At Melvin Inman Sr.'s place, Market Poultry, the day before Thanksgiving unfolded like last year's, and the year before that and pretty much every year for the past 29, except that now Inman sells breast of moulard in addition to such items as chicken necks and, of course, turkey.
By 7 a.m. yesterday, the people were lined up for it around the battered metal coolers. All kinds of people, united in their wisdom to pre-order -- people from down the street and Georgetown, from Virginia and Maryland, a raggedy L of people including a real estate agent and a mason, an IT guy and a professor, Wallace Mlyniec from over on Eighth Street SE, who said: "I love Melvin, and I love the whole family. They sell good birds."
And that was the long and short of it, really, the twin reasons people have been coming to Inman's stall at Eastern Market for decades, when they might go to a more convenient neighborhood Safeway instead: love and food.
At times yesterday, the line of people stretched beyond the lady selling pink roses, beyond the ripped cardboard "Line Forms Here" sign, past the three orange pylons and through the cockeyed green double doors into the cool morning on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that has had its ups and downs over three decades, while Inman's has remained a sort of warm, if slightly chaotic, center.
"Next in line," Inman's son, Melvin Jr., called out, leaning on the counter by a Redskins helmet, by a scale, by a wooden chicken.
His dad, in jeans and white apron, walked into the cooler and walked out, hand-trucked in boxes of 20-pounders, slung pink, bloody turkeys into clear bags, yelled into a phone, "We need some chicken wings" and out to the people, "Good morning, Mac!" and "Thank you, Steve!" and "All right, brother." He slapped hands with a tall guy in a yellow tracksuit.
In orbit around him were his other son, Juan, his stepson Amir, his brother-in-law Edward, his nephews Antoine and Marcus, and his friends from church, from the neighborhood, from wherever -- LaTee, Larry, Jimmy and Rod. Myra, wife of Melvin Jr., was behind the register.
They did a delicate dance among knives and birds and 20-dollar bills. Somewhere amid the raw meat there was a CD player, and Stevie Wonder was on repeat. People talked Redskins and gravy. Strangers bonded over giblets and shared habits. "I eat so much chicken, I got to change it up," said a man at the counter.
"I love turkey," answered Edward Minor, Inman's brother-in-law. "I eat turkey sandwiches, turkey salad, turkey cereal. I'm just kidding about the cereal."
And that's kind of how it went all morning -- turkeys, tickets, jokes flying, fans whirling, plastic orange leaves, and pink lights in the rafters above. And in that way, the center held.
The novel thing about Market Poultry, and the long, brick Eastern Market itself, is that very little suggests the precision of machinery and computers; instead, everything feels touched by human hands.
At Inman's, the counter is dented, the cabinets are slightly tilted, and the overhead signs -- "Buy NOW for Thanksgiving" -- are hand-lettered. Around the cash register are stacks of leaning, dangling things: piles of tickets, boxes of wax paper, a bottle of Windex, a tape measure.
The ambiance is due to Melvin Inman, 53, of Brandywine, who bought the business in the mid-'70s, when he had perhaps 200 orders for fresh turkeys every Thanksgiving. This year he had orders for more than 1,200 -- the fresh kind, birds that only recently were running around on farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
It is a way of doing business that is perhaps less profitable than it is personable, he said, but that has served him well nonetheless. Inman brought his sons into the market when they were kids, he said, because he wanted to teach them how to say hello to people, how to be assertive, and because, he said, "a man in a business like this doesn't have a chance to be with his family."
He sharpened a blade within inches of his face, then hacked into a bird. Inman -- who, it must be said, has an astounding ability to multi-task -- said that what he likes about being a butcher is not the work exactly, which is hard. What he likes is people.
"If it hadn't been for the people," he said, "I'd have left years ago."
Because he was asked, he mentioned that he counts people like Sen. Carl Levin and his wife, Barbara Halpern, as friends. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton swings by sometimes, and Al Gore's mother used to shop there fairly often, Inman said, pausing.
"You know what she used to get?" he asked. "Chicken backs. I never could get over that."
He went back to hacking, to answering the phone, to hurling turkeys to Larry and LaTee.
Around 10:30 a.m., a line stretched toward the door again.
The line included men in gold-button blazers, and others in parkas, a credit officer from down the street and a PhD candidate from Maryland. "I come here because the meat is always fresh, and you establish a relationship over the years with this spot," said Ann Mathias, the PhD candidate, ordering up giblets. "I drive from Clinton, Maryland."
"I want giblets, too," said Denise Morgan, the credit officer.
"How many've you got?" Mathias asked the stranger.
"I got 40, and that was at last count," Morgan said, and the two women went on, eventually calling each other "dear" and hugging before walking off.
Later, Don Folden, a bus operator from Marshall Heights, was next to a bar owner from down the street, next to a membership director, a lawyer, a life coach and some people in town from Texas.
"I got a whole list here," said Folden, 52, holding a ripped-out piece of notebook paper. "Turkey, chicken backs, smoked turkey wings, eggs. . . ."
Like many others in line, Folden said he got to know Melvin Inman Sr. through 15 years of conversations across the counter, 10-minute ones here and there, enough that he considered his butcher a friend.
"Even when I didn't have money and needed something, it was no problem with him," said Folden. "That's why I'm back. There's nothing like when you need someone to be there, especially without condemnation. So I've got to support him."
"Hey, Melvin!" he called to Inman, who could not hear above the buzz of the band saw. "Melvin!"
"Next," said Larry to the line. "Anybody next?"
Tickets were handed over, people inched to the right, then peeled off with their heavy bags, toward the holiday.
"Hey, Melvin!" Folden called again, determined.
At last, Melvin Inman looked up and walked over.
"Howya doin!" he said to Folden, who at last had his chance to say hello.
"Hey, Melvin, you gotta put that Redskins helmet under the counter, man!" Folden joked. The two men bumped knuckles together, and that was that.
Later, Inman ran out of the extra 200 turkeys he had ordered -- "That's it, baby," he called out -- but there were still piles of pre-ordered ones in the two long coolers, and people stood in line a long time to get them.
Melvin Inman Sr., right, cuts up birds for Thanksgiving customers with brother-in-law Edward Minor, left.