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Journey takes toll on appetite for a delicacy


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000

Today's column is not about social events. It is about lobsters.

I briefly owned five: Clotilde, Sven, Schyler, Franny and Zooey, though I waited until about halfway through our time together before naming them.

Lobster ownership was conferred on me near the end of a stay in Maine. My friend Lynn Cox rented a Victorian cottage that sat at the bottom of Round Hill Road overlooking the harbor at South Bristol. She invited me to visit her, her mother-in-law Beryl Cox, stepsister Diana Shuster and son Stephen.

The sun rises early in Maine during the summer, and by 5 a.m. the day is as bright as mid-morning here. The air is cool and we slept with our windows open, so I woke up to the deep rumble of diesel engine cranking up, followed by the cawing of gulls circling the fishing boats, hoping for an easy score. From my window, I watched the lobstermen load their traps at the wharfs. Then their boats -- sturdy crafts with names like Elizabeth Jane, Sara Amy and Shady Lady -- joined a procession through the bay.

A lot of good seafood is caught in the cold coastal waters off Maine; haddock, for example, which I ate for the first time, is sweet and mild, like the freshest grouper from our Gulf.

But lobster is clearly king. Lobster toys, tchotchkes, clothing and housewares are sold everywhere. Local McDonald's restaurants feature lobster rolls. Until last year, the lobster graced Maine license plates (replaced, after some controversy I am told, by the chickadee, Maine's state bird).

Even the smallest seaside hamlets -- and South Bristol is one of the smallest, having only a wharf, cafe and sundries shop -- boast lobsters for sale in many incarnations.

I decided to take advantage of the service advertised by every lobster purveyor along the coast and have live ones shipped home.

Lynn and I strolled down to the wharf one morning to talk to Maggie, who sells wholesale and retail lobster from the dock, along with blueberry jam and pies.

"Oh, shipping," she said, rolling her eyes. "It will be very expensive. Why don't you carry them with you?"

Why not indeed.

As promised by Maggie, a cooler was waiting for me on Monday morning. A fisherman had just filled it with fresh lobsters, seaweed and icepacks. I looked inside and saw small bright eyes looking up; several antennas stirred. If claws hadn't been taped shut, I would not have been surprised by a salute and jaunty Hey-ya.

This'll be easy, I thought; check my bag through and carry the lobsters on board to keep an eye on them.

"Lobster for dinner," I said to my son when I called him in St. Petersburg.

We eased the cooler into the rental van and headed for the Portland airport, with a stop in Freeport to see the L.L. Bean store, which my friends insisted I see even though I am not a Bean-type person.

I patted the lobster carrier. "Do you think they'll be okay while I'm gone?" I asked Lynn and Diana in a Freeport parking lot.

"They're lobsters," Diana said.

At the airport, the skycap suggested I check the cooler through.

"I'll keep them with me," I said.

We strolled around the airport for a while, then settled in two chairs near the U.S. Air gate with a book. Our flight to Philadelphia was supposed to depart at 3:16 p.m. At 2:30 p.m. the gate attendant announced that it would be delayed. At 4 p.m. she announced the flight was canceled due to bad weather and we should go to the ticket counter downstairs ASAP to make other plans.

Pandemonium ensued as about 100 people stormed the escalator, pushing and shoving to be first in line. I and an elderly couple stood at the now-empty gate, they slowed by age, I by my crustacean charges. I picked up the container and trudged toward the escalator. The handle broke and the lobsters fell to the floor with a loud thwunk. Several people at the Delta gate stared. I felt abusive, in an odd way. I looked inside the cooler.

"Everything's okay," I said.

Without a handle, the cooler was too unwieldy to carry. I saw a line of empty wheelchairs and grabbed one.

"Kids," I said to the cooler, "In a very real sense, you've become physically challenged."

Not surprisingly, I and the lobsters, now reposing in a wheelchair, were last in line at the U.S. Airways counter. For two hours we stood amid crying babies, a barking dog in a pet carrier and increasingly irritated fellow passengers.

"I'm getting really steamed," one man yelled.

"Just a figure of speech," I said in the direction of the wheelchair.

After about an hour, lifeboat gallantry began to take over in my small cluster of displaced travelers. The elderly couple produced a can of mixed nuts and passed them around. Another couple offered to watch my lobsters while I made some phone calls.

A sense of resignation pervaded us. We watched as others marched up to the counter with straight backs and hopeful expressions, soon replaced by drooping body language and querulous voices on learning how inconvenient and lengthy their replacement connections would be.

At about 5:30 p.m., I approached the counter like a mendicant. The ticket man said. "Okay, I can get you out of here at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. tomorrow morning. You'll be in Tampa by 10:45."

I'll take the 6 a.m.," I said, "and just stay here at the airport tonight. But do you have some place cool and comfortable for my lobsters?"

He looked at the wheelchair, then at me.

"Maybe I can get you on the flight to Boston this evening," he said, punching his keyboard.

The flight to Boston was a twin-engine puddle-jumper. The lobsters and I sat in the rear. In front of me was a man who had recently had therapy to help him deal with his fear of flying.

Five minutes after takeoff, the pilot announced that "we'll be experiencing some bumpy weather due to a line of storms in the Boston area. If you look out the west side of the aircraft you can even see that line."

As one, our heads swiveled to see a wall of grey clouds stretched across the sky.

"Ohhhh," wailed the man in front of me as the plane plummeted, climbed, then dove again.

"Life has been good," I thought.

I looked down at my lobsters. "Clotilde," I said. "Sven. Schyler. Franny and Zooey." They were names I had always liked but would never have had the guts to give my children. I hoped in some primal way they thought they were still home, not in a strange place possibly about to die, the violent movements only the familiar currents of Atlantic water and not hostile air.

Then the Boston skyline appeared out of the clouds and we landed.

The kids (as I now called them) and I walked across the tarmac to the terminal, the plane being too small to hook into the elevated off-loader.

At the gate we were told the flight to Tampa would be delayed. I commandeered another wheelchair and headed for the nearest airport cafe, Cheers, an ersatz version of the sitcom watering hole.

"The lobster rolls are good," said the waitress.

"I'll have the nachos," I said.

I had not checked on my lobsters since we left Portland and I opened the lid. They rustled in their bed of seaweed.

"This will soon be over," I said.

Not really.

The plane, which was to have left Boston at 7 p.m., did not depart until almost 10 p.m. We were a dispirited bunch who staggered on board. Everyone was testy, including the crew.

A flight attendant watched as I struggled with my lobsters, getting them settled in an overhead compartment.

She smiled and said, "You'll have to move those. We reserve that space for emergency equipment."

I wanted to unclip my lobsters' claws and let them loose on her. Instead, I gently relocated the cooler.

The last leg was long but uneventful, and by 2 a.m. I was on my way home with my lobsters.

"I'm thinking of stopping at the bridge," I said to my son, who met me at the airport, "and letting them go."

With the deprecation only a teenager can muster, he said, "That is so morally and intellectually dishonest. You haul them all the way down here. They won't live in this water. So you want them to die slowly instead of quickly. And we won't be able to eat them."

Of course, he was right.

That night, I boiled a large pot of water. The lobsters were not as perky as they had been 36 hours earlier, but still reasonably active. One by one, I put them into the pot and closed the lid. Fifteen minutes later, they were a beautiful red. I cracked the claws and removed the tail meat. Everyone says they're wonderful. I wouldn't know. Someday, I will eat lobster again. Just not these.

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