Jun 242011
 

The Immortality of the Crab

By John Proctor

 

…and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock
in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency
is to refuse to face things as long as possible
by retiring into an infantile dream…
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

It’s 3AM, I must be lonely.
—Matchbox 20

Two days a week between mid-June and mid-October, I wake up at 3:00am without an alarm clock, thinking about crabs. I get dressed in the dark while my wife sleeps and feel my heart beating, hands twitching, mouth grinning involuntarily. I walk out to my car, where my traps, handlines, and bucket are already packed, and I head out to the sea, thinking about blue crabs. I drive toward the end of the earth and then walk out with my equipment, where the sea meets me at the edge of the pier. Sometimes a lighthouse searches in the distance; most times I see black islands shadow the water in the twilight; a few times I notice the dockside lights of boats whose captains beat me to the water. The morning mistral’s brisk song chills even the hottest midsummer night. On the pier I am all alone with the sea, surrounded by millions of ravenous blue crabs.

From November to June, I dream about blue crabs. Sometimes I’m back in Kansas fishing for catfish in the Wakarusa River where I spent so much time as a kid. I’m walking along the cliff overlooking the river, with the wild heather and cattails up to my armpits. I look down into the water from the edge where the grass meets the red clay, and I can see everything. Below the surface, huge flatheads are curled up in their red clay mudholes, or in the hollows of submerged tree stumps. And all along the edge of the river I see thousands of turquoise claws, all busy at work – good little members of the working poor, snapping up stray shiners, collecting detritus in the mud, and building fortresses from everything they find. Sometimes I’m so far up that I can see the Wakarusa River flowing into the sea, disregarding – and this is the great thing about dreams – that crabs and catfish generally don’t coexist, especially in Kansas. What’s important is the work they do, the order they make from the chaos. I don’t even try to catch them – I just watch, as the crabs and the catfish build their homes in the muddy water.

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In  one of my favorite scenes from the ‘90s sitcom Mad About You, Helen Hunt walks in on Paul Reiser, and he’s sitting comfortably in his chair, doing – well, nothing.  He’s staring off into space, and she asks him for help with some random chore. “I’m busy,” he tells her. She does a double take, and then asks incredulously what he’s busy doing. “I’m working,” he replies. She asks him what he’s working on. “I’m thinking.” He’s a filmmaker, a profession only slightly less physically lazy than writing, if only because of the heavy equipment. In this scene, Paul’s thinking is rather heavy. “I’m developing ideas,” he says. “The less it looks like I’m doing, the harder I’m actually working.”

There is a Spanish expression for Paul’s labor – pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo, or thinking about the immortality of the crab. Basically, if you’re standing around doing nothing and someone asks you what you’re doing, instead of admitting you’re not doing much of anything, simply tell that person you’re thinking about the immortality of the crab. And thinking, done well, is hard work.

Unlike crabs, the phrase seems to be on the verge of extinction, an antiquated expression that most of my Central and South American students vaguely recall their fathers and grandfathers saying when they were kids. One Dominican student even remembers it as pensando en la logica del mosquito, or thinking about the wisdom of the bug. Interestingly, crabs and bugs share the phylum Arthropoda, and scientists have speculated that many of the biological differences between bugs and crustaceans – the larger size, the harder exoskeleton – are the result of the water density supporting the increased weight of their shells.

I’m often thinking about the immortality of crabs. My wife, if she were not above comparing us to Paul and Jamie in Mad About You, would probably note an eerie similarity between that scene and some of our own conversations. But many times I’m thinking about the immortality of one particular type of crab – Callinectes sapidus, Greek for “savory, beautiful swimmer,” the Atlantic blue crab.

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“Whether or not Callinectes may justly be considered beautiful depends on whom you ask,” wrote William H. Warner in his seminal Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay. If you ask me, there is no animal more beautiful than the blue crab. Unlike many of its brethren – including the snow crab, the king crab, and of course the spider crab – it bears no resemblance to its land-bound arthropod counterparts. If anything, it looks like the ghost crab’s badass cousin, or a fiddler crab with two Flying V guitars instead of a fiddle. Its six walking legs and two rear swimming legs are not long and spindly – unlike most other edible crabs, that’s not where their meat is.  Its carapace, the top part of its shell, is five to eight inches long on a mature crab. The shell is both menacing and regal, with a spiked front rim and sharp, lance-like points on each side that protect it both in the water, where it swims sideways, and on land, where its spiked shell and large outstretched claws make it nearly impossible for an inexperienced human to pick it up. Speaking of claws, these are by far the blue crab’s most prominent feature, and where it got its common name. The carapace itself is a sort of rusty green and its underside and apron are varying shades of white or off-white, depending on when it last molted. But the claws are a brilliant, ethereal azure, and when extended while fighting, mating, or out of water give the crab the appearance of a samurai with two broadswords, or the Incredible Hulk when his anger rips the shirt right off his chest.

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Relatively small but unequaled in ferocity, blue crabs are the first line of the sea’s predators – in chess they’d be the pawns, but in war they’d be the berserkers. Rolled along by the tides, they’ll ingest anything that floats their way – dead or injured fish, plant detritus, clams, oysters, even other blue crabs. But the primary bait for recreational crabbers is something no crab would ever encounter in its marine environment – chicken drumsticks. I usually use a combination of drumsticks and bunker, the common name for menhaden, the most plentiful baitfish on the Eastern seaboard. I employ three different methods when crabbing – traps, handlines, and scapping. When I started crabbing I thought traps were the only method, and in fact they were what fascinated me most about the sport – throwing out a box with collapsible sides into the unknown water and waiting for something to crawl inside, then yanking it up into the known world. This is still my favorite method, but I now subsidize my catch with handlines, literally a piece of bait attached to a length of twine, and scapping, which is just using a long-handled dip net to pluck crabs off the sides of bridge or pier pilings. Both of these methods reveal the spiderly qualities of the blue crab – seeing a crab clinging to the end of a handline looks eerily like a spider weaving a thread, and their crawling movements on the sides of pilings are positively arachnidal.

But, lest I go too far with the spider analogies, pulling up an actual spider crab reminds me of how much more like a spider crabs can look. If an uglier creature than the spider crab exists in the known world, I haven’t seen it. The closest comparison I can think of is the creature from Alien. A preserved eight-foot-long spider crab is on display at the New York Museum of Natural History, but the ones that come up in (or, more creepily, hanging from) crab traps are rarely more than a foot long. They are inedible to humans, though seagulls love plucking the meat from the joints of their long legs when people throw them on the dock, one of the many angry responses I’ve seen. The reaction in most people to a spider crab is immediate and intense, and similar to the reaction we have upon seeing a spider in our home – just get it away from us. I learned the crabber’s disdain for the spider crab the first time I went crabbing, when I pulled one up and asked the teenage boy next to me what it was. “Oh, that’s a spider crab,” he said, then punted it 15 feet back into the water.

But there are other crabs besides the spider that I could be thinking about. The blue claw is my crab of choice perhaps because it objectifies the most pressing needs of my own self-image. My daughter, in seeming counterpoint, has taken an especial interest in the hermit crab when we’re on the beach, putting it in my hand and patiently waiting for it to poke itself out of its shell only after it trusts me completely not to move my hand and send it tumbling and splashing into the unknown. The hermit crab is perhaps the opposite of the blue crab in temperament, hiding in its shell while the blue crab floats about listlessly, withdrawing rather than attacking when threatened. But it takes the blue crab’s sublimation to its environment to even greater lengths, picking up discarded snail and mollusk shells and making homes of them, then moving on to other, larger vacant shells when it outgrows them. I imagine my daughter sometimes as a little hermit crab, and myself as an early shell, providing her shelter and comfort until she outgrows me and finds her next shelter.

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When I remember growing up in Kansas, many times I think about the catfish. From the age of nine, I waded into the muddy flowing water of the Wakarusa River, or the fathomless depths of the sand quarry, or sometimes, during especially rainy summers, the flooded intersections on the streets of my neighborhood in North Lawrence. My entire neighborhood was underwater less than 50 years before I was born, coming into existence when the levees tamed the Kansas River. The levees have never broken but, because the lowland soil is always moist and the ground itself is several feet below the level of the town across the river, North Lawrence frequently experiences flash flooding whenever rainfall is especially heavy. North Lawrence soil, though, is the richest, most fertile in Douglas County. The combination of flooding and rich soil has given North Lawrence a dualistic nature – most people who originally settled into the shabby little 2- to 3-bedroom houses or trailers on tiny lots were dirt poor (so to speak), but when upper-middle-class Lawrencians from across the river heard about the quality of the soil they started buying up every cheap, empty plot of land they could find for non-residential gardens. Residents of North Lawrence are still called “river rats” by the rest of the town, a designation many of us took up proudly, holding a River Rat Reunion every summer at Woodlawn Elementary School. The non-residential gardens, far from being an annoyance, were Nature’s Bounty to me and my family. We rarely had to buy produce, as I routinely stole most of our fruits and vegetables from them. I didn’t feel bad about it then, and I don’t now – it was part of their rent.

Besides the rat, the catfish was as good a mascot as any for North Lawrencians. Like us, it thrived on the detritus left over by the rest of the creatures it shared space with. I’m looking back now at three pictures of me with catfish I’ve caught and noticing a strange, comforting trend – as I got older, the catfish in the pictures got bigger, too. The first, taken when I was ten or eleven years old, is of the first catfish I ever caught, a channel cat of about six pounds:

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I’m scrawny, my hair is kind of spiky, and I look slightly dazed. I’m holding the fish with both hands, elbows on my stomach, obviously having some trouble figuring out how to hold the fish. In the second picture, from sometime in high school, I’m holding a 12-pound blue cat:

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My shorts are entirely too short for a guy to be wearing, but my legs are at least starting to show the effects of my tenure on the football and track teams. I’m cradling the fish in both hands much like I did in the first picture, but now my arms are outstretched, confidently thrusting the fish out like an offering. Finally, in the third picture, from one of my summers home from college, I’m holding a 25-pound flathead catfish:

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I look in this picture pretty much like I do now, plus a few pounds of muscle mass and minus the grays in my facial hair. I’ve graduated to the one-handed liplock, the method only a seasoned catfisherman will dare as the jaws of a full-grown catfish can crush a hand if you let them close on it. That last picture is maybe my favorite picture of myself.

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It’s hard for me to think about immortality without also thinking about books. Books are, after all, the repositories of ideas, and the means by which words, and their writers, become immortal. I am a lifetime reader. My mother, who at 17 years had me instead of graduating high school, made me go to my room every day, from kindergarten through junior high, and read for an hour before I could play outside. Soon I began a lifetime habit of looking out the window with a book in hand. In high school, I got my first job cleaning bathrooms at a small press. I “borrowed” books from their mailroom, and only returned the ones I didn’t like. In his classic essay “Unpacking My Library” eminent book collector Walter Benjamin seems to agree,  saying, “Of the customary modes of acquisition, the one most appropriate to a collector would be the borrowing of a book with its attendant non-returning.”

Like Benjamin, I don’t just think about books as repositories of ideas, but also as trophies – even, god forbid, commodities. Sometime after graduate school, I finally came clean with myself and admitted that I enjoy acquiring a book as much as – sometimes more than – actually reading it. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the consumer culture of which I am part, but I should add that acquiring a book means much more to me than simply buying it, trading for it, or otherwise bringing it into my possession. There is the cataloging by genre; the planning to read; the cross-referencing before, during, and after reading; the shelving with the rest of my library – in all, the sublimation of the text to the morality, knowledge, and wit of my smallish mind.

Inevitably though, as slow a reader as I am becomes inescapably aware that he will die before reading all of his books. For some, this is a marker of the time, usually between 18 and 30 years old, when one is faced with the inevitability of death – not just for Grandma or people on TV or the friend who was tragically killed in the incident involving a motorcycle, an automobile, and/or alcoholic beverages, but for oneself. I can pinpoint this time for myself. I was almost finished with my undergraduate degree and traveling home from a book sale at Vanderbilt with my friend Tony. We bought so many books that the car frame rubbed the rear tires every time we hit a bump, so we drove most of the way on Interstate 64 at about 40 miles per hour. With all that extra time, we got to talking about the books we’d bought. We both relished each title – Tony’s Plato criticism and other philosophical works, my García Márquez and record guides – and I finally said to Tony, about some book that I don’t now remember, “I’m never going to read that.” Tony asked why I bought it, then, and I couldn’t answer him. “I’ll bet Professor Allen would buy it from you.”

Thus began my bookselling career, my postponement of the inevitable end. I was terribly lucky that my fledgling bookselling career mirrored the birth of the internet, and soon I had about half of my unread books on Half.com and Amazon. My friends began giving me their old books when they moved into smaller apartments or broke up. Their detritus was my treasure. I always felt like I became closer to the people who gave over to me parts of themselves, the things they read, or wanted to read, or wanted to forget. I wanted more – more repositories of knowledge, more remnants of experience, more income. My move to New York City in 2000 only increased this hunger, for books and for the stories that made them. Especially during that first year, every face I saw on the subway or on the street or at a concert I wanted to know. I wrote poetry and journals about the lives I imagined them having. I used my writing at open mic nights as a bridge of shared experience, and even now, a good ten years later, my closest friends are people I met at those open mic’s. But eventually I wanted more – books, experience, income – so I started reading Craigslist ads. Not personal ads, mind you, but For Sale ads, under Books.

I could be wrong, but I would estimate that on average New Yorkers own more books than other Americans. Couple this with the fact that New Yorkers’ living spaces are dramatically smaller in square feet, and it’s not surprising how many people feel the need to periodically liquidate their personal libraries. In buying people’s collections, I’ve learned not just about people or about books, but about people’s relationships to their books. I became much more empathic with people as I was forced to quantify those relationships in monetary units. Who am I, after all, to say that great collection of mystery novels a guy really wants to find a loving home for is only worth $5 a box, unless I want to take a loss? Or that the fact that a nice old lady glued personalized name tags inside the covers of her wonderful gilt-lettered, leather-bound Classics of International Law library automatically makes them worth half as much to me? I’ve become something I never thought of myself as before entering the book trade – a master of compromise. I can’t remember leaving someone’s residence without their books, or feeling like I swindled or stole from them.

I’ve left many a home with more than just bundles and boxes of typed, bound words. I don’t know if it’s some mystical association people have with booksellers, or the emotional exposure people feel when giving up their books to a stranger, but a surprising number of people from whom I’ve bought collections have given me their life stories. There was the poor sap whose girlfriend of years had just left him, and he had to move out of his relatively spacious apartment in Carroll Gardens; I’m not sure if he was more forlorn about losing his girlfriend or the apartment. He seemed to be training to be a hit man and his girlfriend was obviously a fitness trainer, as almost all their books concerned guns, martial arts, or aerobics. I also bought the collection of Joe Franklin, a record collector and former talk show host whose Times Square office was bulging with the advance reading copies and uncorrected proofs he’d accumulated in his later years as a book reviewer. He took me out for a hot dog and papaya juice, and I learned when I brought his collection home how little ARC’s and UP’s are worth. I learned just enough Spanish – with the help of Babel Fish and my neighbor Paul – to sell 14 volumes of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Teologica for just less than $1000 from an Argentinean librarian. With every purchase, with every sale, I picked up pieces of the New York City landscape, the human mosaic, and the narrative of the world.

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I think about crabbing much the same as I think about book collecting, and I think about both of them much the same as I think about people. And I would think about none of them in the same way if I had been born even one generation sooner. On Facebook I, like everyone else, collect my friends in one place, or at least their likenesses – this includes people I’ve never been friends with outside Facebook, people who used to be my friends but no longer are, and at least one dead aunt. There are probably more people on my Friends list that I won’t ever see in person, again or for the first time, than those I will see. I am far from alone in seeing my Facebook wall as the story of my life. All the people who have come and gone in a running, automated history, every one of them encapsulated in the little boxes holding their profile pictures, know what I’m talking about.

The book is of course a much older medium than the online social network, but its function is similar – taking a story, an account, an argument, and putting it into words that fit into a closeable box. That’s always been the appeal of books to me, from the hours I spent in my room with them to my adult life when I feel naked without one on my person. Books expand the universe by making it finite, enclosing thought in a tangible, shelvable object. And to an online bookseller, the book itself becomes not what’s inside but a simple physical description. For example, take my description for Storage Jars in the Ancient Sea Trade, currently in my inventory:

122 pp. Text is in English and Hebrew. Dust jacket has some fading and edgewear. Cover is in very good condition. Spine is strong. Text and artwork are clean and unmarked.

There is a beautiful simplicity in taking books, these little boxes of immortality, and describing not the immortality but the box – judging the book by its cover. And while a description that misses some underlining on page 56 or a slightly loose front hinge on the spine might necessitate a full or partial refund, I’ve never had to give a refund because someone read a book and didn’t like what it said.

The effects of the internet on crabbing are similar to its effects on bookselling – it’s now much easier to find both books and crabs. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have even known where to start crabbing without Blue Crab Forum, the online discussion board where I scout new and established crabbing spots in the New York/New Jersey area. Now, if I hear of a new spot, I can Google Map it and see the lengths of piers, points of access, even the general water depth in the area. And if my experiences in acquiring book collections on Craigslist have exposed some eccentric personalities, the concentration of eccentricity is even denser within the online crabbing community. One guy once let me in on his second favorite spot on the south shore of Long Island, with these words of warning:

i Don’t mind you told your wife BUT tell her to keep her  DAM mouth SHUT….AS you saw this is a rather small dock….AND I DON’T WANT TO SCREW IT UP for you me or the 4 or 5 regulars….i am hoping you’re honest and don’t cut your own throat or mine……like i said all it takes is 1 person with a BIG MOUTH….YOU SEEMD NICE, From the midwest and with little knowledge of seafaring…. p.s. if you see a guy out there in his late 40′s with a mustchace just say are you “duke”.

In fairness to the “Duke,” he’s not the only one on the crabbing board with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Other user names on the board include Crabslayer, TheCrabKing, MagnumTRex, Blu-ClawHunter, and DirtiestCatch, and all will gladly tell you about how the local, state, and federal government are conspiring to separate them from their serfdom of blue crabs. I, on the other hand, tend to empathize more with the crabs than the crabbers.

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I’m not the only one with this thought. Dr. Josue de Castro, who died in 1973, the year I was born, earned world renown for his writings and fieldwork dealing with the problem of widespread hunger in his native Brazil and, later, the world. His best-known book is Geografia da fome (The Geography of Hunger), one of the first serious studies of hunger as a means of keeping economies functioning and governments in power. I’ve only read parts of The Geography of Hunger. He wrote another, less well-known book though, Homens e caranguejos (Of Men and Crabs), which I have read in its entirety.

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I only discovered Of Men and Crabs because it was in a collection I bought from a flea market in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, and I have to admit that I decided to read it simply because it had crabs on the cover. Slung over a young boy’s shoulder on a rope, the crabs could easily give the boy some good pinches as they hang against his back, but they seem to be in on something together, corrivals in a battle against something far bigger than they are. The book itself is an affecting call to arms for the hungry Brazilian working class told through an account of a young boy’s life and death. The people survive, like the crabs they chase, by turning waste into sustenance. A paralytic leader observes the world through a mirror from his room; a leper only goes out at night, scavenging through his only friend, the river; and an old lady obsessively feeds her pig day and night in hopes of selling it to pay for her grandson’s confirmation jacket. The main character is young João Paulo, whom all the characters love in their own ways – a boy who literally becomes a crab.

Or something like that. Castro uses the crab as a symbol for the lower class, but also in a purely physical sense – the people, thoroughly defeated by a foreign sugar plantation that’s monopolized their town, are forced to sustain themselves on the crabs that share their roads, water, and hovels. But Cosme, João Paulo’s mirror-gazing paralytic friend who was economically emasculated by the sugar plantation owners, leads an armed uprising against both the plantation and the government in the final, climactic scene of the novel.  The uprising, to João Paulo, sounds like an approaching thunderstorm:

He started to run, zigzag, as do the crabs, trying to decide where the thunderclaps came from.

The entire battle assumes a surreal tone, where the struggle is with both the local armed forces and the river itself:

Running from one end to the other, the boy started to help load machine guns while the men aimed their weapons at the yellow spots of soldiers’ uniforms, which got confused sometimes with the yellowish leaves of the marsh on the other bank of the river.

Just as the soldiers are sublimated in the backdrop of the river, João Paulo goes missing from the narrative. The battle rages through the morning and into the afternoon, and no townsfolk notice the lost boy. But the reader is painfully aware, as this is the first time in the novel when the story isn’t told from his point of view. By nightfall the fighting is over, and the survivors look around and realize that no one knows if they’ve won or lost. It then dawns on them that the boy is missing. His mother asks the priest for reassurance, and he cryptically explains the boy’s disappearance:

That’s because this boy has always lived in intimate contact with the crabs, and his still unmolded child’s soul must have taken shape of the crab’s soul, and today, when João Paulo heard the storm, he must have gone out of his mind, just like the crabs when they hear thunder.

As the townsfolk search for the boy’s body in the river they pull up the bodies of soldiers, their mouths grinning, teeth bared, wielding their weapons like pincers. Many of them are already half-eaten by the crabs. But the townsfolk never find the boy. The ending, thoroughly ambiguous until the last paragraph, reveals the small triumph of the boy, in the middle of a war he cannot comprehend, finally consummating his relationship with the crab:

And the landscape of the marshes was now covered by a veil of darkness, a black shroud that extended over all the bodies of the defeated revolutionists. Somewhere among them, buried under the mangroves, lay the body of João Paulo, whose flesh in decay would nourish the mud, which, in turn, feeds the cycle of the crab.

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One has to eat a whole blue crab just once to understand where Castro got the idea of becoming one. The process is slow, meticulous, removing with each step a layer of the crab’s identity to get to its edible essence. First, you pop off its carapace, which I liken to cutting the head off a human: once the beautiful, two-pointed upper shell is off, a blue crab loses its character, its crab-ness, and simply becomes meat, shell, and entrails. You then turn the crab over and pull off its apron, a flap of shell that is long and phallic on a male, and round and ovular on a female. This leaves the crab’s central body cavity fully exposed, and you can scrape out its heart, gills, internal sexual organs, and other entrails, at which point all you have left is flesh and shell. This is when the ingestion begins. I like to first remove to claws and legs. The claws are eaten much like a lobster’s, cracking them open and removing the meat. Most people simply discard the spidery legs, as they’re so small and thin they don’t look like they could possibly contain any flesh. The thigh part of each leg does have a thin sliver, though. Most people consider it not worth the trouble, but any seasoned crab-eater – myself included – considers these little tidbits the second most prized pieces, if only for the difficulty of getting to them and the full satisfaction of eating every edible part of the crab. But the meat that is most prized by all crab eaters, novice or seasoned, is what remains – the lump. Canned crab is almost always lump meat, and crabcakes are generally made from lump meat as well. It’s the “lump” of meat that connects the crab’s rear flipper-leg to its body on either side, and unlike most of the other meat on a crab, which tends to have a film of brown connective tissue from the shell, the lump is pearl-white, and is the sweetest meat on any crab. Like an artichoke heart, it’s the soft, succulent center that you work through all the layers to get to – the essence of the organism.

As much as I enjoy eating crabs, sometimes I morbidly wonder what it would be like if the roles were reversed – if, perhaps, those crabs crawled up onto the pier en masse and ate me alive. This image of the helpless individual being ripped apart and consumed by a massive, bloodthirsty crowd has evolved into one of the central terrors of my life, echoed in Homer being torn apart by the angry mob in the climactic film premiere scene of The Day of the Locust and also the poor injured bird with a broken wing being swarmed and consumed by ghost crabs in the documentary Winged Migration. It’s hard to tell for certain where this fear originates – I was beaten up plenty as a child, but always one person at a time – but I do remember one possible source. In 1982, when I was nine years old, I went to see my first movie alone, The Dark Crystal. One of Jim Henson’s darkest visions, its New-Agey plot revolves around the seismic shift in cycles of the movie-world’s three suns, called The Great Conjunction. The last Great Conjunction, a thousand years before the time of the movie, saw the great crystal break, causing the godlike UrSkeks to similarly break into two earthbound sets of beings: the good, slug-like Mystics, and the evil, bird-like Skekses. The Garthim, multi-foot soldiers of the Skekses, are essentially giant crabs, silent creatures who swarm onto their prey and devour them like chicken drumsticks. But an even more haunting image of the film, the one that has stuck with me into adulthood, is the operation the Skekses use to stay alive until the next Great Conjunction. They have their Garthim gather pod people – the proletariat of the movie – and bring them alive to the bowels of their castle, where the Skekses use the crystal to distill their living essence, which they then ingest. Drained of their essence, the pod people shrivel up until they aren’t recognizable as people. When the Skekses drink the essence, their beaks brighten up and, just for a moment, they beam with the goodness that they lost a thousand years ago. But it’s only momentary, and soon they shrink back to their perverse, macabre forms. They need more. They always need more. That’s the way I feel when I eat blue crabs.

In order to eat blue crabs, you must of course first cook them. I sometimes clean them before cooking, popping their tops, removing the guts, and filling their central cavities with garlic and Old Bay or Zatarain’s – but sometimes I steam them alive, and I use a glass lid. I admit to taking some pleasure in watching them struggle – so brash and combative when they enter the pot, angrily clutching the tongs, indignant at having Old Bay sprinkled in their eyes; then settling into docile acceptance, burrowing into each other with the steamer screen protecting them (at first) from the rapidly heating water below; then in panic trying to climb on top of each other to get as far away from the vapor rising and entering them, separating their insides from their shells, which are turning from a deep, dark, living green to a bright, edible red; and then, as their bodies settle into a permanent steamy hibernation, their rear flipper-legs twitch rapidly, uncontrolledly, in a concentrated spasm that will be their last movement, as steam boils from each of their joints.  (In the interest of full disclosure, gentle reader, I should tell you that I’ve boiled three pots of crabs while writing this paragraph.)

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Where does it come from, this macabre joy at watching the death throes of these creatures that, in so many ways, I empathize with, even love? I’m now thinking about that dream I had, the one with the crabs and the catfish and the perfect little society they had below the surface of the water. Every box trap I pull up, every book that lines my shelves, every human relationship I cultivate – at open mic’s, in the world, on Facebook – is my own vain attempt at containing the life that is circulating, exploding around me. When I was a boy in North Lawrence, I kept multiple aquariums filled with creatures I’d caught in the Kansas River, as well as the ponds and rock quarries near my home. Each was a kingdom I dictated over, imposing my own anthropomorphic moral code on my subjects. I ruled my amphiminions with an iron fist. If a crawdad, for instance, hurt another crawdad, I would boil it alive. While I was collecting, assembling, enclosing all those wild, sentient beings into my own unformed, childish conception of the world, I was also opening and ingesting every book I could find, from my mother’s Flowers in the Attic series to my uncle’s Stephen King novels to whatever flotsam and jetsam drifted through my small world. I didn’t know it then, but I grew up thinking about the immortality of the crab.

Attic where the ancient dust assembles statues and moss.

Boxes that keep the silence of devoured crabs.

In the place where the dream was colliding with its reality.

My little eyes are there.

— From Federico Garcia Lorca’s “1910 (Intermezzo)”

To think about immortality is, by implication, to think about mortality. Nothing goes on forever, and there are in fact few things I did in my childhood that I still do now. I don’t go catfishing anymore. I just started crabbing after moving to New York City. It’s looking more and more like the bottom’s falling out of the antiquarian book market, as fewer and fewer people want books, at least the ones composed of ink and paper, the flesh and bone of the book trade. Even the crabs themselves may in fact prove to be imminently mortal, as the runoff from fertilizer and nuclear power plants has drastically reduced the size and number of crabs in New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay and soil pollution from long-closed nickel cadmium plants and paper mills has prompted the New York State DEP to issue eating advisories for the Hudson River.

But perhaps I’m thinking about all this too hard, or in the wrong direction at least. The crab I’m thinking about, the immortal, is the stuff of books, of dreams, of the imagination. It is this crab for whom death matters so much that it would give up its life so that others may live after it. This crab, like a grain of sand on the beach that looks out on the ocean’s endless horizon, is meaningless in and of itself as it is tossed along that merciless, endless ocean. But trap it, isolate it, take it from its habitat, and it becomes something quantifiable, the dream in tangible form.  Like a good book, or a work of art, or a song, this captured crab is the crossroads between dream and reality, and the only way we can get to it is to throw the steel traps of our minds out randomly into the boundless ocean of human discourse.

– John Proctor

  8 Responses to “The Immortality of the Crab: Nonfiction — John Proctor”

  1. John Proctor has always been a thinker. I remember him as my student at South Junior High in Lawrence, and I remember taking him home to North Lawrence after play practice from time to time. His love of books makes me think of a leather bookmark my father bought for me during WWII at Mount Vernon. He was stationed at Fort Belvoir with the Corps of Engineers and had a little outing to the famous mansion. On the bookmark is stamped: Books, like friends, should be well chosen.
    That advice has stood me in good stead through the years as I have accumulated good books and good friends and sometimes I cannot tell the difference between them.
    It makes me happy to know that John remembers his roots (although I think in North Lawrence they are called Sand Rats, not River Rats) and his fishing escapades.
    My Facebook friends are real to me, and I count John among them. I hope he counts me as his real, not virtual friend, too.
    I look forward to more writing from my friend, John Proctor.

  2. A wonderful, thought-provoking piece to wake up to, John. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, Mrs. Hills! That comment made my day.

    I should mention to everyone that Mrs. Hills was my eighth-grade mass media teacher; incidentally, I now teach media studies and communication theory. The play she refers to is A Christmas Carol, in which I played the child Ignorance. And she is correct that North Lawrence folks are also called sand rats, in reference the the huge sandbar on our side of the river. I used the term river rats to go along with the title of our annual reunion – for reasons I can’t begin to explain, the term is considered less derogatory than sand rats.

  4. Expertly woven themes, and the language sings – just lovely John.

  5. Lovely essay, John. Full of wonder and books. The best.

  6. Wonderful essay! Thank you!!!

  7. Beautiful words and images: from the beginning to the end.

  8. What a lovely stroll through your mind! Thanks, John.

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