Once upon a time Washington had a waterfront, such as it was, one that worked for a living and was alive and smelled pretty bad.
There were beaches, even. Presidents would stroll down the hill through Foggy Bottom to the riverbank and go skinny dipping. Georgetown was a port. Maine Avenue was a lot of hurty-burly and a certain amount of hugger-mugger. You could suck sweet salty, slippery oysters on the veranda of the New England Raw Bar and watch the folks - black folks mainly, who in those days were not welcome in the restaurants - getting their fried shrimp and steamed crabs and fries at the Cadillac Carryout. Urchins danced for the coins customers tossed down. Certain things were for sale that could not be consumed in public, but there were always policemen around to keep the action from growing too flagrant.
At the old Flagship (the old old Flagship), parents would-stand in line with growing irritation because the kids insisted they had to have one of the tables on the boat deck.
In the cavernous and reeking Municipal Fish Market you could get a nice piece of fish for a good price, and the fishmonger would tell you where it came from, and when, and how to cook it. It you liked, he would argue with you.
The city is all but walled off from the river now. The Whitehurst Freeway seals off Georgetown, and if the tax-hungry city fathers have their way the remaining gap under our bastard Embarcadero will soon be sealed with high-rises. The Kennedy Center left a tiny grass strip along the river but it's worth your life to get there. There is more grass along Ohio Drive and Hains Point, if grass is what you're looking for, but across Washington Channel they've turned the working waterfront into parking lots and restaurants that seem designed more to control mobs than to attract crowds.
But it isn't all bad news. Tucked in between a pair of yacht clubs, hard by the pillars of the Southwest Freeway, there remains the Municipal Wharf and its fish-boats. It's a lot cleaner than it was before the city made them tear down the shacks on the dock and go back to selling from boats, although it smells pretty fishy come a warm day. You can still get a nice piece of fish along with its pedigree and, if you like, and argument from one of the proud Chesapeake Bay watermen who control the trade like their fathers before them.
"Fresh?" said Clay Bowser in response to an East Indian customer who asked about the rockfish (striped bass) arrayed on ice at the Custis & Brown boat. "If they was any fresher you'd need a loin to get 'em." Although he was born in New England, Bowser has lived long enough in Accotink on Virginia's Eastern Shore to pick up the waterman's way of pronouncing the long "i" sound as "oi," as in "Toim and toid wait for no man." Except that a Shoreman would say "neither man."
"All our fish is fresh except for the croakers," Bowser said. "Ran short of croakers and had to go to frozen."
Bowser had a long discussion with customer, who had arrived in a black sedan bearing diplomatic tags but displayed a most undiplomatic skepticism of everything Bowser said. At length, after inquiring about almost everything on display, the man bought a few dollars worth of weakfish (see trout).
"No, I don't moind haggling," Bowser said as the man drove away. "A lot of our customers are from Asia and South America and Europe, and bitter-and-barter is the way it's done there. You go into a shop and if you don't haggle with the man he's got no respect for you." Bowser spent three year in Vietnam and speaks the language, which has built him a steady trade among refugees resettled in the Washington area.
The bargaining is part of the charm of the Maine Avenue market, and often items can be had for less than the posted price. While most of the men - women are almost never seen on the boats - are employees of this owner, they are also generally his friends, neighbors or relatives. They are not clerks answering to supermarket stockholders in Omaha, and if they feel like it, or you're buying in quality, or it's getting late, or you just talk an engaging line of trash, they will make a deal.
The days are long since gone when fish were sold off the boats that caught them. Everything comes in by refrigerated truck now, which saves as much as two days of shipping time. Selling from the boats is not an attempt at deception, it simply allows the vendors to operate under an older, gentler set of city regulations.The men work the boats in rotation, a week on and one off.
Although this is a more or less slow season on the wharf, the variety of fresh seafood offered one recent day included eel, catfish, bluefish, spot, mullet, porgy, butterfish, sea trout, hardhead (croaker), flounder, perch, rockfish, haddock, red snapper, ling cod and king mackerel. Chincoteague oysters live or shucked, scallops, hard and soft clams, whelks and blue mussels. There were live crabs, sooks or jimmies, Bay crabs still, although they're fast going into deep-water hibernation, and packed claw or body meat or backfin lump. Also offered were frozen king and softshell crabs and thawed shrimp in three sizes.
"Fresh shrimp?," Bowser said, "Hardly ever. All the shrimp you get anywhere in the East is frozen. I don't care what anybody tells you. The only fresh ones you can find are green shrimp from North Carolina, and they don't sell. They taste as fine as any to me, but people are put off by the color."
The vendors are not offended when customers poke, prod and sniff the fish. "That's how you tell what you're getting," Bowser said, "But you have to know what you're doing.
"People will look for clear eyes and red gills, but if the fish was gill-netted the eyes will be clouded and the gills pale because they drowned. And firmness doesn't always count, because some fish are soft-bodied. But the smell is pretty good test. Shouldn't be strong at all."
He vouched for his live oysters as genuine Chincoteagues - as did every other vendor on the wharf. "Yes, they still finish a lot of bay arsters at Chincoteague (submerging them in the salty occeanside marshes to fatten and flavor up), but we don't handle those. Your saltwater arster is fairly easy to tell: it is longer and narrower and the shell will be rougher. Four months in saltwater isn't going to change the shell of a bay arster, it will still be round like it came from Long Island Sound."
Three Spanish-speaking gentlemen, dressed to the nines in faintly gangsterish pinstripes, were hassling Newton Brown over the price of eels. "Yes they're hoigh (70 cents a pound)," he said. "We sell hoigh because we boiy hoigh. This time of year they ship them all to Europe because they get so much more for them over there. No Sir, got to sell 'em whole, whole eel or neither." They bought.
Food stamps are welcome on the wharf, as many signs proclaim, and the vendors seem to display endless patience with the many elderly welfare recipients who ponder long before buying little. One old man found himself a few cents short of the price of the smallest catfish at Captain Red's boat.
"That's near enough," the man behind the counter said cheerfully. Then turning his back, he slipped a larger fish into the bag and handed it to the man. "Y'all come see us again," he called out as the old man shuffled away.