Clinging to Oysters
I’ve been eating oysters to stay alive.
Peconics Pearls, St. Simons, Welfleets, Naked Cowboys, it doesn’t really matter what the name is as long as they have one. As long as they have something I can latch on to much like the oysters themselves, because otherwise I’ll blow away down the streets until I find myself alone and afraid of every sound and every flash of shadow that catches my eye. I’d like to say it’s all a matter of poetry, but sadly it’s far more grounded in reality than that. I’d like to imagine that the pretty little mollusks are a metaphor for something other than a mythical good life, but the truth is, I need them to feel like I’ve made it through the storm.
Sitting at an oysters bar, let’s say Sel Rrose this time around, gives me the illusion that I fit in. I’m not always sure what world it is I’m struggling to enter, but that doesn’t matter, because all of New York City is in the same boat with a few oblivious exceptions. Nobody knows what’s cool anymore and nobody knows where they should be eating and drinking. One day you’re partying at The Box and you’re king of the world until some stranger at another bar looks at you with a raised eyebrow and shakes his head saying, nobody goes to The Box anymore!
For me it’s less external though, and I suppose it’s always been that way. I’m grateful for it I guess, but I’m not sure that one is any better than the other, especially when I think back to how long it’s been my modus operandi. The irony is that I’m rather good at fitting in. For as long as I can remember people have liked me, and not some facsimile of myself that I’ve had to create in order to impress. They’ve genuinely liked my authentic self, whatever that is, and no matter how much anxiety arises, how many nights I feel stranded and alone, or how often I wander the streets trying to find that hard shell on which to attach myself, I’ve known deep down that it was true. People like me, and sometimes that scares me far more than the possibility of their dismissal.
In the past two years, I suspect I’ve eaten close to two thousand oysters. In many ways the number seems small, but if I do the math it comes close to two dozen a week. I’ve eaten them in Grand Central–both at the oyster bar and from Wild Edibles upstair– along with John Dorry, The Gray Lady, Sel Rrose, Schiller’s, Aquagrill, The Ten Bells, L&W Oysters, Lure, Jacques, Jeffrey’s Grocery, Maison Premier, and even one night at Bonnie Vee’s when they brought them in for a special occasion. And those are simply the places I can remember here in the city. Because I’ve also eaten them on Cape Cod fresh from the water, Portsmouth New Hampshire brought down from Maine, and Connecticut both at the Milford Oyster Festival and a seafood place off the highway whose name I don’t recall.
Of course I’ve never counted the bars I’ve drank beers at, the places I’d enjoyed a good burger, or even the parks I’ve wandered through on perfect fall days. But oysters require attention, both in eating them and in remembering the act, because they fill out the landscape of my life right now in a way that nothing else has for a very long time. They’re not the main course, the best friend, or the wife. Oysters are not my salvation nor my damnation, but instead they’re the texture woven in the way a loose linen shirt allows for breaks, frays, and a never ending urge to touch. The tiny little bivalves are the hues painted over the canvas before the painter truly begins, or possibly the paper as it’s rolled into a typewriter. The words will change everything, but beneath it all is a Strathmore 24lb Ivory Wove that shines through no matter what, letting everyone know that the story is worth something even without the words.
There were many years when I ate oysters without knowing a damn thing about them, much in the same way that I drank beer without any insight, wine without reason, and whisky as long as it was golden brown. I’ve always known, at least a part of me has, that increasing my knowledge of a thing leads to more enjoyment. This seems to be true of all human experience, in that the more words we have for a thing the happier we are with it. From our ability to describe our own emotions in great nuance, to our scientific classifications of plants, insects, and animals, the more divisions we make, the more we like a thing. Walking down the streets of Soho with a fashionista is much like taking an afternoon hike with a botanist. Knowing that his pants are from Zara, but his jacket is John Varvatos, literally makes the world look different. And walking through the woods recognizing the birch, the beech, and the oak bring the forest to life in a way most of us can’t imagine.
And so when I began my education, such as it is, my experience of eating oysters changed both for the better and for the worse. It’s not until we have some basic knowledge that we begin to doubt ourselves, and so it is with oysters as with politics, music, or art. There’s a reason we say she knows just enough to get herself in trouble, and it’s the basis of much of our anxiety. Yes, I now know something about oysters, but do I know enough? Before my awakening, I simply gobbled them down with a beer or a martini without a care in the world, but now? Now, I must think first, decide which might go better with a white wine or a cold gin, and heaven forbid I make a mistake! Is there anything worse than sending back a tray of oysters simply because I didn’t know what I was looking at, and mistakenly assumed they should look another way?
And yet, maybe that anxiety, maybe that fear and doubt are also the things that add the most texture, linen even, to this life. Because once I forgoe my knowledge of oysters, wine, and music, where do I stop? I can’t unlearn everything, and even if I could, it would leave the world a bland and less interesting place. Maybe there are some zen masters who can look at the world with the eyes of a child, but for me, I’d prefer to get lost in the doubt of knowing than the bliss of ignorance.
But that desire to learn is a spark that’s difficult to put out even when the rest of the world feels dark. As I’ve pushed through my divorce, the rapidly declining health of my dad, and my constant struggle to find work that is gratifying and also supports me, I’ve held onto that discovery with something close to fanaticism. I’ve read every book I can find, and when I realized there was a book I couldn’t find, I decided to write it myself. In the learning comes forgetting, doubt, and caution, but still I haven’t slowed down in my attempt to understand the delicious mollusks that keep me going. I walk the waterfront staring down into the murky waters and imagine the world as it was, the harbor of my glorious city so full of oysters they were free to those who took the effort to reach down and pluck them from the tides. And in that story, in that imagined world where we didn’t ruin our rivers and destroy the land beneath our behemoth, I too am whole and alive. In that distant memory of oyster middens piling high along the shore, I’m laughing as I eat, I’m dancing as I walk, and I’m consciously and fully here once again.
Like I said. I’ve been eating oysters to stay alive.