It's Saturday morning, the busiest day of the week at Fifth Street and Neal Place NE inside the hangar-sized warehouse that is the D.C. Farmer's Market. And like every other Saturday for the past 60 years, people with a hankering for fresh collard greens and meaty ribs, sweet potatoes and fresh catfish, are ambling through the aisles of wooden tables, calling hello to neighbors and crowding around the butcher's counter.

Meanwhile, under the fluorescent lights, vendors -- longtime wholesalers who buy direct from Southern farmers -- are arranging potatoes, apples, onions and squash into colorful heaps, putting up their usual "Special Price" signs and greeting customers like family.

It's a far cry from Eastern Market, the Capitol Hill foodmart and craft emporium that's become as much a place to see as be seen. Regulars to the earthy D.C. Farmer's Market come so they can spend the rest of the day cooking. So they can buy meat cut to order and cracklins, garden greens to simmer in bacon grease, praline candy and home-brewed hot sauce. It's grocery shopping the way it used to be in Washington.

A mother with children in tow greets another. Buddies lean against the stall posts, sipping coffee and trading friendly insults against a hum of refrigerators, rap music, pop tunes and overhead fans. The floors are gritty, the wooden stalls worn, the stacatto bleep of cash registers a necessary intrusion in this old-fashioned scene.

The D.C. Farmer's Market isn't on the tourist circuit, but for Mohammed Nemar, visiting from Jerusalem, it was a must-see because he is in the same business back home. He had also offered to help a friend who runs a vegetable stand here.

"I came to meet people and talk," he said, shoving handfuls of curly kale into a plastic bag for a waiting customer. But the market is also a lesson in culture. "At home, we sell the vegetables and give the greens away," he smiles.

Next to a lottery machine cranking out tickets to a line of waiting bettors, William C. Robinson Jr. arranges apples on his wooden display table and pulls pints of strawberries out of a cold storage box. In his Redskins knit cap and weathered clothes, he looks every bit the farmer. But looks can deceive.

"{I'm} 'bout the oldest one here, at least 50 years," he says. He's worked this market since the 1930s. Back when the market was called Union Terminal, when he was still a boy, Robinson would hang around angling for odd jobs -- shelling peas or loading boxes.

One of the first black machinists at the Washington Naval Yard, he retired a few years ago from Harry Diamond Labs. The vegetable stand was always just "something to keep busy," though it helped a lot when he was paying for his sons' college educations.

His wife, Maggie, wrapped in a cooks' apron with her hair tucked snugly under a bandana, dresses the part of farmer's wife. Actually, she is a retired accountant at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The stand started as a second job for her husband, who originally worked for Nicolas Pappas. After Pappas retired about 20 years ago, William Robinson rented a stand himself.

Over the years, the biggest change has been the prices. Robinson remembers when string beans were $1 a bushel. Earlier this year they were $50.

The Robinson family, including William C. "Micky" Robinson III, a real estate agent, work together at the market each weekend. "I come out and work because it's family," Micky Robinson said.

"I just do it because I enjoy it," his father said.

Their specialties: fresh sage from the backyard of their Shepherd Park home, plump fruits and vegetables, peanuts trucked from Florida. "I don't handle greens and I can't see paying 50 bucks for string beans," huffed the senior Robinson.

Open year-round, the D.C. Market is a cooperative of individual vendor stands under one roof. During the summer, some local farmers also park outside and sell goods from the tailgates of their trucks.

Raising her head from a glass display case, Claudia Dutrow introduces herself simply: "I'm called the Cheese Lady."

She and husband, Merhle, have operated their stand for more than 20 years. They say they are "the only farmers in the market." Their farm is in Damascus.

They sell fresh chickens, country ham, pork and fresh eggs along with their cheese. "Our steady customers kept us in business. I know exactly what we can sell each week," Claudia Dutrow said.

An elderly man holds out several quarters and gestures to the box brimming with another Dutrow specialty -- crisp cracklins. Even in this cholesterol-conscious era, a bag of these pork rinds are a popular buy at $1.25 a pound for snacking or to flavor cornbread and sweet potatoes.

Genavy H. Jackson, of Takoma Park, visits the market often because she works at the Brentwood Post Office, just five minutes away. "All my friends like my cooking; sometimes I cook for 10 or 15 people," she said. "The greens here have vitamins and are nourishing." Then, moving from stand to stand, pressing her fingers against the produce, she holds forth on how to choose the best. "I buy whichever looks good," she said, smiling.

Across the market, D.C. native Delores Wade and her sister are looking over a mountain of leafy greens. "We've been coming here for over 20 years. The prices are cheaper than the supermarket and the vegetables are farm fresh . . . . I can't have a salad in summer without a cucumber from here."

By noon, the market is crowded and the mounds of produce nearly leveled. Butchers in bloody aprons stand by the door for a smoke and a chat. Vendors take a break at the coffee counter in the room center. A couple of shoppers have succumbed to hunger and mop up fresh farm eggs with toast.

While a stream of morning customers are leaving with bulging tote bags, late risers are just getting started. In coordinated jogging togs, Charles and Pat Ricks, of Cheverly, say they came for some meat, though it has been three years since their tastebuds have propelled them here.

It's barbecue season and they know where to find the fixin's.