting was spidery. His condition was, "That it glorify Christ."

I looked at the message, Slick looked at it, and the man looked at us.

The Chihuahua sneezed, as if in disgust. A Chihuahua can tell who's from Satan.

In fact we behaved as Christians in that crucial moment. There was no one else around. We could with impunity have taken that dog and smothered the founder with it, and his consequent heart failure would not have surprised or stricken a living soul.

We did not do that. We let him live. He waved us away. No pictures. And no pictures, no story.

Slick and I went to Felix's. We kept up with the shucker through a couple of dozen, but after a while Slick wasn't eating so much as staring at the little pink bodies lying there exposed to the light. He started telling me about something that happened when, as a teenager in Monroe, Louisiana, he was working as a lifeguard of an overcrowded pool. On his watch, a kid drowned. Nobody saw him go under. By the time anybody called for help, he was dead. Slick was full of remorse, especially when he heard that the child's parents wanted to have a talk with him. When they arrived, they just sat there looking at him. He expressed his deep regret, explained the situation as best he could, and got no response.

"I was about to cry, I felt so bad," he said.

Hard to imagine Slick in tears. He went on.

"The parents just stared. They looked nervous. I said, 'Is there anything you want to ask me?' Finally, the mother spoke up. She said, 'Can we have his frog feet?' "

Not a story Parade's readers would want for Christmas. We had already run up quite an expense account. "What are we going to tell Parade?" I wondered aloud.

Slick stared at the oysters lying in their shells. It was early evening, magic time in terms of light, which was coming in through the big window there, lending a rosy glow. Slick picked up the battered Leica that stuck with him through thick and thin.

"How about: Orphans? We thought you said, 'Oysters.' "

Many years later, I'm in New Orleans alone, at Felix's, having a dozen and working the New York Times crossword. And the shucker is condescending to talk to me. He can evidently shuck and jive at the same time. He is telling me that the other night a man ate forty-eight dozen oysters at a sitting. Not here, but at a seafood place out by the lake. "I don't know if he even leaves the shells," he says. "Lives in Hammond, Loozanna. I wish I owned a grocery in Hammond."

"Fat?" I inquire.

"Yes. But not extree-ordinarily fat. About my heighth, with your stomach."

And in comes Becca. And her husband. I know who they are because he says, "Aw, Becca," and she looks at me, jerks her thumb over at him, and says, "My husband, Kyle."

It's late fall, crispy for New Orleans, and she's wearing a sweater. Striped, horizontally, which on a flat surface would be straight across but on her the effect is topographical. And there's a twinkle in her eye--well, more of a glint, probably, but you can see seeing it as a twinkle in just the right light. "Shuck us a dozen," she tells the shucker, and with a look over at hubby, "Let's hope one of 'em works."

If I had not seen Double Indemnity enough times to be all too familiar with how these things turn out. . . . Because she is over close to me now saying, "I work that puzzle every damn day of this world."

One look at Becca, and I'm into a noir-narration frame of mind, thinking to myself, You know a man has always got to be promoting getting some, and a woman always got to be promoting getting something out of giving some up, but a woman who is giving you some to get back at her husband can just enjoy it and let you just enjoy it because her ulterior motive is covered. Problem would be when she gets her message through to the husband, gets tired of that, and starts figuring out how you, too, are letting her down. I'd say Becca's daddy had money till she got halfway through high school and he lost it all; daddy's girl whose daddy folded.

And now, this husband, Kyle. A weedy sort. He nods distantly, looking like he hopes it won't come across as miserably. "And two Ketels on the rocks," she says, and he says, "Aw, Becca," again. They're both fairly sloshed but he's fading and she is on the rise.

"'A little hard to find'? How many letters?" she says. She's up against my shoulder looking at the puzzle. Kyle's leaning against the counter, putting horseradish on the first oyster the shucker has presented them with. Without moving away from me or looking away from the puzzle she reaches over, takes the oyster from in front of Kyle, puts it to her lips, gives me a little half-look, and slurps it down.

I say, "Eight."

She says, "A good man."

"But where's the 'little' in that?"

A woman just in it for the giggles would have made a coy face and said, "I'm not touching that one." Becca gives me another half-look and grabs my pen and starts writing "A GOOD MAN" in.

That doesn't appeal to me at all, on one level. On another, it brings her up against me even closer.

She smells like her corsage--they're in town for the weekend, she says, for a football game--and her lipstick, maybe, which is certainly red enough to be aromatic, especially now that it's set off by a fleck of horseradish.

"No," I say. "'A GOOD MAN' can't be right--see, fourteen down, 'Greek love,' would be AGAPE, and . . ."

She looks at me with both eyes, and rolls them. "Ooh, I don't think so, Hon," she says. "Let's just jam it in there. We'll make it fit." She writes AGAPE in so that the E is on top of the N.

That fleck of horseradish is still there on her lip. I could flick it off for her. Or I could point to the same spot on my own lip so she could get it off herself. I refrain from doing either.

Now she has one of my oysters. "Slurps" is too blatant. She takes it in juicily. Now she's filling things in one after another, free association and spontaneity being the key more than strict interpretation or even in some cases the right number of letters. I am more tolerant of this than I would be in other circumstances.

"You know we could do this all evening," she says, and in spite of my reserve I'm beginning to have the same thought. At this time I am unattached, and I am not thinking with as much edge as back there in that noir-narration frame of mind. But there's Kyle. She turns to him and says, "Me and this man could keep on doing this till another puzzle comes out." She takes the last of their dozen. "Kyle doesn't do the puzzle," she says. "Kyle could eat ever' got-damn oyster in New Orleans, and he still couldn't do the puzzle. Let's go, Kyle, put some money down." He does, and my weight sags just a bit further than I'd prefer in the direction of her abruptly withdrawn shoulder.

Becca and Kyle turn to go, her arm in his; but she looks back long enough to lick the fleck of horseradish off, finally, and to say, by way of farewell: "They like it when you dog 'em out."

I look at my puzzle, which is a mess.

"Say, 'They'?" says the shucker.

Slick pulled the orphan story out of the fire. He had a wide circle of friends in, for instance, the ballooning and motocross and country-music communities, and one of them put him onto some photographable orphans. The cover picture, under the billing, "When Love Is the Best Gift of All--MERRY CHRISTMAS, AMERICA," was of a little blonde girl who had been an orphan before adoption. But when Slick told the story of the orphan story he tended to leave people believing that we had shifted topics on Parade and pulled it off: Oysters. He pronounced it oischers, to rhyme with moistures, as do many people who savor those mollusks' juices. They say a mayor of New Orleans named DeMaestri hosted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at dinner once and didn't say a word until the end of the evening, when he said, "How'd you like them ersters?" This is one of several indigenous pronunciations.

Some twenty years later Slick died, directly from drink. He was the second New Orleans rambling companion of mine who knew that drinking would kill him, who narrowly escaped dying once already from it, but went back to it anyway. One of the things Slick often said was, "I wouldn't want to live like that," in a not entirely facetious though mock-pious tone, pronouncing "live" sort of like "leeyuv." Say we passed a man in the street who was carrying a cat in a cage labeled "Tom Doodle" in fancy script, and the cat was emitting a cranky-sounding moan and the man was talking back to it in a whiny, put-upon voice. Slick would say, "I wouldn't want to leeyuv like that." When liquor began to get the better of him he was in and out of rehab programs. "I'm drinking myself to death," he told me once, crying. Slick, crying! I told him drinking wasn't as fun as it used to be, which was true. He agreed. A pleasure-principle grounds for abstention. But in the long run he couldn't live like that.

Excerpt from Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans by Roy Blount Jr. Copyright 2005 by Roy Blount Jr. Published by Crown Journeys, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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