You can smell it from the freeway.
Whizzing along the elevated Interstate 395, hemmed in by block after muscular block of soulless government architecture, you suddenly get a whiff of steamed crab. If you know where to pull off, and if you follow your nose past the fancy neon-signed seafood restaurants, you'll enter a pocket of the District that harks back to days when the city was a little less buttoned-down and a lot more pungent.
"Ca pue!" said a scowling 16-year-old visitor from Metz, France, as he wrinkled his nose on a recent weekday evening. His sister, Myriam Davis, laughed and pushed a Styrofoam container of jumbo steamed shrimp toward him. She and her husband, Bill Davis, who live up the street, are among countless D.C., Maryland and Virginia residents who make regular pilgrimages to the Maine Avenue Fish Market, a clutch of family-owned barges docked around a parking lot at the end of the Maine Avenue wharf in Southwest Washington.
As dinnertime approaches, the evening customers pull in, angling for parking spots. Each barge is topped with a brightly colored marquee and lined with glistening rows of crabs, mussels, squid, oysters, whole fish and filets. Almost as varied as the wares are the vendors -- white and black, Hispanic and Asian, male and female, old and young -- calling out brightly, eager to hook a sale.
Some shoppers are faithful to one barge. Others browse, tasting a spiced steamed shrimp or a spoonful of chowder at Captain White's Seafood City, slurping down freshly shucked clams and oysters at Jessie Taylor Seafood, inspecting the croakers, snappers and catfish filets at Pruitt Seafood, which has been there since 1856.
The 200-year-old market is open 365 days a year, through hurricanes and blizzards. But summer is when people in shorts and tank tops linger, sweat rolling down their foreheads as the sky darkens and the barges bob on the black water.
Lydia Webb, 30, of Landover stood with her daughter and a friend at Jessie Taylor, where tangled mounds of blue crabs writhed at knee level. She pointed at the ones with the red-tipped claws.
"We're buying females," she said.
Her daughter, Amira, 3, widened her eyes as the man behind the counter scooped up a crab and held it upside down. It waved its legs hopelessly.
"See how he knows how to hold them so they don't bite?" said Lefty McBride, 39, who lives in Forestville and, like Webb, has been coming to the market since she was Amira's age.
"You want to know the difference between males and females?" said the seafood seller, a burly man named Pete Hill, who wore a kerchief on his head.
He pointed at a distinct bluish pattern on the bottom of a female's white shell, a half circle with a little nub at the top.
"Does that look like anything familiar that you might recognize?"
"The Capitol!" cried McBride.
"That's right," Hill said. "That's the Capitol. And what's the other one?" He turned over a male crab, revealing another familiar image, this one long and tapered. "That's the Monument. Capitol, Monument. That's how you tell."
Clayton Taylor, 44, broad-shouldered and blond, whose family owns Jessie Taylor, walked around in a crisp white T-shirt, cell phone attached to his ear, dividing his time between his "raw" barge, where the fish is laid out on shaved ice, and the barge that sells cooked shellfish and looks like a medieval kitchen, with cooks hunched over steaming vats.
Taylor's father and two uncles, natives of Smith Island, Md., opened their doors at the market 60 years ago. "There weren't no Bay Bridge then," he said with a sharp Chesapeake accent as he described his father's daily commute by water.
He has been working at the market since he was 15. He can recall the storm that submerged the cars in the lot but did not shut down the barges ("We stayed with the boat; it's what the captain's supposed to do"). He can recall the time in the mid-1990s when the city proposed getting rid of the barges and replacing them with stores. (The fish sellers prevailed and came away with a 30-year lease.)
Taylor sniffed at the idea of the market going anywhere. "Thirty years ago, everything they did in D.C. was a flop. This is the only thing that got left alone." Now, he said, "people, they come around taking those tour buses, they discover this place by accident, but they say this is the best thing they've seen."
Back at the raw barge, Tim Frye, 56, a tall, dapper man in a black suit and tie, asked a vendor for a Styrofoam box for his soft-shells, mussels and scallops. Frye, a limousine driver from Mount Jackson, Va., had dropped his clients at a restaurant in the District before heading to the wharf.
He's been buying seafood along the waterfront for decades, though in the 1960s he used to get it at another market, below the Whitehurst Freeway. "That was back when they had the Wilson liner to Marshall Hall," he said, referring to a boat that ferried passengers to the Charles County amusement park, "when you could buy a bushel [of crabs] for $18 all day long, back when they had the slot machines and you used to take your girlfriends, back when money was silver."
As a vendor searched for the right size box, Frye stepped back and gazed at the lit-up displays, the untidy choreography of pedestrians and cars, the buzzing boomboxes and the distant lights glinting off the river.
It's not just that the fish is fresher, or the prices better, that keeps him coming back.
"I really can't tell you," he said with a little smile. "You just walk around, and they're just hollering at you to buy -- it's almost like a carnival."
Picking up his box, he shook hands and headed to his car.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
The 200-year-old fish market is a place of brilliant marquees, pungent aromas and, of course, lots and lots of raw and cooked seafood.
Michael Sterling separates blue crabs at Jessie Taylor Seafood. Some shoppers are faithful to one vendor. Others browse from barge to barge.
Salmon is among the market's many offerings, along with mussels, squid and oysters.