The sun was fading on Wingaersheek Beach, the Pringles had turned to dust, and it was dinnertime. The next move was clear, at least at first: Woodman’s of Essex for a lobster roll. But this year?
“Maybe they’re not even open,” my husband said sourly. “Maybe we should just eat at home.”
I’m so glad we didn’t.
Woodman’s is open. And, yes, the operation is different. We phoned in our order from the beach parking lot, getting through on the sixth — sixth! — ring. A remarkably patient woman issued instructions. First, we would receive a text that our food was being prepared. Next, we would receive a text that our meal was ready and to drive toward the door. Do not leave the vehicle. Roll down the window to receive your order. Don’t loiter in the parking lot. Was a half-hour OK? It was. I gave her my credit card number.
We drove through Essex to kill some time; it was like driving through a town in miniature, one of those props on a kid’s model train tracks. The restaurants were quiet; the boats bobbing on the water looked like empty toy ships. The antique shops were dark. There were a few people in masks outside of DownRiver Ice Cream. Friday night at 6:30. Where were we?
Woodman’s was dark, too, at least from afar. I’d never been there without a line. That line — the slapping of the screen door, the yakking complainers, the rogue children, the hungry masses with poor understanding of personal space — is part of its seasonal charm. It affirms that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, like waves cascading onto the shore. It is summertime, and the gravitational pull for any New Englander toward a seafood shanty is inexorable.
But there was no line. There were no crowds. We turned into the parking lot and kept going until … ah, here they were. Lines of cars, spaced appropriately, drivers waiting in their vessels for their moment. Several groups had set up chairs, a tailgate of sorts, balancing clam rolls with the trunks open. We pulled alongside them until our summons came, sci-fi meets seafood.
When it did, we rolled up to a side door. Inside, lines of teenagers in masks and gloves lined up grease-soaked brown bags, yanking tickets with assembly-line precision. Imagine this as your first summer job. My husband cracked the window and pulled up his face covering for the exchange. A young woman in blue plastic gloves handed over our bounty as though it were the most natural thing in the world. For her, it was.
We ripped open the bag, and the world was the same. The onion rings, limp with oil. The cardboard seafood boats, quaking under the weight of the fries and scallops. The lobster roll, piled higher than I remember (did they feel sorry for us?); plastic tubs of tartar sauce, more than we’d ever need. The greasy perfume of summer filled the air.
We ate it on our laps, cruising back down Route 95. Was it the same? Nope. In fact, such an expedition might seem alienating. But there’s something earnestly good faith about waiting in line and obeying, step by step alongside everyone else, to grab a piece of something once so familiar. Who would have guessed that those lines could ever be tamed? And the lobster roll was as good as it ever was.
So if you’re hungry, please don’t turn around to eat at home. Visit your favorite restaurant. It might be different, but they’re open. They’re trying hard. And, hopefully, the food still tastes the same.
Woodman’s of Essex, 119 Main St., Essex, 978-768-6057, www.woodmans.com