Lobster Quadrille

by Lili Wright

The lobster trap looks like a leaky suitcase, spilling cold water all over the boat. The sternman zings a sea urchin past our noses, followed by a handful of shredded fish guts. A second later, a foul gray creature wearing a seaweed boa staggers down the railing. It looks like something you’d pull out of a shower drain, only it’s moving. The children shriek in horror. The mom with the fancy camera curls her nose: “Is that a crab or a hairball?”

When the wind shifts, the deep funk of the undersea world rises into a low-lying cloud. Glowering seagulls threaten to smart bomb our heads. Without warning, the boat lurches, sending us tumbling. As the death rope snaps across the deck, we clutch our loved ones to our chests, and it occurs to me there are good reasons why most Maine vacationers skip lobstering and take picnics instead.

Welcome to Vacationland’s newest industry: lobster tourism. With the price of lobster meat dropping faster than the recent stock market crash, some fishermen have decided to haul tourists instead. Never mind lobstermen’s reputation for being salty. (A popular bumper sticker reads: “It’s called tourist season, so why can’t we shoot ‘em.”) This new breed of lobsterman welcomes day-trippers with black waders and a smile.

My friend, Eileen, a New York attorney, spotted the ad in the monthly island newspaper, The North Haven News. The prose was welcoming, the final exclamation point downright perky: “Hauling with Capt. Foy. Enjoy a late afternoon hauling lobster traps, learning about lobsters & fishing history from a life-long islander with Foy and crew!”

Eileen bit and invited me, the mother with the zoom lens, our children, and then—her generosity getting the best of her—even more children until we formed a merry band of ten. We are a boatload of “summer people,” a mildly disparaging term used to distinguish vacationers from the 400 “natives” who live on our 12-mile island year-round. Though we summer people have eaten lobster all our lives—steamed, stuffed, served atop risotto on the Upper West Side—none of us knows what happens on deck. It feels as though we’re being allowed entry into a secret world, like a speakeasy or the basement of a frat house.

But this trip is about more than pent-up curiosity. Maybe it’s the reality show Deadliest Catch or the writing of Michael Pollan or the whole sustainability movement, but suddenly everyone wants to know where their food is coming from. Strange how we never used to care. For generations, American shoppers tossed shrink-wrapped veal cutlets and December strawberries into their Kroger cart without a second thought. Ignorance was bliss. But now people want to know the back story of their food—or think they want to know. Were the chickens happy? Are these baby carrots laced with pesticides? Can we meet the farmer who raised the sheep before we buy the lamb chop? Understanding the origins of food is not only essential to good health, activists argue, it’s a moral obligation, as if awareness, at least in part, justifies our rampant consumption.

We meet on the town dock at five in front of Pa’s Angel, Captain Foy’s 30-foot lobster boat. I bring along my daughter, Madeline, who is nine, and my son, Lincoln, who is five. Captain Foy and his sternman load the boat with heavy-looking gear—their black lab, Panda, overseeing operations—while the mothers worry about sun block and snacks. As the boat pulls away from North Haven, children bouncing, I find myself humming the theme song to Gilligan’s Island, then shake off this flashback to admire the view. The sun is out full force, and the Maine coastline looks as pretty as a dollar postcard: the forests of brooding spruce, the grand summer houses, their white rocking chairs rocking, the blue of the sky and the blue of the water, and the bright lobster buoys we leave bobbing in our wake.

The view on deck isn’t bad either. If our two hosts are any judge, lobstermen are the most beautiful creatures in the sea. Captain Foy, who’s in his sixties, looks positively virile in his baggy orange waders. His eyes are squinty blue, and his skin is the color of freshly cut cedar. Gray hair sprouts out in soft, bushy sideburns, then travels lightly down his deeply wrinkled neck. Foy’s hands, well, you can imagine. Oven mitts come to mind. So do lobster claws. I try to imagine him threading a needle. Impossible. I try to imagine the price of a wedding band that would fit. Prohibitive. I try to imagine his fist in a bar fight, how he could leave a man’s face looking like the underside of a lobster.

The sternman should rightly be called sternboy. He can’t be more than 16 and is even more handsome and soft-spoken than his boss. With his cherry cheeks and perfect skin, he looks like the male version of Snow White. I seem to recall there was once a lobsterman pin-up calendar and wonder if our captain ever cameo-ed as Mr. July, but think better of checking this particular fact, and instead break open a roll of butter crackers.

If you’ve never been lobstering, here’s how it works: The captain steers to one of his buoys, each painted his signature colors. Slowing the boat, he snags the line with a long hooked stick, slips the rope on a motorized crank that drags the trap up, up, up until it comes rushing to the edge of the boat where the sternman drags it in and rests it on a wide railing. This is the moment of reckoning. The moment, if you happen to be lobstering with seven small children, when a chorus of little voices chants: “Lobster! Lobster! Lobster!” or if the cage is empty, lets out a collective groan, “Ohhhhhhhhhhh.”

If there is a lobster or several, the sternman grabs them by the cuff like a pissed-off bouncer and dumps them into a special container, not unlike liquor boxes that used to hold wine. Vertical, snug, the lobster stands on its tail, claws skyward, swaying like a rock concert groupie. By law, you’re only allowed to keep lobsters of a certain size. If a lobster is borderline, the sternman pulls out a special ruler, hooks one end in the lobster’s eye socket, and measures to the end of his back.

Females require a separate protocol. Female lobsters endure a reproductive fate not that different from devout Catholics and Mormons. “Once a female lobster mates,” the sternman tells us, “she stays pregnant the rest of her life.” If you catch a female lobster with eggs (the orange clot of eggs is visible on her underside) you clip a V in the mother’s tail, indicating to all future lobstermen that this lobster is a breeder and should be thrown back. Thus the continuation of the species—indeed the whole lobster industry—depends on sparing the female lobster. In this way, the lady lobster is actually quite lucky: a life of perpetual pregnancy being preferable to no life at all.

The sternman uses a wrench-like tool to slip rubber bands around each claw, dumps the old bait, and jams fresh herring in the yellow net. Then he clears out extraneous creatures who’ve wandered into the trap—sea urchins, crabs, whelk, eel—and pushes the trap overboard, where it sinks with a resigned fsssssss. Next buoy. Next trap. More bait.

Repeat seventy-five times.

Observing all the commotion, I think of Peter. My husband, a Midwesterner, who hates lobster, detests even the smell of them, and never fails to remind us, usually as we’re happily sucking on a leg, that Homarus Americanus is a bottom feeder. (I consider his squeamishness a lack of intestinal, even constitutional fortitude, but I am a Yankee, and view almost all shortcomings in this same light.) Peter also likes to recall that indentured servants in Massachusetts had it written in their contracts that they could be fed lobster only twice a week. In the intervening years, the lobster has proved itself a social climber par excellence, crawling its way up from trash food to delicacy. Now its snob appeal has become a liability as cash-strapped Americans look for real and symbolic ways to cut back. Let’s face it: a national recession is no time to eat lobster. It’s time to microwave fish sticks. Or as Captain Foy puts it: “Now that people have lost their jobs, they don’t want lobsters so bad.”


* * *


The afternoon gets off to a slow start. The first three traps come up empty.

“Sometimes lobstering can be kind of discouraging,” Captain Foy concedes. “Like now.”

He calls to two boys zooming by in a whaler. “You getting anything?”

The boy at the tiller shakes his head.

The Captain called back: “Me, neither.”

Secretly, I am pleased our traps are empty, though I keep these treasonous thoughts to myself. As a soft-heartened vegetarian, or to be more precise, one of the nation’s few Baco-tarians, an elite cadre of culinary purists who shun all meat except fish and bacon, I love eating lobster, but find cooking them traumatic. Sure, there’s that funny scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton chase lobsters around the kitchen floor, and I try to pretend the killing pot is a humane form of euthanasia, but there’s a reason lobsters turn bright red when they are cooked. They’ve been boiled to death. Cooking lobster is the only time I kill what I eat, and it always makes me feel crummy. I’m the kind of person who ferries spiders to the lawn, the kind of person who, when presented with a whole grilled trout at a trendy restaurant, covers the fish’s head with arugala or a cocktail napkin so my dinner doesn’t watch me consume it. On my ideal lobster trip, we’d pet the lobsters and watch them sink back into the sea.

Then again, I like to ski when there’s no powder.

I like to sail when there’s no wind.

It takes only an hour at sea to realize that tourism and lobstering make strange boat fellows. For starters, pace is surprisingly hectic. When Captain Foy accelerates, we lurch to catch our balance. After each trap is dumped overboard, its slack rope sizzles across the deck, snapping gray fishy sludge into our hair and cheeks. The sternman warns if the line catches our foot, we’ll be dragged overboard. The boat spins around so much it feels like we’re clay on a potter’s wheel, and I get dizzy and disoriented and can’t tell which island is North Haven and which island is Vinalhaven and where we came from or where we are going, so I just try to hang on. And the smell. Well, let’s put it this way: Dead fish don’t smell like fish. They smell like sewage.

To state the obvious: lobstering is dirty work. Lonely, hard, tedious, dirty work. You get the feeling that lobstermen don’t chat much out there at five a.m. They aren’t used to explaining what they do to seven small children with lisps and life preservers.

“Can I see?”

“Can I see?”

“Can I see?”

“Can I hold him?”

“Can I hold him?”

“Can I hold him?”

“It’s a flounder.”

“It’s a flounder.”

“It’s a flounder.”

And it was a flounder, a flounder the size of a hungry-man pancake, flopping furiously about the trap, realizing too late the consequence of his poor sense of direction. One of the guests, a boy in a green life preserver, is confused. A lobster trap is for lobsters, not fish. The boy asks the sternman: “How did the flounder get in there?”

The sternman stares at the boy, his expression as blank as the face of the water, an expression that asks, although maybe I’m projecting here: “How did a rich kid get to be so stupid?”

What the sternman actually says is: “He got in there the same way the lobster did.”

While Captain Foy is friendly, his stories lean toward the lurid, and his humor, which is considerable, is dark for the High School Musical set. When the children grab for a sea urchin, he tells us: “My mother stepped on a sea urchin once and the spine went into her foot. Twenty years later, it come out her hip.” Later, after a series of empty lobster traps, Captain Foy announces that we need to change our luck. “We are going to have to start throwing people overboard because there is some hoodoo on this boat.”

The children look up at their mothers.

Captain Foy has been lobstering since he was a boy, and I imagine he’s seen his share of flounder. But for the tourist, especially the child tourist, everything is new, everything is miraculous, everything must be photographed: the baby lobster that fits in your hand; a tiny starfish, the size of a disappointing cookie; the whelk with the spotted snail inside, which, upon closer inspection, has a mushed-up, potato-like face. (In Captain Foy’s family, these creatures are called “snot wrinkles,” the key ingredient in “Snot Wrinkle Stew.”) The mini lobster is irresistibly cute, something that would look darling printed on a dishtowel or a coffee mug. Everyone wants to hold him. The photographer mom wants a shot of the lobster in a child’s palm. After several minutes of insisting “It’s my turn. It’s my turn,” Eileen’s son Ben secures the prize and enjoys a friendly repartee until the lobster takes a bite out of his thumb. Ben screams, the kind of horrified scream that makes no noise, his face ashen. Eileen swoops in as blood streams down his small hand.

We tuck away our cameras.

Captain Foy steers on.

While the men work, the kids stage mock lobster wars. My son, Lincoln, usually an angelic boy, dangles a dead herring over an imprisoned lobster trying to convince him to attack. Lincoln turned five a week ago and, in a disturbing display of maturity, has switched from saying “Oh my gosh” when he’s excited to “Oh my God.” I take this for what it is: a sign. Proof we’re overdue for a serious sit-down discussion about God (how he might or might not exist, how though we can’t see God, he watches over us, maybe, how we shouldn’t use God’s name in vain, the meaning of “in vain” and so on) but I keep procrastinating, hoping we can push God off until fall.

Just then, screams erupt around the lobster crate. In some final, futile act of bravado, the lobster has nipped the herring with its claw. Lincoln shrieks with sadistic delight. I decide to postpone our son’s religious training until he’s older. Perhaps, some time in grad school.

I wonder what the Captain makes of us. I wonder if he even likes children. (My own father would rather have a colonoscopy than spend two hours in a confined space with eight-year-olds.) Besides, the good Captain is probably used to island kids, decent, soft-spoken, well-mannered island kids, not scions from New York, the Bay Area, and hard-to-pronounce islands off Seattle. Our children are used to being listened to and so don’t distinguish between interrupting a prickly Maine lobsterman and say Mrs. Hernowsky, their third grade teacher in the Gifted and Talented Program. Captain Foy is explaining the GPS system to the camera mom when the boy in a green life preserver chimes in: “Excuse me. Excuse me. I have something to say.”

Captain Foy ignores him until it’s clear the kid is never going to shut up. The boy points to a GPS, the very contraption the captain has just finished describing: “Does that tell you where the lobsters are?”

It is right about this time I decide I hate all children but my own. It is about this time I consider sacrificing the boy in the green life preserver for bait.

Though our hosts are charming, living up to every exclamation point, I can’t help feeling this boat is a metaphor, a microcosm of our island, where two populations coexist in a tippy state of interdependence, affection, and resentment. This trip is a new chapter of an old story. Summer people eat hors d’ouevres and ask lame questions. Islanders toil.

The real story, of course, is more nuanced. The year-round residents of North Haven are a decidedly sophisticated lot. One island girl is headed off to Brown this year. Another is going to university in Scotland. The island school recently sent 19 students on a field trip to Paris. The designer Angela Adams was born on North Haven as was the painter Eric Hopkins. There are—gasp—mixed marriages. And some summer people are teachers or artists, two or three or more generations back from the original wealth, who can’t afford the soaring property taxes and lose their beloved island homes. Lobstermen, meanwhile, can earn more than $100,000 a year and develop urban vices.

Still, there aren’t a lot of native kids who think their parents’ principal role in life is to ensure they are never bored. I can only imagine the stories about pampered summer people that circulate after the island’s annual Labor Day evacuation.

Here’s one contender. One Saturday after the Farmers Market, where my daughter, Madeline, likes to sell blueberry muffins, we invited a girl—we’ll call Eleanor from Marblehead—over to play. When we arrived home, the kids rushed across the lawn. “Hey, come back here,” I called. “There’s a lot of stuff to carry.” I handed bags to Madeline, raincoats to Lincoln, a sack of peas and a tablecloth to Eleanor, who took three steps, turned around, and asked: “Hey, would you pay us for this?”

Even worse than being spoiled is being stupid. Sure as the tide will rise, July after June, August after July, decade after decade, summer people prove they have more money than sense. It’s difficult to fathom why intelligent people, people who run corporations, people who litigate, legislate, delegate, can’t steer a boat safely into a dock. Or if they can’t, why they insist on trying. As the island’s defacto rescue patrol, Captain Foy sees the worst of it. Like the summer person who his first day out rammed his new engine into a reef, necessitating a $2,000 repair, only to give an encore performance the following day.

Betsy Sweet, an amateur comedian, likes to tell the story of her maiden voyage in her new whaler. After half a lifetime of whaler envy, at age 50, she bought herself a boat. The day she’d planned to make the hour-long crossing to the island was so foggy she decided the only way to stay on course was to follow the Maine state ferry, an ingenious idea until her whaler ran out of gas. The oblivious ferry chugged on, leaving her lost in the thoroughfare. To make the call was to confirm every cliché about women and boats, about summer people in general, and her in specific, but she had no choice.

“Hello, Foy. This is Betsy Sweet.”

“Oh, God.”

“I set out for the island but ran into a little problem.”

Silence. And then: “Is it the fuel line?”

“Not exactly. Somehow…I ran out of gas.”

The silence hung, thick as chowder.

Finally, the Captain said: “Where are you?”

Sweet looked into the fog, her humiliation complete. “The thing is…I don’t know.”

By August, a Captain can get testy, which may explain this next story. A few days after our lobster tour, Eileen showed up at the boatyard in need of a different sort of rescue. Her minivan had a flat tire. She didn’t have a spare. Her husband, the writer, was off-island. When she asked Captain Foy who he thought could help her, he replied: “Someone who gives a shit.”


* * *


Two hours have passed. The sun is falling. The kids are hungry. Their hands are so grimy, we mothers funnel Craisins directly down their gullets. Only five traps remain. And then, as if on cue, we get some real excitement: The lobstermen pull up a trap containing a giant rockfish.

The chorus goes up.

“A fish!”

“A fish!”

“A fish! A fish! A fish!”

And what a fish it is. A stately creature, a foot long and battleship gray, head like a bulldog with thick gray lips. The rockfish looks old, dinosaur old, like it has spent the past ten million years hiding under a rock. The children press their faces into the cage, chubby hands reaching for this new treasure.

The sternman nudges aside the children, grasps his knife and, without warning, digs the blade down the fish’s spine, deep into the gray goo of his being.

The outcry is immediate.

“What are you doing?”

“That’s so mean!”

“Don’t kill him!”

“Is he dead?”

“He’s dead!”

Oh my God.”

The sternman explains the execution simply. “It’s good bait.”

In that moment, everything changes. The light. The mood. Our fragile equilibrium. All at once, everyone, especially the children, understand what is really going on. This isn’t sailing camp or a zoo trip or nature walk to chase butterflies. We are hunting. We are out here to kill animals. The rockfish is dying. The bait is dead. The lobsters will soon be laid to rest on a bed of sweet potato fries. We are pulling sea creatures off the ocean floor, yanking them into our brilliant, parched world where we will kill them and eat them without regard of their beauty or scarcity or, let’s just say it, putting ourselves in our children’s sneakers: feelings. We lobster tourists have seen what we came to see only to realize we don’t really want to see it.

The sun ducks behind the clouds. It’s evening now and turning cold. The boy in the green life preserver moves away from the traps and sits along the back railing, hands squeezed between his legs. His face is pale. He looks like a Vietnam vet, traumatized by war. He does not speak for the rest of the journey. Lincoln, my newly minted five-year-old with The Little Prince curls, stares up at me, bewildered. After seeing the bludgeoned rockfish, he needs to go back to the beginning and start again.

“Mom,” he says, pulling my sweatshirt. His white t-shirt and madras shorts and plump tan hands are streaked with black fish gunk. Ritz cracker crumbs encircle his mouth.


I wipe sludge off his perfect cheek. “What, honey?”

The boat abruptly accelerates. We trip over each other. He falls into my arms. “Mom,” he says a third time, not giving up his question. “Why do they want the lobsters?”


* * *


The good news is that the specie touristus americanus has virtually no short-term memory. For most travelers, unpleasantness like poverty or genocide or a poor exchange rate is forgotten as soon as the next delight appears. In our case, it doesn’t take long.

As the boat heads for the harbor, the sun comes out again, bathing us all in a soft yellow glow. The men’s orange waders gleam and the steering wheel makes a cool shadow, and I fall in love with everything I see: the captain’s black suspenders and his red neck and his mossy gray hair and his green cap and blue eyes and the sternboy, shoulders slumped, so quiet in his Hercules orange pants, and the coils of rope and rusted-out anchors and the black dog dozing, a dog who must now smell not only of wet dog but dead fish. Sometimes I think poets have it easy because if you put yourself in the right place, the whole poem appears before you like a gift.

It’s foolish to romanticize lobstering, but in moments like this, it’s hard not to fall into that particular trap. Fishermen have blood on their hands and the wind at their backs and the work is exhausting in ways that have nothing to do with carpal tunnel. The simple dignity of what fishermen do inspires admiration you just don’t feel for, say, the woman I met this summer who’s an actuary with AIG. When we later told friends about The Great Lobster Outing, they cooed: “How cool! We want to go, too!” This is why lobster tourism may indeed be Maine’s next great frontier. Not despite its messiness, but because of it. Come August, summer people want an excuse to get dirty. Forget the billionaire on the bluff. We’d rather meet the fisherman in rubber boots.

All this admiration can feel pathetically one-sided. It’s hard to imagine any islander would pay a hundred bucks to watch what summer people do for a living: say, administer anesthesia or teach an English class on the sonnet. Summer people are simply more curious about islanders than they are about us. We are also more eager to be liked. It pleases us to think that if we ever washed up on the rocky shores of Maine, we might, after two or four or twenty years, be friends with Captain Foy. And that some chilly November night, long after the other silly summer people have fled to Boston or Berkley, the captain would invite us round his stone fireplace for a warm bowl of Snot Wrinkle Stew.

Lili Wright is the author of a travel memoir Learning to Float (Broadway 2002). Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Florida Review, Southern Indiana Review, and Cream City Review. She is the recipient of the Mary C. Mohr Nonfiction Award in 2008 and the inaugural nonfiction prize awarded by Wag’s Revue. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she teaches writing at DePauw University in Indiana.