There's a bar on the corner of Broome and Ludlow - a few blocks from the Williamsburg bridge - that my wife and I used to go to a lot. She was living in New York but I was still working in Sydney, so there was a lot of flying back and forth. It was hard, and whenever I'd leave for Australia and we knew we’d be apart awhile, we made a ritual of stopping in at this little bar and getting a drink before I'd head to the airport. We'd do the same thing when I came back a month or so later - I’d go straight from the airport to the bar, where Anya would be waiting with a drink ready to go and the staff knowing that soon, a very tired man would walk through the door and clutter up their tiny place with his luggage. The drinks were good and they had a dollar oyster happy hour, but I think we liked it most of all because - in this cold city where we really only had each other - this spot felt a little like it was ours.
One day in Winter when I was about to leave for Australia, Anya and I sat in our corner and drank. It was snowing outside, a blizzard was due to hit in a week, but for now it was that gentle kind of New York snow that could be snow or could be ash from someone burning their garbage, which just made it all the more magical.
A young man walked into the bar. He showed his ID to the staff but didn’t look older than 17. Had greasy black hair and wire rim glasses, his skin was pale, and he had a light dusting of snow or trash or dandruff on his black coat. He sat a few seats away from us.
The young man asked in a mumble if oyster happy hour had begun, was told it had, and then slapped a fifty dollar note onto the counter and did not ask for change.
‘Fifty oysters,’ said the bartender in a way that made it both a question and an accusation.
‘Fifty oysters, please,’ said the kid, in a tone that struck me as odd, because it was the tone you would use when you were asking for a not insane amount of something.
‘Fifty oysters,’ said the bartender and took the money.
The young man folded his arms and waited. Didn’t read a book, didn’t look at his phone, just folded his arms and waited for the fifty oysters he had ordered to arrive so that he could eat them. Soon they arrived and, without fanfare, without announcing to the bar ‘hey everyone check this out’, in a manner that was neither ostentatious or ashamed, began to eat the oysters. Anya and I didn’t speak until he was done.
The thing you have to understand about watching someone eat fifty oysters is that it's viscerally repellant in every single way, but it also unfolds in stages, like grief, which I will now outline.
Oysters One Through Ten
The good news about the first ten oysters is that you're still full of childlike wonder at the prospect that, in this very bar, not two seats over, a young man is going to eat 50 oysters for absolutely no reason. This information is yet to make you sick to the pit of your stomach.
This is not to say that the first ten oysters are not upsetting. Typically, watching someone eat ten oysters is not an unpleasant experience, because you know that this is not the prelude to this person consuming another 40 oysters. Not so in this case. The speed at which the guy eats the first ten also leaves you with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it suggests that the eating of the whole fifty is going to be mercifully brief. On the other, it suggests a single minded urgency of purpose that chills you to your very core.
The first ten oysters are bad, but they are the least worst oysters of the 50.
Oysters 11 Through 20
During oysters 11 through 20, you’re still taking a reasonably academic approach to this man and his oysters. You begin to wonder to yourself what possible series of events have conspired to create this moment in time - for this person to consume 50 oysters in one sitting. Is this the first time he’s eaten oysters and just picked this number after panicking? He doesn’t seem panicked. Has he just had some sort of windfall and is trying to do the fanciest thing he could imagine? Is he trying to become the horniest person on earth? All these questions are silently posed during the eating of the second ten oysters.
Oysters 11 through 20 will be the first time that the man eats one dozen oysters, and this is significant, because each plate holds one dozen oysters, and so it will be the first time you see the man discard his empty oyster plate and replace it with a new, full oyster plate, like Indiana Jones replacing an idol with a bag of sand, and seeing this will fill you with something that you think is the limit of your disgust - a limit that you will, over the course of the remaining 30 oysters, be constantly forced to re-evaluate.
Oysters 21 Through 30
Oysters 21 through 30 is where the reality of your situation kicks in and you no longer have the luxury of asking the whys and wherefores of the man who has now eaten 20 oysters - more oysters that you have ever seen a person consume before but not even half the amount that you are guaranteed to see someone consume before the day is out. This is just maths, and it’s the worst maths you’ve ever had to do.
Oysters 21 through also features the 25th oyster, the oyster that signifies that you are, as Bon Jovi puts it, half way there. If you believe that the arrival and consumption of the Bon Jovi Oyster will be a cause for celebration, that it will mark the beginning of the home stretch, please let me unburden you of that assumption.
The Bon Jovi Oyster, in fact, only serves to fill you with hatred for what has come before it and fear of what is to come after. Oysters 21 through 30 may be the worst of the 50 and during their consumption you will know that Sartre was wrong when he said that Hell Is Other People. Hell is one person, this person specifically, eating oysters 21 through 30.
It’s also during the consumption of oysters 21 through 30 that you notice that the young man has not taken his backpack off this entire time.
Oysters 31 Through 40
On the 31st oyster the rage kicks in almost immediately and you are surprised by its presence and the force with which it arrives. You’re still disgusted, but you’re now furious for reasons that you can’t really articulate; you suspect it has something to do with how calmly and methodically this man, a child really, is Cool-Hand-Luking his way through the 30s with zero consequences from the police. What started as a fascinating spectacle has now become something that, again without being able to point to the specifics of your argument, you are reasonably sure is illegal in some way. The You of 30 oysters ago is unthinkable, the You who nudged your spouse when you heard the order and gave her a well-what-do-we-have-here raise of the eyebrows. That You is dead.
There’s something else in the room now. Other patrons are starting to clock that, over by the bar, next to the two Australians, something unspeakable is unfolding, and the room is getting quieter as if the young man is eating sound as well, and every oyster he puts in his mouth is taking the words out of someone else’s and you could kill him. You honestly think that you could kill him at this point and then you realise you’re on the last ten oysters and the red mist evaporates.
The Last Ten Oysters
The rage leaves you at the outset of the last ten oysters but is replaced almost immediately by fear. Around oyster number 43 a thought occurs to you - namely, these are the final ten oysters… that he has ordered so far. There is nothing that will stop him ordering more oysters, past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, and the only point of data that you have about this man is that he has, in the past, ordered insane amounts of oysters and you realise that if that happens, you will actually cry - you will cry and your wife will cry and this will be the last moment you have together for a month before you get on a plane and you are filled with a terror that runs like ice through your veins. And when he finishes the fiftieth oyster and stands up and leaves the bar without apologising to anyone, a wave of relief hits you that is so powerful that you are worried that then and there - as the snow falls on the lower east side on the isle of Manhattan - that right then and there with your wife at this bar before you get on a plane - that you are going to burst into tears and collapse.
But you don’t do this, because it’s done. It’s done and there’s no proof it ever happened save for 50 oyster shells and a bar full of people who now sit in silence. And you’re certain of very little anymore with the exception of one thing - this bar is no longer yours.