The customers stand in rows, staring and pointing at the crabs, fish and shrimp lined up on beds of shaved ice. Men in dirty shirts and rubber gloves realign crabs and shrimp, looking up to suggest that the customers buy -- they're in season, they're fresh, they're good for frying.
It's another 90-degree day at the District's Maine Avenue Fish Market, where the smell of fish permeates the breezy air and competing merchants, on wooden and steel boats hitched next to each other at the wharf, try to talk passing pedestrians into buying.
A couple approach Pruitt Seafood, where Stacey Diggs, 23, stands among trays of shellfish. They want to buy but aren't sure what kind. "How do you cook it?" Diggs asks them, explaining that different kinds are better for different types of cooking. The couple murmur to each other, and Diggs suggests they take the "small lobster tails," which at Pruitt's are about 6 inches long and nearly 2 inches across.
For Diggs, it's all part of a life he was destined for. Like co-workers Micah Marshall, 22, and B.J. Hinman, 19 -- and nearly 20 of the swarm of guys who work various shifts at the market -- Diggs grew up in Crisfield, a town at the southernmost tip of Maryland that bills itself as "the Crab Capital of the World."
Down there, young people don't have many options, Diggs said. Generations ago, they could have worked at the 150 oyster-packing plants in Crisfield, but those are nearly all gone, and the only real jobs left are in carpentry and seafood, he said, so many young people leave. But after growing up in a town that claims to have introduced the soft-shell crab to the world, after crabbing with their fathers since before they can remember, the three said it was natural that they ended up doing this. In part, they say, it's a point of pride.
"City people couldn't do this," Hinman said.
"They need some hard-core country young-butts," agreed co-worker Antwuan Tatum, 25, from a small area in Virginia -- "It's not no town, it's Virginia."
The job they do is part selling, part heavy lifting and a lot of icing, particularly when the temperatures rise and the beds for the seafood melt. Tatum's favorite part is the customers, he said. They include a mix of families with small children and professionals still wearing work ID tags on chains around their necks. Some are regulars, and others are tourists who walk slowly by. Some, he said, have to be coaxed into buying, and that's where he comes in. "I do it all: flirt, sell, have fun, basically," Tatum said, standing next to a tank of lobsters.
Bustling on weekends but calmer during the week, the fish market anchors a six-block stretch of Southwest Washington, along the Washington Channel, that city leaders hope will be the centerpiece of a waterfront revitalization project, part of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. The idea is to bring more stores and apartments to the area while keeping the colorful parts of the channel.
Part of the color is the fish market, where workers live in bunks on the fish boats while they're working. The shifts at Pruitt are one week on, one week off, with close to 16-hour days serving customers, taking in deliveries and arranging the catches on ice. Sometimes they work longer, to make extra money. Diggs's longest shift came two years back, straight from January to June, he said.
Now a manager, Diggs has worked at Pruitt for 71/2 years. He quit high school his senior year and started working on the boat.
Does he want to do this forever? "I ask myself that every day," he said. But routines are hard to break, he said. He has been thinking about joining the military, like his twin brother in the Coast Guard in Glen Burnie.
Marshall, Diggs and Hinman all have close-cropped hair and wear dirt-streaked and water-stained white T-shirts and faded blue jean shorts. Tatum wears a red shirt and has cornrows but shares their identification as country boys.
Their Eastern Shore knowledge of seafood has earned the respect of Sung Kim, 49, who owns Pruitt and hustles between his office in the back boat and the sidewalk out front.
Never one to accept a passerby's claim to be "just looking," Kim urges people to ask the employees behind the counter about prices. Never mind that they're listed above each item, he tells them -- befriending the people who weigh the fish might mean they'll throw in a little extra.
Kim does not live on the boat, going home to West Springfield at night. "This is a rough job," he said. "It smells. It's dirty."
Kim said he has worked nearly nonstop since he arrived from South Korea in 1980, alone and without the money for an apartment. He began as a dishwasher and construction worker, then drove a cab. After five years, he bought a dry cleaners and, eventually, four. But the long hours and heavy lifting hurt his back, and he looked for a new business. In 1992, he bought Ernie's Crab House in Alexandria. He bought the Pruitt boats in May and works long hours. But like his employees, who began crabbing when they were barely out of diapers, Kim said the job fits him.
"This is my life," he said.