A Feast of Fishes, DC’s Immigrant Convergence

Salmon from California
Salmon from California

The Commonwealth of Virginia is a different country from the ever-marvelous cosmopolitan, glitzy, glamorous, glowing high life of Washington, District of Columbia.

At least when it comes to fish markets.

This afternoon I went into the district to get some touristy gifts for my friends in California where I plan to travel next week. My friends want some sweatshirts with ?Washington D.C.? on them. My friends are undocumented immigrants so I know they would really like some shirts with the Immigration and Naturalization Service logo. They less-than-affectionately call the branch of federal government?La Migra.

But I can?t find any.

And the black CIA and FBI sweatshirts just don?t seem right.

After my 45 minutes of trying to crack packs of middle school kids in the tourist shops, I pick up my husband, Lars, from his office to enjoy a rare dinner ?in town.?

We both prefer great food in an honest and humble setting.

Yeah, D.C. might not be our town.

But Lars knows a place by the down and dirty fish market. We head southwest.

D.C.'s fishmarket in Southwest
D.C.’s fishmarket in Southwest

I can?t really say that anything was dirty. Well-worn, more like.

First stop — pure luck — a screech-and-pull-over parking spot right on Water Street.

Turns out the meter isn?t functioning, which I think portends more good luck. I try to pay with my app but after changing my password and logging in twice, am told my account has been deactivated. ?Should we just risk it?? I ask, reading a sign that clearly states we shouldn?t.

My husband reminds me, ?this is Washington.?

The parking cops, instead of giving me a pass as they would in any other American city, would probably not only give me a ticket but tow my car just so they could get another victim faster.

So we pay the eight dollars (in-cash-only, pay-in-advance, don?t-reverse-your-wheels,) to gain entrance to the parking garage where Deep Throat passed on his dirty secrets. At least that?s what it feels like.

Up two flights of grungy stairs with paint worn off the railings to Jenny?s Asian Fusion, my husband confidently leads me. This is apparently a hangout for him and his USDA colleagues, who, being rural types, are desperate to get out of the enormous building in which they are indentured. You can almost see saltwater from here, during the day.

As we enter the place I notice a side table laden with Asian vases, trinkets, jewelry ? and plastic day-of-the-week pill boxes.

Friday night at seafood city.
Friday night at seafood city.

Our table overlooks the unlit parking lot of the seafood market. I cannot see the line between the parked cars and the moored boats in the dark, but the boats moved slightly so I know the ocean, or a link to it, is there.

I order the Fiery Shrimp, which has two of three hotness rating stars. I ?use my paper napkin as a Kleenex. It is for real.

Lars chooses the fish of the day, Rock fish. It comes with potatoes. Asian fusion achieved.

I point out how delicious broccoli is when it isn?t overcooked, one of those lines that makes me feel suddenly that I have become my mother. I had been thinking of her too?because, having grown up in Hawaii, she knows what to do with fish.

I make a conscious effort not to look like we’re an old married couple.

For dessert, I have the pleasure of trying to digest the meaning of the following fortune cookie omen: ?The rubber bands are heading in the right direction.?

Maybe it means flexible musicians are headed my way. Or maybe my hair really is hopeless.

I turn to my husband?s slip of paper: ?When you learn to be flexible, amazing opportunities reveal themselves!?

?It says I need to do some Yoga,? he interprets. I think he is off the mark; it clearly means that next time I should get to choose the dining venue.

As we descend the grimy stairs, I try not to look in the many mirrors surrounding a lottery ticket vending machine at the base of the stairwell. We weave through haphazardly parked cars to the bright neon signs of the fish market proper.

I brace my nostrils for what I expect the end of a long week at the fish market to smell like.IMG_2973

But a heavenly smell of steaming crab draws me straight to Captain White?s cooked seafood stand. Not able to imagine eating again within 24 hours, I merely stand and watch. And smell.

A tall beautiful African American woman in a short black skirt with writing across her butt is negotiating with one of Captain White?s fishmongers, a thin man in a grubby black sweatshirt with an ?I?m in love? look on his face. Dressed carefully in a frilly pink jacket, a young girl — also with writing across her butt — stands by the woman, her fingers fiddling with the chain separating the buyer from the fishmonger.

IMG_2975My husband, hands in pockets, is trying to get some answers from a man in a red ?Captain White?s Seafood? t-shirt. An Asian couple lingers awhile and moves on.

Miguel, who moved here eight years ago from Honduras, refuses to understand what my husband is asking about whether the fish are farmed.

But when I asked him in Spanish where the fish are from, he points to some meaty silvery ones, saying they are from North Carolina, others, he points to are from California ? or, pointing again,?Oceana—the red snapper.

I ask him to package up one of the red snapper. He chooses one with a clear bright eye and flops it on a scale.

Fish in fist, I proceed to a favorite literary catastrophe: Jumbo Shrimp.

But these shrimp really are jumbo. And soon to be Jumbalaya. Watching the clientele I guess most the fish leaving this market are going to be served Creole style.

I seek out the oldest man here to ask him how old the fish market is. He personally attests its been here 74 years. He is 75 years old. Then he adds, thoughtfully, “broshmee joga.”?The man is hard to understand because he doesn?t have any teeth.

?Probably older? my husband translates.

A middle eastern guy selling shellfish reports most his customers are retail and that it gets very crowded on weekends. I look around and see just one other customer now.

I want to drive to the district again tomorrow not just for the fish; I want to see who eats them.

And our fish? Delish.

red snapper
red snapper

By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.