Sunlight sifting through the awning glints off fins, scales and opalescent eyes of fish lying in icy beds. People rim the two piers jutting out into the Washington Channel and a half dozen languages ricochet through the air. It is Saturday at the fish market in the shadow of the 14th Street bridge.
Berlie Custis, a lean man with weather-etched skin, carefully folds a napkin and slides it under his beer in the cabin of the "Custis and Brown," a roomy inboard motorboat docked between the two piers. The boat is his home for nine-day stretches spent at the market, while away from his native Eastern Shore of Virginia. His employes, including two older sons in their twenties, live above the display barge. Like the other merchants at the Maine Avenue wharves, Custis leads a life curiously part of, yet distinct from, the city's urban bustle.
Custis and the five other seafood merchants operating out of the Maine Avenue wharves handle an estimated 25 to 50 percent of the District's retail market in fresh fish and shellfish. All are open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. throughout the year. Custis rises by 6:30 or 7 each morning in order to have the barge set up by 9.
"It's hard work", he said, gruffly, "sometimes 14, 15 hours a day."
Custis and the other fish merchants work in an area that has historical significance. Joyce Cappon, former director of commercial development for the Redevelopment Land Agency and current president of the Washington Waterfront Association, said she favors preserving the historical quality of the marketplace, which was set aside for the fishmongers in the 1800s, "rather than (putting) up some white, sterile buildings."
George Riseling, former section chief of the RLA corporate counsel's office, said that in the mid- to late-'60s, all buildings on the piers were razed to make way for the Southeast Expressway, which swallowed one adjacent pier. The renovation along the pier followed the urban renewal of much of Southwest, which changed the area from blighted slums to today's high-rise apartment buildings, condominiums and town houses.
Although the seafood merchants at first were wary of the renovations, Riseling recalled, they quickly returned to the two remaining piers and began to make improvements. All invested in more efficient refrigerated trucks to ship seafood to the site and, more recently, flat-bed barges with coolers and ice-machines.
The barge that Custis owns is lashed next to his 40-foot motorboat and displays a wealth of fish and shellfish, purchased wholesale from suppliers from Chesapeake Bay, South Carolina and Cape May. Beside the commonplace species like bluefish, trout, flounder, squid, swordfish, catfish and bay croakers are such novelties as conch and sand shark.
Custis, who grew up in Onanock, started working for his uncle at age 14. Now, after more than 30 years in the family-owned business, he is a partner with his brother-in-law.
Except for a two-year hitch in the Army and a short stint working in a dairy, pasteurizing and bottling milk ("It about drove me nuts: same routine every day, same people"), he has been in the seafood retailing business for most of his life and has no intention of changing. "I'm just going to drift along here."
He is equivocal about Washington. "You can make a decent living here," he conceded. "I don't know where else to go, you know, to sell stuff like this. It's about as good as cities go. All cities are pretty much alike: cramped up, people stepping on you."
"Country people move slower," he said. "The city's hurry up get ahead of the line, hurry up catch the bus, or hurry up somethin'."
Custis said the economic downswing has not hurt his business much. "People've got to eat anyhow," he said. "Down in the country, though, people on the boats have no work: it's dead slow. After Labor Day, it always slows up, especially the crab business. These city folk don't know that the crabs are better in September, October and November--bigger and cheaper!" he said.
"In the winter, we do fairly good weekends. What really hurts us bad down here is a snowstorm; people don't want to travel. We try to keep our people on in winter time. That goes kinda hard. A lot of weeks, we don't make a penny for ourselves.