Maria, an Eastern Market Matriarch

By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

One of the first words Capitol Hill children learn is "banana," probably because no child with teeth can pass by Eastern Market's Maria Calomiris without getting a piece of the fruit.

Calomiris, 70, and husband Chris, 84, have been giving bananas to children or a handful of summer's first cherries to their parents at Eastern Market since 1963. Chris Calomiris, who has retired, conducted business quietly and with a shy smile.

His wife also shows reserve, except with regular customers. Try to walk away without your free Medjool dates and you hear: "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Where you going? You gotta be my date." Many longtime patrons ("my beautiful, wonderful customers") are greeted with hugs and kisses. "Oh, my gosh," she says. "I love them and they love me."

This is not your average supermarket interaction.

Her husband's retirement gives Calomiris seniority at the 136-year-old market, scheduled to reopen Friday, two years after a devastating fire. She is a never-changing fixture. If she's not there, wearing an apron over a skirt and blouse, a pencil stuck over her ear for toting up charges on a paper bag, something is not quite right.

Her stature in the hall stretches beyond her barely 5-foot frame. The other merchants call her the matriarch of the market.

Melvin Inman, whose Market Poultry is the stall next door, calls her Mom. "Mom is the face of the market, the face of rationality and levelheadedness," he says. "She's always been good for my children." (They call her Mom, too.)

The matriarch seems in perpetual motion. If she's not helping customers, she's shelling peas or digging the seeds out of pomegranates. "She's always been the same: a very strong woman," says Angie Brunson, owner of Blue Iris Flowers, who has known her for 30 years. "She carries big bags of food, stands on her feet all day."

Apparently, Mayor Adrian Fenty is a Maria Calomiris fan. He had her cut the ribbon at the opening of the temporary market in August 2007, and he stops by for a hug when he's in the building. Leon, the youngest of her three children, says that when anyone on Fenty's staff is in the market, his mother quickly puts together a bag of fruit for the mayor.

Calomiris left her native Sparta at age 18. In Washington, she met Chris Calomiris, whose family also was from Sparta. He, however, had grown up on Capitol Hill.

Chris's father, Thomas, started the family produce business with a pushcart, then moved to Center Market, the largest of Washington's public markets, built in 1871. The market covered two city blocks and held about 700 food merchants. Another 300 local farmers rented stalls outside. The market was razed in 1931 and the National Archives was built on the site, at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Thomas Calomiris & Sons relocated to what was called the New Center Market, at Fifth and K streets NW. That was where Maria (also called Mary) went to work with her new husband.

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