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By Angus Phillips
Wallace Pruitt grew up on Tangier Island, Virginia, an isolated outpost in Chesapeake Bay where almost everyone crabs, oysters, or fishes. As a boy, he took a 17-hour boat ride to Washington, D.C., to work on the Maine Avenue Fish Wharf at Pruitt's Seafood, a business begun by his father, Elisha, in 1933.
Much has changed in Washington since Elisha's day. But the Potomac tide still lifts and lowers the fish barges twice a day, and Washingtonians still crowd the waterfront to barter with fishmongers from another world. And Pruitts are still there, hawking seafood.
On a bright summer morning Wallace's son Stewart stares up from one of his 60-foot-long barges where fish and shellfish in a hundred or so varieties lie arrayed on shaved ice. The tide is out and customers tower over him. A plump woman in stretch pants and golden necklaces glowers down. "How much for the crab legs?" she asks, pointing to a five-pound pack.
"Thirty-foiv," says Pruitt, in the soft accent of his home, where "time" is "toim" and "tide" is "toid."
"It was 25 last week," says the woman.
"No, ma'am, never 25."
"I'll give you $30," she says.
"Thirty-two," he says.
"Thirty-one," says she.
Pruitt cocks his head and, with a twinkle in his eye, asks, "Ain't you the girl I hugged last week?" So the deal is sealed in compromise and roguish goodwill, as it's been for a century and more at the foot of 11th and 12th Streets Southwest.
The floating fish market is a corner of Washington tourists don't see, even though it's less than a ten-minute walk from the Tidal Basin and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a few minutes more from the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. No signs point to the block-long market. Locals battle gridlocked roads and swarms of buyers on weekends to haul away live or steamed crabs, oysters, and fish of all kinds, all seasons.
The closest most out-of-towners get are the massive, modern waterfront restaurants, just south of the barges, which lure tourists by the busload. Between the market and the restaurants, the Gangplank Marina and the Capital Yacht Club provide slips for around 400 boats, including a hundred-plus houseboats and cruisers lived on year-round, some of them homes to government workers who forsake apartments for life on the water.
The modern restaurants and marina arose on a half-mile stretch of the Washington Channel after urban renewal in the 1960s ("urban removal," some called it) destroyed frame buildings, ramshackle shacks, and rambling eateries. Tour-boat wharves, town house clusters, and a small shopping mall round out today's sanitized Southwest waterfront. Yet the funky fish wharf lives on in olfactory glory.
No one knows how long it's been there. Merchants celebrated a 200th anniversary in 1994, citing 1794 as the earliest record of fishermen selling their catch on that spot.
Initially, boats brought goods directly to the wharf, traveling 60 miles downriver to Colonial Beach and Nomini, Virginia, in "buy-boats" to pick up fish and bring it back to sell.
By the 1960s refrigerated trucks delivered seafood fresher and cheaper. The roaming buy-boats were permanently made fast to the pier and later replaced by today's spacious, brightly lit steel barges.
Even though goods come by truck, most fishmongers still come from Chesapeake country and follow seafaring tradition by working "seven-on, seven-off" schedules: seven 14-hour days on duty, then home for a week to Tangier Island or Chincoteague, Smith Island, or Crisfield. Between the long day shifts workers sleep rough in plywood cabins atop the barges after winding down. They ride home exhausted in company vans that bring relief crews.
If the bargemen are much the same over the decades, the customer base is ever changing, says Sunny White, who runs Captain White's Seafood with his brother, Billy Ray, and Billy Ray's wife, Penny.
The brothers come to work astride gleaming Harley-Davidson motorcycles to cater to seafood lovers of every culture. There is Saba Saba, a Greek who grew up in Syria and immigrated to the United States 35 years ago, buying a bushel of crabs to share with "two Greeks, two Germans, and two Swiss."
The wharf, he says, "is the most interesting place in Washington. There is no place in America that looks like it. Even New York is not as colorful."
There's Walter Gee of nearby Oxon Hill, Maryland, arriving from Sunday service at Springfield Baptist Church in a panama hat and crisp, tailored pinstripe suit to buy shrimp and fish for a family gathering.
There's Hussain Allawi, lugging a ten-pound split carp he'll roast before a fire in the celebratory style of his Iraqi homeland. And Mai Anh, a native of Vietnam, haggling with one of Pruitt's staff over a hunk of mackerel, working the price down from $11.90 to $10.
"I'm not going to argue with you," says the salesman, wrapping up the prize and handing it over with a mock-weary expression.
"That's what we do," says Stewart Pruitt, looking on approvingly. "The supermarkets would throw it away rather than cut the price. We want to sell it, even if it is a teeny bit cheaper." The deal done, Pruitt's dark eyes dart to the next potential customer strolling down the quay.
Live crabs!" he calls out, carrying on the timeless tradition of fishmongers around the globe in this small, lively corner of the world's most powerful city.