Tennessee Williams said there are three great storybook cities in America: New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco, and, as usual, Tennessee was exactly right. I’ve been lucky enough to live in New York and New Orleans, and every time I visit San Francisco, I want to move there.
I recently found a 20-year-old postcard of the French Quarter with a fading blue arrow drawn to one of the buildings. I had sent it to my parents to show them where I was living. In a postcard. On the back, I’d written: “It’s better than New Jersey.”
I only lived a year in the Big Easy. The economy was wretched, and I was back in radio, a notoriously uncertain industry. “Good morning. We’ve changed our format. You’re all fired.” Yet, that year left me awash in images, like a bucket of slides dumped on a light table. Put a loupe to any one of them, and a story begins.
Here we’re looking dueling oyster bars. A New Orleans oyster bar means they pluck ’em fresh from the Gulf, and they’re still alive when the guy behind the bar slips the knife in the shell and pops ’em open right on the bartop. I preferred the Acme to Felix’s. The Acme was unpretentious, down home, had great red beans and rice every Monday, and was where I first encountered oysters in their natural state. It was Mardi Gras, and I’m certain I’d never have made it through without a couple margaritas, but there they were, six of ’em lined up in front of me. No plate. Just shells and a fork.
“What do I do with with them?” I asked the oyster barman. He looked at me like, you poor Yankee bastard. Then he patiently explained that you take little sauce from this tin, a little sauce from that tin, a little horseradish, put it on the oyster, then tip that shell up and let ‘er go.
No, really. What do I do with them? But I’d had a few drinks, so, what the hell. I wasn’t sure whether everyone at the bar was going to laugh at me or not, but I did as instructed, and the taste was…fresh oysters on the half shell, pungent and sharp and beautiful. If you don’t care for oysters, I’ll never be able to explain it. If you love oysters (and there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground), you will know. You never forget that first time.
I immediately ordered another half-dozen. And a margarita. And I slipped an Acme Oyster Bar matchbook in my pocket.