I was reading a story in the newspaper this morning about the decline of a family business after 135 years due largely to forces beyond the owner’s control. The specific business was P&J Oysters of Louisiana, but it hardly matters the specifics — it could have been one of almost any of the father and son businesses that used to dot our collective consciousness in our specific places. Be it P&J in Louisiana, Ottomanelli and Sons Meat Market in the West Village, or the you-name-it-in your-town shoemaker, the small family business as it passed from father to son (or maternally) was the lifeblood of local American commerce. It was a connection through the generations, a continuity — this name, this place, this product — it still means something; still evokes something.
The case of P&J was particularly heartbreaking, in that the businesses was struck with tragedy after tragedy, from Katrina to the BP Oil Spill, and now, the opening of the Morganza Spillway, which will flood freshwater into the oyster beds, leading to a mortality rate of 50 percent. This is devastating news to a company who has already had to abandon using only locally sourced Louisiana oysters for a combination of Louisiana and Texas oysters. A company that had to lay off everyone who was not immediate family. And a company that was grooming a son to take over a businesses that had been passed down from his great grandfather; that son now sits in a hospital, at 25, battling depression as he sees his legacy, and all that he has ever known, lie on the verge of extinction.
Nothing lasts forever. We all know that. We all accept that, some more than others. And I don’t think it is the change itself that scares us, but the rate of change, the ground that stood firmly for so long now constantly shifting under our feet. The institutions of our youth not surviving into our adulthood, the technologies of last year already obsolete, and the values we thought immutable now relative, we are navigating on uncharted waters. The same waters that P&J find no longer nourish the food that they have harvested for 135 years and expected to harvest for 135 more.
Yet amidst the change we still have things. More things than we have ever had before. We are drowning in things, and the things we have our constantly being replaced, exponentially, by the next best thing. Yet while the next best thing may be the object of desire, at least temporarily, it is not the object of yearning. No one yearns for the fruits of impermanence, the technology of yesteryear. Instead, it is the spirit of what is lost they desire. Not the ’57 Chevy, but the freedom that came with it. Not the rotary phone, but the sense of wonder that was felt on a first phone call. Not the letter, but the tangibility of something you could save, put in a box for your grandchildren to discover when the time was right.
And not P&J the business, but P&J the institution. The commitment. And the continuity of family. This is what is lost when a young man sits despondent in a hospital ward somewhere in Louisiana. And this is what BP and the US Government doesn’t understand that all the money in the world can’t fix.