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Black History Month Thoughts: Crackin' crab and thinkin' about Diamond Joe

If you know me personally, you may know I love seafood. I also love preparing and cooking seafood for my friends and family. It's currently Dungeness crab season here in northern California and I've been crackin' some tasty crab, listening to the blues, and thinking about how much of what I know I was taught by one man, Diamond Joe Robinson.

When I was in my early 20s I worked in the seafood department of a grocery store in the South Bay Area. Although I learned a bit from all my coworkers, I probably spent the most time Diamond Joe (that is, as far as I know, his legal name). At the time, around 2001 or 2002, he was about 60 years of age. Originally from Arkansas, he was about 6' 2" in height, and I believe he had played football in his youth. Dark brown skin, eyes going blue from cataracts behind clear metal-framed aviator glasses. His voice was rough and gravelly, with a timbre somewhat like Howlin Wolf. Many people in the store had trouble understand his speech because of his vocal quality and his vernacular dialect (African American Vernacular Dialect or AAVE). I understood him fairly well, though not all the time.

When I first met Joe, he was suspicious of newly hired workers. I had been hired to replace another employee who was transferring departments. That employee, we'll call him Dick, talked a lot of crap about Joe before I met him, and I was a little wary. Joe was wary of me because he didn't like how Dick did things and was afraid I'd learned the wrong things. "Everybody who come in new wanna change shit ain't gotta be changed," he told me. But it didn't take long for Joe and I to start getting a long, especially after I started playing an Elmore James CD while we were closing the department after closing time.

Over the next year or so I worked side by side with Joe for many hours. Sometimes we'd work a shift together, sometimes I'd work after him. He told me a lot of stories, some of which I remember and perhaps will relate another time, about his rough and tumble life. Joe was quite charming, and although he clearly didn't like some people, was overall a cheerful person. He claimed he had once done stand-up comedy in a manner similar to Redd Foxx. He also looked out for those people he liked. Once, when I wrapped some fish up for Dick, I didn't do a good job and Dick chastised me for a sloppy job saying, "That's not how I taught you." I don't remember what else was going on, I think maybe I was distracted or not feeling my best because of something else, but Joe saw this encounter and when Dick left Joe told me, "Don't worry about that guy, he's a ASSHOLE." Joe's brother-in-law worked in the meat department, and sometimes Joe's wife would come in to pick things up from her husband or her brother. One day I overheard a coworker of about my age (a white, preppy-looking guy who worked in another department) gossiping about Joe and his wife. He said some pretty mean things about Joe's wife's appearance. The very next day this same dude was acting friendly to Joe's face. I told Joe, "That guy is grinning in your face, but he was talking shit about your wife yesterday." Joe called the guy over to the seafood department. Joe was sharpening a large knife and asked him, "You talkin' shit about my wife? You call my wife ugly?" Oh, the look on that guy's face!

I think about Joe a lot, as he taught me how to crack crab, shuck oysters, and cook fish. I don't know if he's still alive, or where he lives now, or if he would even remember me. But I wouldn't be who I am today without Diamond Joe Robinson.

Me in 2017 cracking crab at home. Photo by J. Rose.

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