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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.”

“Try us.”

“Williamston.”

“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.

“One-Note Diamond”
An Excerpt from The Long Horn
By Joseph Olschner

The stillness, the whistle,
it is the distance that it ripples,
dropping
        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.

High
clouds rimmed
in bright
ice moonlight,
        the silhouette of pine-top
tree lines,
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
and bushes
speckled thick with berries.

Still,
no one here has a memory of this,
        of trains passing farms lit by wicks,
dirt towns circled
        by fenced animals and
fecund scents,
        smoke lines drifting into rich morning skies,
pencil-lined, delicately trimmed
until reaching
        the same exact height
        where a hidden
current disrupts them,
bending the wisps to disappear
into
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
microscopic light
in time
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
moving
across the stillness
        of a planet,
itself moving into,
                and away from,
        the path of the sun.

This stiff whistle knifes
through the same
        dark morning,
announces the same
        dire caution,
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
invisible train
drifts
and circles over
the neon-lit,
        yellow-lettered Waffle House,
a calloused brown
hand pulls
        a crumpled dollar
from a ragged pocket
and drops
        it beside white breakfast plates,
themselves speckled yellow.

This soldier farmer turned Internet trucker
        will walk into
        a new day’s
                darkness,
        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
erupting over
        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.

 
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