Four or five times a week since 1984, eight hours a shift, Paul Lionell Dinet shucks oysters at Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Mr. Dinet had a birthday last November 12 and is now 84 years young. “Made 84 and workin’ here since ’84,” he quipped with a grin.
I spoke with him at the beginning of his shift: me with a pad and pen, and him surrounded by oysters being shucked for service. Hundreds and hundreds of oysters. “You see,” he explained, “when you have the lunch, you can’t be shucking for the whole dining room; you have to be able to get them oysters out fast to the table. We shuck them fresh, as close to opening as possible; people don’t wanna wait for them.”
We then settled down across a dining room table from each other—him with owl eyeglasses and an elfin smile, me not knowing where to start. He got up to get a glass of water. “Just finished my breakfast,” he said with a mild hiccup.
I had read in late November of 2017, where Ian McNulty did a wonderful and insightful story about “Mr. Paul” in The New Orleans Advocate, about Dinet’s life and times and where and how he came to be New Orleans’s oldest oyster shucker ([email protected]). Adding to that would only be redundant and not to mention plagiaristic; so, sorry readers, you’re gonna have to look that article up for yourself for some background on Mr. Paul. Believe me, not only is that article informative, but a damn good piece of reporting.
What Mr. Dinet and I talked about was more along the order of oyster shucking and how times have changed over the years since he began his employment.
We talked about oyster knives: “We usta make our own knives; my daddy made his own outta an old file and a broom handle,” he said. I related about how I had purchased my first knife at the French Market for “four bits” that sounded a lot like his daddy’s. He nodded sagely when I told him that when an oyster saw that knife, it practically opened itself up for me. “Eight years old, my daddy showed me how to open oysters with a hammer,” he explained. Nowadays, Mr. Paul uses the “stiletto,” while I am partial to the “bird’s beak” style of oyster knife. We both agreed that in opening an oyster, a person has to find what we call “the seat,” and once you’re in there, the oyster is yours. It’s a little spot right by the hinge, and to be properly opened, you have to start at the right spot. It’s a fact, we agreed, that the colder an oyster is, the easier it opens. “We keeps ‘em icey cold here,” Dinet said.
When asked how a person becomes an oyster shucker, he told me, “Well, anybody can be an oyster shucker; you just have to come in and get the job. I’ve trained many a shucker—some have it, some don’t. I like workin’ here; I get to meet a lot of different people. My father was Houma (Indian) and my mother came from Paris, France. I speak good French.” And then he said something to me in French that I just did not understand. I had laid down my pen and pad after the first five minutes, and we kinda just got to talking.
Felix’s has been at that location for over 70 years, and we spoke about the changes that we have seen just over the last 50 years in the French Quarter in general, and on Bourbon Street in particular (yes, I am that long in the tooth). How there “didn’t used to be so many young folks out there,” and “the music was different, too.”
“I like working days, though I’m not a night person. I like to come in and get the job done and then go on home. I got a son and a grandson living with me,” he told me. “My house went under water from Katrina, and we had to stay away until it got rebuilt; Road Home did the rebuilding and did a fine job.”
“No, I don’t eat oysters,” he added. “Well, maybe I’ll have one once in a while. But doctor’s orders: I gotta cut back on salt; bad for my heart. I cook at home—beans and greens and stuff, nothing fancy.”
We spoke together about his work history and how he lost his fingers in a dye press, but kept on working until he retired; how he was stationed in Germany during the Korean War and how much of the countryside he saw. “It’s pretty pretty over there. I never did see any action, though—just support work, y’see.”
Paul Lionell Dinet is not a boastful man, not a man to make a show. However, when you get to know—even for a short spell—a person who has such a colorful life, however low-key it may be kept, it’s natural for you to want to know the secret of his or her success. With all the uproar in the world, Mr. Dinet doesn’t follow much politics; he says, “It’s all bull****.”
Well, I want to know, “How did you manage to age to where you are, and what advice would you give a young man coming up?”
“Just stay away from trouble,” he says. “That’s all you have to do—just stay away from trouble.” From his mouth to God’s ears.
Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar is located at 208 Bourbon St./739 Iberville St. Visit felixs.com for more information.