The first time I ever met my stepfather-to-be doubled as the first time I ever dined at Bill's Seafood, a Westbrook staple nestled atop both Route 1 and the water.
In fact, when my latest book, "Route One Food Run," was released this time last year I went through all of the things writers do when their work is finally on bookstore shelves: I immediately lamented what I'd left out while simultaneously questioning what I left in. The book is a love letter to eateries both legendary and perhaps soon-to-be-legendary on Route 1, from here in Connecticut up to Maine.
Bill's got brought up in conversation and I recalled (wrongly) it as being somewhat off the beaten path. Ya know - by "the singing bridge" and all that. When I was informed that it is indeed right there on the Boston Post Road, I could not believe I had managed to leave such a gem out. My bad. But, hey, a handful of the places I included have gone out of business since the book's release...
Bill's began as an ice cream shop in 1950. A local schoolteacher is to thank for that, according to the story. Soon they added hot dogs to the menu, and then one day it was suddenly a clam shack, the crunching gravel beneath patrons' flip-flops was a sound as common as the calling seagulls.
By the time I visited it for the first time in the late ’80s, some 40 years later, it had become iconic.
But this New Haven boy had never even heard of it before. Bill’s was where my mother had said this new man in her life would like to take us to dinner, and to meet me for the first time.
I recall the drive out there, circa 1989 or so, in disbelief that I was on my way to meet a suitor of my mother's (her first and only since divorcing my father) and that the guy couldn't pick a place a bit more cognizant of my Morris Cove address and gas-guzzling Camaro.
He assured me some of the best seafood I'd ever eat was coming my way, and that the jazz band would finish off blowing my mind. I was not necessarily a fan of either. Clam strips are all I do on the seafood front (along with the occasional Ipswich littlenecks), and if the jazz guitarist's solo veered towards '80s hair metal for at least a few seconds every now and again I could handle the jazz.
A feast awaited as I entered, the food already ordered, and there was no jazz band in sight. Rather, there was a quartet of geriatrics taking jug band to the next level. The place was insane, overcrowded and understaffed, yet that crowd was overjoyed.
Mom's new man's incredulousness with regard to my disliking of seafood was the focal point of the first half hour of our time together, easily. From fried calamari to stuffed shrimp, my repeated - and polite - declining of what was being offered wasn't going down nearly as easy as his vodka and soda. So, Caesar salad and a stuffed clam it was, and that stuffed clam just baffled him.
"How can you like that but none of this other food? It's delicious!" he shouted above the din of guitar strumming and jug-blowing.
"I really only like clams," I told him. "I'm surprised my mom didn't tell you that."
She mouthed the words to me that she certainly had told him that, but with eyes that I felt if implied I could at least choke down a fried shrimp, by way of a favor. That wasn't going to happen.
He asked me if I'd like a vodka myself and I accepted, but instructed him to swap out the soda for some orange juice. The incredulousness returned. He asked if I'd like for him to see if he could get an umbrella put in the drink. But in a funny way, and I responded that I thought that would be "transportive."
"Huh?" this portly gentleman in his early 60s sought to clarify.
"It'll make me feel like I'm on a tropical island," I explained, even while the band was finishing up a number and raking in the applause.
"Who needs one?" he admonished. "Look around. Look at the water. Beautiful." He sat down and put his arm around my mother.
So I did. Look around, I mean. Seeing my mommy in this guy's warm embrace made that easy to do.
But he was right. The view of the Patchogue River was breath-taking, and boaters seeking moorings were waving frantically from immaculate vessels, both small and large, as if seeing friends they hadn't in ages. As the night went on I came to realize that this was not the case; boaters are simply prone to wave to landlubbers, the salt water bringing out an inexplicable exuberance.
Meanwhile, a hard sell had begun as far as the fried oysters were concerned - the logic being that if I enjoyed fried clams I'd surely enjoy these. I didn’t bother with the whole belly versus strip debate, but opted instead to appease mom’s eager-to-please date, who I was certain would be gone by Christmas. I lobbed that sucker into my mouth, prepared to chew like a pitcher on the mound and pretend to enjoy. But it was, in fact, delicious!
He was so genuinely happy to see me popping them into my mouth, one by one, that he began raving above raw Russian ones that I'd need to try next time we ventured out this way - which I suppose would be considered a collusion of sorts these days.
The band began banging around as they readied their next number, and that's when mom's suitor informed one of the players that I kept a harmonica in my car. To this day I've no idea how he knew that, or why I even did for so many years. The man helming the jug demanded I go fetch it and accompany them for their next song. I politely declined, teasing that I didn't want to "steal anyone's thunder."
This musician of 75 or so, easily, locked eyes with me, and with the gentlest smile I'd ever seen said, "Listen to me. One cannot steal what is being freely given. Never forget that."
And we jammed. And I never did forget that. And mom's suitor wasn't gone by Christmas. By then he was her husband.