Most people know Washington's popular images: the strong and stern Abraham Lincoln, the cool and powerful White House, the dark and somber Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But there's another image of Washington -- one that's dirtier, less aesthetic, more colorful and possibly, more real: the fish market on Maine Avenue SW.
Chances are you've peered over the bridge, crossing the Potomac River from Virginia as you've rounded Interstate 395, and looked below at the scene. From there, it might look like just a parking lot on the water. But from the ground, you get an eye-to-eye view of whole rows of fresh fish on ice, their puckered mouths drooping open.
The whole point of the fish market, of course, is to provide Washingtonians with fresh seafood: crabs, shrimp, flounder, catfish. You can buy a whole tuna for about $25 or a dozen crabs for about $13. But more than just the fish, the market offers a new and different D.C. experience.
Clarence Goodman has worked at the market since 1971. The Eastern Shore native has a long gray ponytail and a gruff, weathered voice. His customers, he says, are "part of our fan club." He loves his job, which entails 13- to 15-hour days. "I've been in crabs all my life," he says.
By lunchtime on the weekends, the small space is teeming with people and character. It has sort of a carnival vibe: red and blue awnings, sellers trying to grab potential customers' attention, live crabs crawling over one another and a giant plastic captain over Captain White's Seafood City, "Chesapeake Bay's Finest." (Don't let the sign fool you. Much of the seafood comes from elsewhere, such as North Carolina and the Gulf of Mexico.) Visitors can eat crab cake sandwiches ($6.45 for lunch, $8.45 for dinner) standing at the wooden bar that looks out to the Potomac and Hains Point. At Jimmy's, bakers make carrot cake and pumpkin, strawberry and coconut custard pies. (To order a piece, you'll have to bend over and lean into the window. In other words, not the best time to sport that tank top, ladies.)
You don't have to love fish to enjoy the informal character of the place that sits just a walk away from the Tidal Basin, where the Thomas Jefferson Memorial stands. It's another side of Washington that you might not get to see too often.
-- Moira E. McLaughlin (Friday, Sept. 5, 2008)