The other day, The Boston Globe published what I found to be quite an amusing review of Ye Olde Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in Boston and the oldest restaurant in continuous operation in the US. Given that the review was pretty negative – Oyster House is over-priced, underwhelming, kind of dowdy, tourist trap – I don’t imagine that the folks at the Oyster House were as amused as I was. (I suspect they weren’t amused by the 100+ mostly-scathing comments, either.).
But reading about the Oyster House brought back a ton of memories of the summer of 1970, when I was a waitress there.
Where to begin, where to begin.
Maybe with the rats, which were the most memorable feature. Mostly, they didn’t come out when there were customers dining: the noise kept them away. But once in a while, they did, and it was a firing offense if you screamed when one ran over your foot.
The rats often came out in force when the customers had left, and we were cleaning up, a series of tasks that included bussing the tables, filling the salt and pepper shakers, and wiping down the greasy wooden tables with scalding coffee. Mostly you could keep them away by tossing the over-sized chowder spoons in the direction of the rat holes, but sometimes they showed. When that happened, we were dismissed, which meant we had to clean the tables up in the morning when we came back in, at which point the rats had had a go at whatever was left out. While the spoons weren’t always effective as rodent prophylactics, shooting at the rat holes worked just fine.
Waitresses were armed with spoons, but Mr. Murphy, one of the night managers, had a pistol, which he kept in a little wooden carrying case. Some nights, he’d come into the dining room and take a few shots at the rat holes. That always did the trick, rats not being quite as dumb as you might think. They well understood that the gun was mightier than the spoon.
The other rat action took place at the sink.
One especially charming rat-in-sink episode involved a stopped up sink, where a dish boy (I.e., man) was hand washing pots and pans. Well, the sink started to overflow, which made the dish boy – who’s nom d’Union Oyster House was The Animal – reach into the drain and pull out a drowned rat. Which he took great glee brandishing as he ran around the kitchen. (He wasn’t called The Animal for nothing.)
So many charming things happened at the Oyster House that summer I was there.
Sometimes the fry cooks would fry up cockroaches for inclusion in the fisherman’s platter. Yum!
One time, a completely stoned waitress – Marilyn K – dropped a plate of steamed quahogs. The steamed quahogs – I believe they were advertised as cherrystones, but I believe they were always the larger and tougher quahog – were completely rubbery and had no taste. (Hard to believe that, given the rats, we ever ate there, but all us waitresses took an afternoon meal. The cooks were good to us. We got fresh scrod or something edible. The dessert rule was that, if a five-gallon tub of ice cream was already open, you had to avoid it, as The Animal had been seen on many occasions gouging out a big mitt-full of ice cream (the flavors were vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and either nesselrode or rum raisin – must be a New England thing).
Anyway, that one lunch, Marilyn dropped an order of steamed quahogs on the sawdust, dirt, and whatever covered kitchen floor – and we’re talking whatever accumulated since 1826. Well, the quahogs bounced out of their shells and were scattered all over the floor. Good, stoned waitress that she was, Marilyn got down and started retrieving the bouncing quahogs and shoving them back in the shells. We all helped her. Who could blame here? It would take too long to wait for another order, and no one ate them anyway.
What else is there to say about that summer at the Oyster House?
As it turns out, plenty. (Between that and my year at Durgin Park, I really could write a book…)
Anyway, perhaps my favorite episode of the summer occurred the night the lights went out.
It was a Saturday, and we were unusually busy. It was also extremely hot out.
And then the lights went out.
The managers didn’t want to close – it was the best night of the summer – so they put candles out on the tables. They had some sort of tiny generator that was enough to keep a string of lights on in the kitchen. The stoves were gas, so they worked. Unfortunately, there was no air conditioning anywhere. So while out on the floor, waiting on customers, taking orders for rubbery quahogs and cockroach infested fisherman’s platters, we were nearly passing out from the heat, in the kitchen it was probably 30 degrees worse. I’ve never experienced heat quite as sweltering as that night in the Oyster House kitchen. A complete sweat box.
The cooks wanted the managers to close the place. It was just too damned hot.
But, no. It was too damned busy.
So the cooks – most of whom were from Jamaica – did the one thing they knew would stop the place in its tracks.
They took off all of their clothing.
At that point, the old guard waitresses – most of them were aging first-generation Irish ladies from Southie or Charlestown – refused to step toe in the kitchen.
So many other stories.
Willie P, the cigar-smoking salad boy, who – when you went to his station to order a salad – would lean over, and sotto voce, say “I had a dream about you last night, [waitress name goes here]. We were making love.”
Oh, shut up, Willie. Just give me to g.d. shrimp cocktail.
Then there was Janet, the aging hostess with the Gibson girl hairdo and the smoke-roughened and – she thought – sexy voice. The restaurant was upstairs; downstairs was the oyster bar. When we needed raw oysters or clams, we would get on a little speaker and holler down to the oyster bar for them. The oyster bar guys would shuck the oysters and send them up on a little dumb waiter.
Downstairs they also sold candy bars at the cashier’s station.
Every afternoon, Janet would get on the little speaker and say, “Please send up a male Hershey Bar. You know, the one with the nuts.”
I’m a firm believer that everyone should have at least one really outrageously crummy job in their life. I can’t really single this out as mine. I had a boat-load of them over the years. (Hey, I spent one summer polishing combat boots in a shoe factory.)
But the Oyster House sure gave me plenty of laughs over the years.
Have I ever gone back and eaten there?
Reading the review, my feelings are confirmed.