Sometimes he would grin gap-toothed at the young women dressed to the teeth in hats, high-heeled boots, who'd pass by the Raw Bar and say, "Hey." He'd call back, "Hey," never missing a beat.
His shucking mesmerized the hungry crowd. Scoop, tap, tap, toss. Scoop up the oyster, tap the snell. Sounds right. He pried it open. Too cloudy. Toss.
The crowd was used to this. In fact, they picked his end of Faidley's Raw Bar in Baltimore's Lexington Market because he chucked more oysters than he shucked. They knew they'd be treated right, when their turn came up.
The young man acknowleded his customers twice. Once, when he took their order, and once when he took their money. The rest of the time he shucked and stared off over their heads and, with bemused expression, watched the flow of life in the busy market. But they could live without eye-contact. They were brothers and sisters united in mollusk-love. And he was guru in a white ski cap and apron.
Deftly, he dropped paper plates in a row, as eyes glistened in the first line of customers. They knew their time had come. Some had been waiting for an hour. Some were on their third order, had spent most of the afternoon there, watching and waiting, sipping beer, slipping oysters down their gullets, and an occasional clam. A line of customers watched and waited patiently behind them.
"You got my pint?" Still hearing a secret beat, he turned to acknowledge a woman in her 50s. "You want shucked oysters?" "Been waitin' here an hour," she said. "They got 'em over there, ready shucked, same as these." With his knife, he pointed to the fish counter. "I don't want them. I want fresh shucked." "Same thing," he said.
"You got my quart?" asked a tradesman who'd left his stall to suck a few oysters off their shells. "You know I'll make it worth your while." In his own good time, the shucker picked up a quart container and started filling it, scooping one oyster at a time, tapping the shell to see if the filmy mass still pulsed inside.
I squeezed next to the bar and guarded a place while my friend scouted the market for other stalls - of fresh vegetables, poultry and eggs, scrapple, even muskrat and raccoon, in season. Mostly he searched for something to hold us until the oysters came.
It wasn't long before he returned with nourishment: In each hand was a steaming kielbasa covered with chili sauce and relish in a bun. In case I should ever order it myself, he said, I was to ask for "Polish works." He bought it at a stall called Polock Johnny's. The "works" was, in a word, incredible, and damn the nitrites. I gulped it down and turned back to the shucker.
The next time my friend came back to check on my progress, he carried a gyro sandwich in each fist. I wolfed down the Greek pocket-sandwich. It was not as good, but as I ate it, I began to feel part of the rhythmic, earthy scene before me. Fifteen minutes had passed and the shucker was still working on the quart. Market closing time, 6 o'clock, was half an hour away.
As I wiped feta cheese from my chin, the shucker looked down on me and paused."I don't know if I'm going to get to you." Taking my cue from the clipped order at Polock Johnny's, I blurted out, "Five and five!" It sounded good and I thought I was in. But for clarity's sake I added, "Oysters. Er, two orders." That would be about two bucks' worth, and after seeing how many he rejected, that's all any mortal deserves.
Silent, almost worshipful, the six remaining hopefuls waited, uncomplaining. The woman who'd wanted a pint of oysters ahd long since clucked her tongue in disgust a last time and gone home to her family.
In a business suit on a Saturday afternoon, a man with a German accent was one of the lucky customers who'd finished several orders. He was antsy. "Please," he begged, watching the quart slowly fill. "Can't I have just one of those?" A young woman with a model's smile and long thick black hair stopped and curled sexily over the corner of the bar. "Can you give me an order of oysters?" "Closin' time," he said. She made a face. The crowd tensed.
Surely the quart was ready. It was filled to the brim. But no, the shucker poured off the liquor and gave himeself another inch to fill.
It was late. I was worried. A second Polish works was proffered and I absently and dutifully ate it. I think.
As the plastic lid closed on his quart, the stallkeeper did a cruel thing. "Oh, and gimme a coupla oysters to eat now," he said.
No signal from the shucker. Half a dozen souls stopped breathing. He paused. He knew he had us, and we loved it. In a cadence of yellow, six paper plates flickered and fell before us. Success shone like sunlight on our faces. The oysters were coming.
MOVING THROUGH THE FEAST
Oysters are appetizers, after all, and shoppers and sightseers can best savor Lexington Market by eating their way through it. In the west building, a poor cousin to the "main market" just across Paca Street, you can get a fair burrito at Pancho's, a Tex-Mex food stand, and at a Polock Johnny's, on the far west wall, watch sausage being made on weekday mornings.Entering the main market you pass through Faidley's Seafood, where rows of hungry people lean over wooden counters and devour deep-fried seafood and steamed crabs. The raw bar is just beyond - not the only raw bar in the market, but the most popular.
There are more than a hundred other stands, most of them hawking something tasty for the eat-walker - at The Fruit Basket: fresh-squeezed orange juice; Alex's: fried chicken; Ray Jerns, butcher: bulging subs; Mount Olympus: Greek food; Castle Farms: ice cream; Utz: potato chips, naturally, and though they don't make them in front of you, they're just as fresh; Mary's Scoop Coop: shredded-while-you-wait coconut that you can lustily eat from the bag (in warm weather the coconut is sold outside at a peanut stand on Lexington). There's a yogurt stand with toppings for its toppings, pastry and candy stores, and various delis selling a multitude of sandwiches at low prices. The market's open Monday through Saturday, 7:30 to 6.
Take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway straight into Baltimore. The Parkway briefly becomes Russell Street, then South Paca Street. Drive five blocks to Lexington and Paca. The market is on either side of Paca. Make a left into the parking garage (50 cents an hour) inside the West Building. When leaving, exit on to Greene Street, a one-way street that leads back to the B-W Parkway and out of town. CAPTION: Picture, no caption; Illustration 1, and 2, no caption