- Category: Writing the New South
- Published: 12 April 2010
Spring, 1984. Working a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London, I meet a Brit couple during the interval. “So you’re from North Carolina? Where?”
“Oh, it’s tiny, you’ve never heard of it.”
“Home of the Sunnyside Oyster Bar! We’ve eaten there!”
Recently the Sunnyside was featured in Gourmet Magazine, but my London experience is proof—it was already internationally famous.
Winter, 1998. My eight-year-old daughter, Lily, and I have just moved to Durham from the Pacific Northwest. We’re visiting family down east in Williamston during an R-month, so naturally we visit the Sunnyside.
In business since 1935, it’s an unprepossessing Craftsman-style wooden structure on the road into town, with a discreet pink-and-blue neon window sign. We’re finally seated at the seventy-foot, horseshoe-shaped counter. Behind it, men sling out buckets of oysters, then artfully shuck and serve them one by one into each patron’s dish. Some work silently, others crack jokes, adding to the convivial din of conversations and laughter. Cedar shavings cover the floor.
We finish our pecks of cold, clean, slippery, briny raw oysters, then our medium-steamed ones, which are warm, more al dente—both kinds dipped in melted butter and a warmed-up, secret-recipe cocktail sauce, served with saltines. The Sunnyside has no kitchen, so they don’t mess with hush puppies, and there’s nary a vegetable in sight in this inner sanctum. However, on big-crowd nights, like Thanksgiving Friday, people sometimes bring raw veggies and dip to the outer waiting area, where the bar is. While waiting they drink brown-bagged bourbon, and swing a string with a metal ring to catch the hook on the wall—world’s simplest game.
The economy in eastern North Carolina is shriveling, but tonight, watching all the joyful reunions at the Sunnyside—some planned, some unexpected—you’d never know it. Few towns have such a reliable gathering place for meeting and greeting. Several guys I went through school with bought the business in 1991 from the original owners, the C. T. Roberson family. Here at the Sunnyside, there’s a feeling of prosperity. “They must be making a killing,” I tell my sister.
I notice Lil’s wooden barstool empty, go looking in the knotty-pine-planked ladies’ room, both waiting rooms, then out into the cold. I find her out back by the steamer, coat flung over a bush, dancing in briny steam. Seeing me, she sings, “This is my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world!”
That’s funny because, like most children, Lily wouldn’t dare eat an oyster. Even my Williamston-born father was squeamish. “History’s bravest man? The first to try an oyster.”
It’s fun seeing people I know from childhood, people my parents knew. “Salt of the earth,” Daddy called some of them. But knowing nobody, you’d still sense the charge in the air. Mama recalls oyster-lovers traveling by limo to this small town on the Roanoke River. To celebrate a husband’s birthday, she says, wives as far away as Raleigh have rented a bus, filled it with friends and a fully-stocked bar, and directed the driver to Williamston.
The Sunnyside has changed over the years. Brown bagging gave way to liquor-by-the-drink when Martin County passed the referendum, though in 2010 they dropped mixed drinks because of the regulatory hassle and stuck to beer—and wine, which my husband notes with amusement is cheaper than the beer. The building has been listed in the North Carolina Historical Register, and given a couple of sensitive remodelings. The oysters, once from North Carolina’s coastal waters, now come mostly from the Gulf. A few menu additions—bowls of shrimp, scallops, crab legs and recently—though rarely ordered—the heretical broccoli-with-cheese.
Also, changes in personnel. From the earliest days, all the shuckers were black men, their faces pictured on paper placemats with their autographs. Mama laminated several of these placemats for me to use at home, but they made me uncomfortable, reminded me that once blacks couldn’t eat at the Sunnyside, only work there. A few years ago the first white face appeared on the placemats—one of my older sister’s classmates from Williamston High School.
The shuckers are all colorful characters, talented servers. Good tips make it the best service money around. A job whites might have considered demeaning in the past, they are now proud to hold. More recent placemats show sunny faces, about half of them black and half white, framing a simple hand drawing of the Sunnyside Oyster Bar. Under each picture is a name: Timothy Smith, Joey Andrews, Elbert Lee “Griff” Griffin, Floyd L. Spruill, Eric Brown, Jarred Price, Johnny Whitaker, Cody Bryant, Nathaniel “Nate” Williams, Jesse R. Massenburg II, Natt Whitaker. I’ve laminated dozens of these newer placemats and enjoy using them and giving them to people from all over I’ve introduced to the Sunnyside.
- Category: Writing the New South
- Published: 04 May 2010
An Excerpt from The Long Horn
By Joseph Olschner
The stillness, the whistle,
it is the distance that it ripples,
a seam of metal onto the fabric
of curtained night
hemmed by dark morning.
It becomes a melody of history,
a one pure multitone beacon
of disjointed harmony,
rolling into the Carolina countryside.
the silhouette of pine-top
all of it becoming
canyons of the echo
as this train horn spills
over thick, stumped forests
and one-light crossroads of deep America.
This simple holy horn dives into this rich countryside,
rolls through rows of summer corn,
over silent fields of pebbled cotton,
with the fabled pale light of a slow-bleed dawn
erupting over small neat gardens
laced with vines
on webbed string
speckled thick with berries.
no one here has a memory of this,
of trains passing farms lit by wicks,
dirt towns circled
by fenced animals and
smoke lines drifting into rich morning skies,
pencil-lined, delicately trimmed
the same exact height
where a hidden
current disrupts them,
bending the wisps to disappear
a faint lattice
lacing the flicker of high stars,
jewels overlooking dirt.
Who were we then
to witness this,
the world-rimmed dawn pulling trains
from farmland and wooded swamps,
or the steel whistle culling the colors of
to be perfect
with all the rest of imperfection.
Who were we
to gauge our rise
by the growing light,
and with the chorus of yard roosters,
the sound of
boots heels clomping
room to room,
the quiet knock on wood doors,
we were they
who lit the stoves
and sipped harsh coffee
in a warm, bareboard kitchen,
staring out through
window panes loose for glazing
but getting flowered curtains instead.
When this horn sounds,
we become a partner to that long past,
a funnel to the history
with all the railroads and rail yards,
the barns labor raised,
the homes now rotten and caved,
the lynching trees,
the forests ripped,
fields rimmed with curbs and clean order,
neighborhoods named after dead generals
or animals long extinct.
This train’s wail is not a simple sound.
It is a church bell,
a holy horn
across the stillness
of a planet,
itself moving into,
and away from,
the path of the sun.
This stiff whistle knifes
through the same
announces the same
raises our gaze from wooden streams,
bestows to us and to they who
used to be us
the same look to the clock
or turn of the head.
And it knows
what it always knew,
how to breathe into us
and how to rotate desire
and turn us
into our own clear window.
And twenty miles the other way,
as the distant,
one-note diamond sound of a distant
and circles over
yellow-lettered Waffle House,
a calloused brown
a crumpled dollar
from a ragged pocket
it beside white breakfast plates,
themselves speckled yellow.
This soldier farmer turned Internet trucker
will walk into
a new day’s
the blue exhaust lacing
the early morning,
the last bright stars
lacing pale light,
the trailer rig
filled with live pigs for bacon,
his cab filled with Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,
and he will pull this weight into
a deserted sweet daylight
the headlights of stacked traffic,
grinding the gears for another chance
to stand at the gate
or march through Rome,
or give witness
to one more Truth
unknown to purpose.