PEPER COLUMN: Oysters way of life for 'Goat'
Ever met an oyster picker? Even know what one is? Victor "Goat" Lafayette has been pickin' oysters around James Island and the Folly River since he was 9 years old. He's now 70. There was no ceremony, no party, no parting gifts, but Goat retired from pickin' oysters at the end of last year.
His days of ploppin' into the pluff mud and digging those tasty morsels from the muck are over. His body can't take it anymore. Arthritis in the shoulder and swelling in the knees have forced Goat from the water. For years, he outworked younger men with his boat, his bucket and strong back. Most of that time, he supplied the Bowen and Bachman families with oysters for their restaurants. When he first started, a bushel of oysters was worth 50 cents. Today, a bushel might bring $18.
Growing up on Sol Legare Road on James Island, fishing, crabbing and oystering were all he knew. It wasn't until he started selling the buckets of bounty, though, that he realized this might put food on his own table.
Gullah, Geechee and Goat
Goat's got a great way of expressing himself. He'll not bowl you over with long sentences and wordy descriptions. His answers are to the point, like an oyster knife. Pickin' oysters is hard work, but it's honest work and Goat is proud of what he did and how he did it.
His thick island accent lingers like the briny, warm juice of an oyster when it's first shoveled from the fire. When asked how he deals with bad weather he replies, "if the weather good, we go that way. If the weather not good, we ain't goin'." Now, that's a plan for inclement conditions you can trust.
Goat's first customer was May Bowen. He sold his first oyster to Ms. Bowen when he was 9. Her grandson, Robert Barber, runs Bowen's Island Restaurant now. He was sorry to see Goat quit, saying, "We understand, but we're disappointed." There's a huge emphasis on eating local right now. From Goat's boat to the table was about as local as it gets.
Don't rock the boat
Goat got his nickname from some childhood friends. His buddies all had names. There was "Crammer," "Georgie-Porgie" and "Rank-eye." Goat says he got the best name of the lot and if asked how he'd prefer to be known now he says, "just plain ol' Goat."
There's very little that's plain about Goat. He enjoys laughing and if you're around him for a short time, you'll be laughing, too.
When asked if there are some secret spots he and only he knows about, he shakes his head and says it doesn't matter because "if you don't get there first, you ain't gonna get none." That's a pure "Goatism" right there and might be even a more profound but less-known saying about the early bird and the worm.
So how's retirement? Actually, he now gets up four mornings a week and works on a shrimp trawler. Goat says it's not easy work, but it's easier than pickin' oysters. Goat plans to ride this new career till he's 75.
When not hauling in the shrimp nets, he takes his 79-year-old uncle to the doctor and spends time with his 48-year-old girlfriend. (I'm pretty sure Georgie-Porgie might tease him 'bout that.)
As for doing anything differently, Goat just smiles and says "Why? This is what I do!"
I'm just sayin' …
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.