The Seagull and The New York System (Part 3)
Previously: The Scraggly Man has arrived in Portsmouth to interview "Diggah Dan" about the seagull Dan taught to deliver clams.…
“Dan looked like the kind of guy who didn’t say much as a general rule, but that afternoon, he was feeling garrulous, or perhaps thrilled, to be talking with a genuine newspaper reporter.
“He told me about his property, ‘We used to have a mansion here, but it blew away in a hurricane and all that was left was the outhouse. That was well made and already had indoor plumbing, so that’s where I live now.’
“And he told me all about clams, which was how he made his living.
“‘Clams are bivalves,’ he explained. ‘They open and close on a hinge, and they actually clean The Bay. They get their food by filter-feeding, which is to say they suck salt water in through a little tube, run it through their gills, and eat the little bits of algae and other organic goop. Then, they squirt the water out through another tube. A large quahog can filter about a gallon of water in an hour, twenty-four gallons a day, so it only takes a hundred- thousand or so clams to clean up any part of the Narragansett Bay.
“You can actually tell the age of a clam by its rings. The Indians – Narragansetts, Wampanoag, and such – they used to use the purple part of clam shells as money called wampum. Scientific name is mercenaria mercenaria, which is Latin for wages, and probably comes from the whole wampum thing. The Rhode Island clam is called a quahog, which comes from the native word, poquauhock. But if you ever see a black clam, or sucki- poquahock, throw it back, because that’s the death clam.’
“We went into the woods behind Dan’s house, along a path, and down a hill. I trotted behind him, writing down everything in my notebook. The trees thinned as we came to a little sand and pebble beach, empty except for a white five-gallon plastic bucket full to the brim with seawater and clams.
“‘Cyril dug those,’ Dan said, his crevassed face breaking into a proud smile. ‘The hardest part was getting him to drop them into the bucket or give them to me, rather than break them open on the rocks.’
“This hardly seemed possible, and I was about to raise my objections, when Dan said, ‘You wanna see?’
“I nodded, and then jumped as Dan made a caw-honking noise that sounded like someone had stomped on an old- fashioned, red rubber hot water bottle. He made the sound a few more times, and a minute later these three seagulls appeared, floating just offshore above the bay.
“Dan caw-honked again, and the biggest of the three swooped in and landed right on my shoulder.
“‘Ah-huh,’ Dan said. ‘That’s Cyril. He likes you.’
“Frankly, I was terrified. I don’t know if you’ve ever been up close and personal with a big bird, but Cyril’s eyes were not human. They stared at me, like they were wondering if I’d make good eating.
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