Jean Lewis lays her collard greens out nice. Tries to arrange them in a design, she says in a low, sugary drawl. Moving within the enclosure of tables stacked with vegetalbes, the former social worker turned vegetable vendor, stacks sweet potatoes, onions and cabbages to the rhythms of the mammoth D.C. Farmers' Market.

A steady, noisy hum of disco music, buzz saws slicing through country hams, active children, bustling customers and the cheery rural twang of vendors who ask patrons, "Can I help you, sweetheart?" blends into one sweet rhythm.

Opened nearly 50 years ago, the market at 1309 Fifth Street NE -- just off Fourth and Florida -- remains a gigantic, social center. Families come to buy fresh food and enjoy the congenial atmosphere and personal service offered by the vendors who are as varied and colorful as the products they sell.

"She sets a nice stand. That's why I come all the time," Levancie Lofton said, admiring Lewis' vegetables, as she conducted her week's shopping.

Yemi and Grace Olafisoye, who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria six years ago, critiqued a box of fresh corn in their native language before finally making a purchase. They have shopped at the market ever since they moved here, they said.

"I've been coming about 30 years," shopper Frances Wong, accompanied by two grown daughters and two grandchildren, said. "I have 11 grandchildren, and they all come. You sould see the bunch of us here sometimes."

For the vendors, the market represents the last vestige of a free enterprise system where you can go into business with as little as $100 (for a license) and a dream.

"all my life I wanted to open a business," said Ernest T. Barnes, who borrowed $700 to open Barnes Deli in the market two months ago. His dream began in the 1930s, when he was 12 years old and unable to buy a hamburger from a segregated carryout, he said. Barnes runs the deli with his wife Liz.

Rental fees for the market's stands average about $150 a week, vendors said. The inventory, which has a decidedly southern flavor, is purchased from wholesale suppliers whose trucks rumble into the market each morning from food ports throughout the United States.

The vendors set their own prices, a luxury that enables them to knock off a few cents for the elderly or give an extra orange to regular customers.

Comprised of 60 stands offering everything from jumbo brown eggs to Old Grandpa's Jinx Remover, the market is located within a cavernous, building in a warehouse district about a mile from Union Station.

The market is open Tuesday through Fridays from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., Saturdays from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. and Sundays 7 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Under a rainbow of red, blue and yellow lights strung from the ceiling, vendors hawk their wares.

There's Lola Wilson, 80, a cheerful, egg vendor who drives a cab when she's not selling eggs. Been on the market "off-and-on 50 years now," she says.

Stand number 13 is owned by Arnold Fanaroff, a burly, former construction worker who grew up six blocks from the market and became a meat vendor with his brother-in-law 10 years ago. The family now owns three meat stands at the market.

Amid the ox tails, goat meat and chitlins', a solitary health food stand rises from the middle of the room advising clients to "love animals, don't eat them."

At Worthington Mills carryout stand, neighborhood youths lunch on half smokes and Wonder Bread. Nearby James Major, a tall, scarecrow thin, egg man playfully chides a departing customer for complaining about the $8.80 asking price for eight dozen jumbo eggs.

"You don't want no eggs no way," he calls after her. "You been coming in here buying pee wees!"

The market is a circus, said George Stevenson, the pot-bellied, cigar-chomping market manager who literally helped build the warehouse 13 years ago.

If it is, among the enterainers is market humorist, "little red Sam," and the market men -- street people who roam the market for handouts and odd jobs. The two favorite marketmen, stevenson said, are Just Paul, a reticent young man "who came out of the wind" and the Professor, a tall, articulate musicologist who lectures the vendors on classical and stage music in between his jobs hauling trash.

The vendors give the marketmen food and at Christmas buy them clothes, Stevenson said. Flower money is raised for friends in times of illness or death. Many a vendor also recalled how a competitor encouraged them to open their own stand.

"We're just like a big family," Stevenson said, specking figuratively and literally as he points out a variety of family stands. "We work like a machine here. Of course," he added, "we have our ups and downs."

The biggest down occurred 13 years ago. Housing inspectors closed the original outdoor market on the site for unsanitary conditions, which included improper refrigeration, poor drainage and a lack of toilets and wash basins.

At the time, many of these same stands were at a nearby outdoor site under two 1,000-foot-long sheds known as "the country line," because of the hundreds of farmers who came to sell their produce and home preserves at the largest, outdoor wholesale-retail farmers market in the District.

"That was the biggest thing in the world when my parents brought me out here at Christmas time," recalled "Candy" Bowers a short, plump woman who said she quit her job as a social worker to open vegetable stand number 4 with her husband Buddy.

"You would be walking up and down the line eating all these country meats," she giggled. "At that time if something cost a dollar, you would try to get it down to 60 cents."

In 1966, the country line died. the sheds were razed and private development built the single-story warehouse in its place. The new market opened in 1967.

Oldtimers -- like Wilson and Major -- claim the market has never recovered. Many of the oldtime hucksters have died off, they said. Food prices have shot up, while consumerism has gone down. Vendors are also feeling the pinch of the large chain stores such as the Giant, which recently opened in the Shaw area, Major said. One day, the food chains will kill off the farmers markets, some vendors predicted.

Fanaroff scoffs at the idea. It's the fresh food and personal service that attracts people to the market, not the prices, he said.

"Where else in Washington can you go to be waited on?" he asked. "that's something that died out in the 40s and the 50s. People like to be waited on. Not to push a button and the machine answers you."

The market's service to the D.C. community was even more dramatically stated in 1968 when rioters ravaged the city and grocers fled to the suburbs. The D.C. Farmers' Market vendors stood fast.

"Life in the market has been good to the people ever since 1968 when the burning came," said a woman known as Tracy. "There was no place else to go (to buy food).

"We give senior citizens discounts here," she said of the stand owned by her friend Candy Bowers. "You'd be surprised at the people who come in for an extra orange, a handful of greens or 15 cents off."

Munching away on a pile of sliced ham, Bowers said she's gotten more satisfaction out of helping people as a vendor than as a social worker.

"You feel like you're accomplishing more here because you don't have the red tape," she said. "There everything's laid out in black and white. You follow the rules. Here you make the rules."

Walking to the end of the stand, she waited on a pregnant woman picking through the collard greens and returned giggling. The woman stood nearby holding the greens, a puzzled look on her face.

"I said to her, 'when are you going to have your baby?'" Bowers told Tracy. "She said, 'Anytime now.' I said you'd better go home!"

Their laughter hung in the air, rising with the rest of the market rhythms.