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I took up eating oysters on the half shell back in my late twenties, as a token of eastern sophistication. I was in New York and my editor took me to lunch and ordered a dozen and asked if I’d like some. “Of course,” I said, not wanting to seem provincial, and ate three, which resembled phlegm but with horseradish were palatable and went down easily, no chewing required.

Last week, passing through the lovely town of Easton, Maryland, across Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore, I enjoyed six Chesapeake oysters, which were larger, meatier, than the ones in New York fifty years ago and a man sitting next to me at the bar asked how they were — “They’re very good, they must be wild,” I said — and he said, “You’re from Minnesota, aren’t you.” I said yes. I did not say, “But I live in New York.” It doesn’t matter where you live, you’re still from where you’re from. Provincial is baked into my blood and I can’t escape it by wearing a nice suit or eating seafood, I’m still from the land of the Spam sandwich.

The gentleman said he’d driven through Minnesota once when he was twenty. Under the influence of reading Jack Kerouac, he’d driven from his home in Maine to Oregon and in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he had pitched his tent in the cemetery and spent a peaceful night there.

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

“I used to live not far from there, in Freeport, in a rented farmhouse,” I said. He had loved Kerouac’s On The Road and started writing poetry in a flowing lowercase unpunctuated run-on style and spent some time in Oregon considering a Beat life but returned east to college and wound up a pediatrician. He loved Kerouac but he did not admire the heedless Beat lifestyle that wrecked the lives of so many and he was happy in medicine though he still enjoyed camping. He said, “I notice the defibrillator in your chest. Do you mind?” and he reached over and put his hand on it. He said, “Do you ever feel it kick in?” I shook my head. “Then you’re in a good shape,” he said.

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It was a bonus, to get a professional opinion along with the oysters, and also to meet a man who confessed to being happy about his life. Kerouac should’ve met him, a man who enjoyed rambunctious prose but dedicated himself to a highly disciplined career in science. He asked what I did, I said, “I’m retired.” No point in getting into all that. I too am a happy man, though in Minnesota I was brought up to conceal pleasure lest it make the less fortunate feel bad. But it was a very happy day in Easton. A self-righteous Democrat finds it hard to say that — I should be bemoaning something — but I felt utterly happy.

I could imagine living in this town of 16,000. I had grown up in a town that size and escaped from it by eating those New York oysters but now it appealed to me. The pandemic has made our lives smaller anyway. I walked around the downtown of elegant old brick buildings and went to a show at the old Avalon Theatre at which the audience was in a jolly mood and sang the national anthem and on the line, “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” they shouted the “Oh.” The hotel bed was comfortable, I had a big breakfast.

The next morning I was at Union Station in Washington to catch a train to New York and stepped onto a Down escalator and got myself and a suitcase aboard but my briefcase stayed behind and I looked back and saw it getting smaller and tried to run up the descending steps and made no progress but the briefcase contained my laptop with a good deal of work in the hard drive and I tried to climb faster and couldn’t, while toting the suitcase, and finally, not wanting to have a heart attack and die, I descended and I saw three young women laughing, sitting at a table drinking coffee, with two young children who were laughing too. They were laughing at me and now I could imagine how it looked, a scene from a Buster Keaton movie, man versus machine, and it pleased me, my debut in slapstick comedy, and I recovered the briefcase, and headed for home, a happy man, and if that’s what Chesapeake Bay oysters can do for you, then I hope to make them part of my daily diet.