An Ancient Mariner

The Vagabond

THE SHACK is small and smells strongly of fish. Its white exterior stands starkly against the horizon. Inside, the room is bare except for a wooden chair and an ancient refrigerator left over from an era when it was still called an "icebox."

Sometimes a crusty old mariner sits in the wooden chair, awaiting his customers. As often as not, however, the room is empty except for the icebox and the chair. A note, torn and faded from too many days in the summer air, is stuck permanently on the shack door.

It says "Come in--if no one is here, the clams are in the icebox. Leave the money on the chair." The note is signed "Steve."

The only reason Andrew Wyeth and other painters of Americana have ignored Steve is because they don't know he exists. He is a priceless relic of northern Massachusetts--an Ipswich clam digger who awakens before the sun rises and spends his early morning hours plunging his hands into sand and surf in search of hardshelled fish.

Steve looks as hale and hearty as most fisherman. His wrinkles are not the result of old age but the product of years in the salt air. Still, he rises with a look of pain and he moves slowly, like a trapped fish too tired to gasp for air.


He runs out of clams much earlier these days. By mid-afternoon, only a few quarts are left, and some customers come all the way from the next town only to leave empty-handed. He tells them to come tomorrow. "I will have more tomorrow, but you must come early," he says.

Steve sells his clams at the cheapest price in Ipswich. The average rate for steamers is 85 cents per quart; Steve asks 65 cents, and if he isn't there, just take the clams and leave the money on the chair. Some people leave a little more than 65 cents. No one leaves less.

The outside world is not cut off from Steve and his clams. Every customer exits from the shack with Steve's business card in hand. The card gives Steve's telephone number, a formula for steamed clams is printed on the back.

It is a feeble attempt at a modern business technique. Steve's commodity cannot be purchased by telephone. To get his clams, you must follow Steve's advice: "Come tomorrow, but come early."

The people of Ipswich, however, hardly storm Steve's door each morning. For the most part, this New England town of 18,000 has forgotten Steve. Outsiders discover his shack by chance or from newcomers to the town. Steve is not a well-kept town secret--he is an anachronism.

STEVE'S AMERICA is one of iceboxes and small shacks, and Steve is a throwback to the days of direct producer-consumer relations. He is a craftsman; for Steve, clam digging is an art, clam selling is a living.

And like any craftsman, Steve takes pride in his product. When he runs out of clams, he does not mind telling you about the other clam sellers in Ipswich. But he is quick to warn you that the other clams may not be fresh, and somehow you know that the warning is sincere and not competitive salesmanship.

Steve loves the sea and sea life. It shows in the easy, careful way he removes the clams from the icebox; it shows from the fatherly way he hands over the clams after he bags and seals them.

In Steve's shack on the side of a two-lane road outside Ipswich, clams rule the world. The icebox is a clambox--as the day progresses, fewer and fewer clams are left on its single shelf and by late afternoon, the icebox looks strangely unfulfilled when four or so quarts remain alone on the shelf.

And when the last quart changes hands, Steve closes (but does not lock) the door to the clam shack and trudges off to the sea.

It is hard to determine Steve's age. He looks at least 55, but may be more than 70. You can't tell a fisherman's age by his face--old age creeps into the joints and settles in the fingertips, making fishing more of a chore and less of an exhilarating experience.

Steve still has a few years left. But he belongs to a fading generation, and when he is gone, no one will take his place. Steve knows it: the knowledge of his insignificance is indelibly imbedded in the deep creases of his face.

I hope the icebox keeps working. A frost-free refrigerator would look out of place in Steve's small shack.