The man with the Napoleon III mustache had a plane to catch. He was an engineer from Morrison County, Minnesota, and was flying back to his home state that morning. His baggage would include live crabs and oysters bought on a hundred-year-old Chesapeake Bay dredge boat, the Wayne Christy, Flagship of a permanently moored fleet.
Burley Custis, captain of the Wayne Christy, had made his first sale of the day. It was early in the morning. As Napoleon III walked off, a refrigerator truck backed up to the boat's railing, ice water spilling from under its thick double doors. Two men in visored caps jumped out of the truck, swung open the doors, and pulled out the merchandise, wicker baskets heaped with clams and wriggling crabs.
"Burley, you wanna look at these?" one of the fellows asked, hoisting a basket of cherrystone clams onto the deck. "You ain't got no good cherries on her?" Burley Custis asked, and kicked the basket. "When they're bad, they got a hollow sound to 'em," he explained, tapping one clam, then another. "When they close up when you hit 'em they're okay. They're still alive."
"OK, Jim they'll go."
The Maine Avenue fish market is located at 12th Street and Maine Avenue, Southwest, just out from under the elevated Southwest freeway, where pigeons perch in the green girders, and down the hill from L'Enfant Plaza. If you look under the elevated freeway, you can see the tip of the Washington Monument.
The wharf is a living anomaly, a stubborn enclave whose occupants refused to budge when Southwest was torn down, redesigned and largely rebuilt two decades ago. Architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith admits with unfeigned admiration that the fish vendors were unmovable and that "we just had to build around them."
Burley Custis, whose crewcut, square jaw and sunglasses make him look like a character out of Terry and the Pirates, lit a cigarette as two Vietnamese women, pretty and shy, were looking at crabs.
"Got eggs on her, lady," he said, showing the lady a female crab.
"Ah ha," she replied, and moved down the rail to look at squid.
Burley followed her to the squid with his eyes as he explained the rhythms of his business:
"In the winter, when the wind comes down from the northwest and blows hard, the tide goes down. Lotta times it's so low you can't see the fish on the boat without stepping up and looking down. Wintertime's slow, usually -- we sell mainly clams and oysters; then in the spring and summer crabs are the big items."
At 46 Burley Custis is the boss by natural right and organic succession.
"Been here 30 years," he said, "got a early start. I started at 16, working for my uncles, who were already in the business. In the old days, the fish came in weekly, on the boats. Now, the trucks bring it in fresh every day."
According to Nelson Rimensnyder, legal historian for the House District Committee, there have been markets down here "since the beginning of the city, around 1800."
There were wharves where the 14th Street Bridge now stands, and one at 6th Street SW. The sailboats that brought fish up from the Bay often left with a different cargo: runaway slaves.
The sun was hot on the wharf by noon. Delivery trucks were driving up, and produce was being unloaded by men in sunglasses and caps with legends on them like "Cookin' good," "Big numbers to you," and "Teddy Bear's Cream of the Crop."
A middle-aged black couple was shopping around. The man looked like a mixture of bon vivant and intellectual: trimmed beard, a black turtle-neck with some sort of pendant, and sunglasses. He introduced himself as Chester Thomas.
"When I was a kid in the late '20s and '30s, the boats used to come up. There were many more boats than now. They used to sell fish by the bunch or bushel. The hucksters used to come down with their horses and wagons and line up down here. They'd buy wholesale from the guys down here and go out into the city and sell them . . . It was always a treat for kids to come to the wharves."
Thomas' wife interrupted with a practical note: "We come here because there's a better variety of fish."
Thomas continued: "The wharf used to run 24 hours a day and was as active at midnight as it was at noon. Back when I was a kid, Washington pulled in its sidewalks early. You could always come down here and get a crab cake sandwich or whatever, and there were people walking all over the place, just like it was daytime.
"We come here about three times a month," he went on. "Being Catholic, we never got over not eating fish on Friday," and started on that subject when his wife walked off to make a final purchase.
The subject then switched abruptly.
"Listen," he said, "back in the '30s this was the place to come with a girl, if you had a girl. You could come down here, get a filet of haddock on a giant piece of bread, and the bread couldn't even cover it. With everthing on it: coleslaw, relish, the works, for 15 cents. Sodas were five cents. Then, just drive around the corner to Hains Point, if you were driving, and you had it made for 35 cents."
He laughed, a throaty laugh that took in the circling gills, the sunlight on the jetty, and a long-gone youth filled with pleasant times at Hains Point. Then his wife came back.
"I'm willing to let nostalgia go to the point of modernizing this place," intoned Chester Thomas. "They can have boats for nostalgia's sake."
Nostalgia is a large part of the wharf's appeal, especially to the foreigners who make up a very large part of its regular clientele. These customers, often Third Worlders from Asia, Africa and South America, feel more at home in this open-air market.
The fish vendors seem to understand them, too. Their own setup is patriarchal: of the 10 people working for Burley Custis, many are relatives or in-laws, and most are from the Eastern Shore. They work nine-day shifts, sleep in bunks on the boats at night, and then return to the Eastern Shore for five days. Their work consists mainly of selling fish which they buy from middle-men or from the fishermen themselves.
Nan is Korean, 30 years old. She lives near Landover Mall, and it takes her 40 minutes to drive in to the fish market. She is, she says, "a regular once in a while."
She laughs. "Yeah, buy fresh fish. We buy fish from Giant, but not too fresh. Same price, but more fresh here. Lotta kind of fish here. Lots of Koreans like this place. We enjoy buy things. Call friends, say, 'Let's go to fish market.'"
One of Burley's sons was hosing down some rubber mats on the dock.
Bill Custis is 22. He dropped out of high school to go to work for his father and got married to a schoolmate at 16. He has been married six years and has two children. He says about his job:
"It's the only thing I've ever done in my life; it's the only thing I know."
What about his life on the wharf?
"We get up most time around 7 a.m., shoot the breeze with the fellas on the dock over a cup of coffee; around 8 a.m., we start settin' up. Settin' up contains a lotta different things, such as gettin' things together in the most desirable way to the public. Sometimes, we set up two or three times.
"Try to make it like home here," says Bill.
One of Custis' hucksters, who looks like he belongs with Sha-Na-Na, loped up at this point, thumbs hooked into his jeans pockets.
"Man here wants three sacks of clams. Where they at?"
"All we got's them big chowder clams," answered Bill, and putting down his scrub brush, he picked up the hose that had been running silently onto the pavement of the wharf.
"I have some stories," Bill began in his quiet way. "It was last fall, end of October, getting a little chilly. A customer came up and dropped his keys over the sea wall. The wind was comin' in from the west, pushin' the boat against the dock. He said he was going after them. I told him he was crazy, he'd never find 'em, he might get hurt by the boat knockin' up against the wall, but he jumped in, right up to his neck, reached down and brought 'em out. I never said a word, just walked away. He was just a lucky man."
Bill looked at me, expressionless. His audience secure, he obliged with another.
"An old colored fella came up once. He had a snappin' turtle in a basket. A customer walks up, he was drunk, you know, celebratin' Friday night, and puts his finger in. Turtle bit off the whole last joint of his index finger. He believed it was a snapping turtle in there after he did that."
It was 3 in the afternoon. Business picked up on the dock, backlit by the afternoon sun. A lady with white-blond hair was looking daintily around, among the porgies and sea trout. From the end of the wharf, on the side where Captain White's was, you could see the trains move slowly on the other side of the river, below the highway. Seagulls, white and brown, were picking at dead fish on the Potomac and communing. Beer bottles, Coke cans, and a light bulb floated near the Sue Constance.
The Wayne Christy, Burley Custis' boat, was doing brisk business at this point, but the guy in the ducktail was having problems of his own. Cradling a phone receiver against his shoulder and weighting a sea bass at the same time, he enunciated his position, loudly, to someone calling from the Eastern Shore:
"I wouldn't get Billy Graham outta jail for $700, hard as I work."
It seemed his friends were appealing to him for bond money, a frequent occurence.
"I got him out last week, I'll be goddamned if I'm gonna get him out this week."
Burley Custis was impassively examing a newly arrived basket of crabs.
"I paid $32 for this batch," he said, kicking the basket. All the crabs started moving in it. He looked pleased. Sha-Na-Na was still on the phone.
"What? Yes I'm serious. Serious as a heart attack!"
A beautiful, beautifully pregnant young woman was looking over the stand. Burley Custis, wreathed in smiles, was all ears.
"You got some crabs?"
"$3.50 a dozen. Give you 15."
"Are they alive and kicking good? Make sure they can't get out of there."
Those crabs were doing the sideways boogie like the Famous Flames.
Across the wharf, there's a stand set up against the tide on the high ground next to the parking lot. Captain White's boys man this one. In the shade of several yellow-fringed umbrellas, they bantered with the customers, two giddy black nurses and a precise, middle-aged redhead in a string of pearls, raincoat and high heels.
"May I have about half a pound of flounder, please?" the redhead inquired. Two little Chinese boys, about eight years old, dressed in identical leather jackets, were sipping sodas at one end of this stand and trying to look as tough as possible.
The two nurses were exuberant. Asked if they were regulars, one of them laughed and said, "Sure. They know us real well. Look at them lookin' at us, how they smile."
"I got some crabs the other day. Had a little Scotch in the car. You know what happened. Crabs all over the place." They laughed uproariously, and left recommending a visit to the Capitol Hill Hospital. "Excellent food, A-1. More patients every day."
Captain White's boat, the Lonie Buren, at the very end of the dock on the 12th Street side of the wharf, has a public address system, and the man at the mike hawks his fish like a county fair barker:
"Over 30 varieties of seafood!
"Come right on down -- our prices cannot be beat!
"The lowest prices to pay, you better come down today.
"I'm telling you, we got the lowest prices around,
"You better shop around,
"Captain White he give you sweet as honey,
"He give you cash money . . . "
"When I'm finished here," says Billy White, heir to the captain, taking in his outfit with a rhetorical sweep of the arm, "I'm gonna be pulling' 'em off the bridge." He is remodeling his three-ship fleet, installing giant freezers and streamlining his logistics. This fall, there will be a grand re-opening of White's by its Young Turks. Says Billy White, with a visionary gleam: "Our business will be renamed Seafood City."
The one establishment that does not operate out of a boat is Morgan's, which is also the wharf's only black-owned and operated outfit. The interior of Morgan's is fairly basic: a few shells line the walls as decor, and there is a Chinese calendar near the garbage disposal, whose regular rattle and grind provides a permanent background din. The crew, half a dozen black men and women, and Julio, a Guatemalan, seem busy as a rock band.
"When I came down here I didn't know anything about seafood," says Ricky Morgan, Morgan's aggressive young manager. "A lot of people thought we weren't gonna make it, but now that we have proved that we can, everybody gets along."
". . . No, not for poaching," a woman's voice, carried across from Captain White's. She was engaged in a lively discussion with the Public Address System Poet, who had taken a break from his "Odes to Fine Fish" to work the counter.
"I am doing a buffet for 25 people."
"I don't have either one of 'em right now," said the fish poet, prosaically. "That's the best I can do for a big fish."
He showed her a mackerel, an entirely new poem forming behind his eyes, a limerick perhaps.
When asked to describe his life, one of the old-timers had said: "It's the same old fisherman's story: a hungry gut and a wet behind. Hard work, that's all."
Hard work is right. While they are "on," the fish vendors work 15-hours days; they make about " $300 a week -- cash," according to Roy Isdell, one of the young hands on Captain Red's.
"Sounds like a lot of money, at first," Bill Custis pointed out, "but not to a young boy." Roy's friend Ray concurred: "Monday night we spent $150 in just two hours over on F Street. Just three head of us."
"Besides," adds Billy, "they only get paid for when they work."
Why do they keep working at the docks? Bill Custis says, "There's not that much to do down there (on the Eastern Shore). You can work for Frank Perdue's or Holly Farms (chicken farms) for $2.50 an hour or you can work on the water. On the water, some days you make $50, some days you make $5. And you gotta have a boat."
But the Eastern Shore is a beautiful place, and its inhabitants have remained there for generations, despite backwards economic conditions.
The sun began to set. The mascot of the Wayne Christy, a fat black tabby, roused herself and stepped gingerly across the deck. Nighttime, you could tell, was the right time for her.
Roy and Ray were preparing for another night on the town. When I asked Roy what his plans were, he stated them simply: "Get drunk!"
The wares had not been taken in yet, and there was a still-life painter's dream of delicate fish hues, textures and shapes: pink, slippery squid, delicate shrimp piled high in baskets in front of the weighing scales, little round butterfish, skinned filets of trout, sea bass and haddock, flat flounders with bloody gills, jars of white, fresh crab meat, and jars of grayish oysters. At the back of the boat were shelves with the trimmings: bottles of yellow apple cider vinegar, Louisiana Hot Sauce, cocktail sauce, tins of red pepper and "Old Bay" seasoning.
On the dock, there was a jumble of boxes and crates, pushcarts, ropes, butane canisters, down to the oily tide, where a sign on the pylons said, "No fishing."