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Clarence Goodman whips a tiny notebook out of his pocket, producing a to-do list. Other than seeing singer Peter Cetera at Wolf Trap, it looks pretty ordinary. Read the Bible. Tend to his late wife’s cats. Find a dentist who’s worth a damn. Cut the grass. But unlike the nine-to-five crowd that typically only has two days to cross off errands, Goodman has a whole week. “I try to get through it all in one day so I have the other six days to be Clarence,” he says.
The Jessie Taylor Seafood employee of 47 years works seven days on, seven days off just like the rest of his colleagues at the Maine Avenue Fish Market business. “We call it ‘The Well’ because you come here and fill up and then shoot back home,” Goodman says. He’s a tanned, gregarious waterman from Smith Island, Maryland, who gets his energy from a custom elixir of Monster energy drinks, Red Bull, and pineapple juice. His customers call him “White Chocolate.”
Most Jessie Taylor Seafood employees commute from the Eastern Shore and live above the very barges where they work 14-hour shifts hawking seafood for a week straight. “They get here on Monday night and hurry up and go into their bedrooms, unpack luggage, and take a fresh shower,” Goodman explains. He bunked on the barges for years, but now lives in Springfield, Virginia. While there are televisions and small refrigerators on board, he likens the experience to camping.
“It’s two different lives,” says Billy Wise, who has worked at Jessie Taylor for 17 years. One might think the seven on, seven off lifestyle would mesh well with having a family, but that’s not always the case. “They’ll deal with it for a certain amount of time,” Wise says, referring to significant others. “Then they get this idea in their head that you’re cheating. You work from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. That’s the furthest thing from your mind when you get off work, but they don’t understand it like that.”
Jessie Taylor Seafood dates back to 1939 when Chelton Evans purchased a boat called the Jessie Taylor and roped his brother Fillmore Evans into joining his new business venture. They cruised the Chesapeake Bay filling their boat with seafood and dropping off their pull at what was then known as the Municipal Fish Wharf in the District.
Fillmore had a son also named Chelton, who is still in command today. He sits in an air-conditioned control center with his son, Steve Evans, watching surveillance footage, setting prices, and manning the phones that ring with customer orders.
They have the only cush jobs. Chelton’s other son, Greg Evans, and nephew, Jason Evans, are out in the heat spraying the Old Bay seasoning off crab baskets or gutting butterfish in a back room. Everyone pitches in, seemingly without paying attention to seniority, hierarchy, or where they fall on the family tree. “There are two sides of the family,” Greg says. “We work seven days and the other part of the family works seven days.”
Listen to food editor Laura Hayes’ day at Jessie Taylor on our podcast.
The days are routine, but not monotonous enough to cause new hires to cut and run. Employees at Jessie Taylor count how long they’ve collected pay stubs in decades instead of years. Goodman wears a crab pendant around his neck that his boss gifted him when he hit 25 years in 1992. “They got it, but I’m sure they took it out of my pay,” he jokes.
The radio and tall tales exchanged between coworkers help the hours pass faster. Crank enough Aretha Franklin over the sound system and you might forget how much your body aches. The nature of some of the banter indicates to an outsider that they are entering a testosterone zone—the only females on the barges one day in mid-August were crabs filled with succulent, sun-colored roe.
Jessie Taylor sells upwards of 50 different products sourced from local and far-away waters alike. They range from red snapper and octopus to rockfish and salmon heads. But the fast-paced action in the summer is headquartered in the corner of the market where live crabs skitter around in slanted trays broken down by sex and size.
Goodman says they sell between 1,000 and 2,000 bushels a week. Bushels contain between five and eight dozen crabs, depending on the size of the crustaceans. When a customer places an order, it’s time to glove up and bear down.
“It’s not where you grab them from—it’s going to get you either way,” Wise says. “If you grab it from the back, it’s going to getcha. If you grab it from the front, it’s going to getcha. Regardless of the way you do it, it’s going to bite you.” Bite is the word Wise and his buddies use colloquially even though the claws inflict the pain.
Each tray seems to contain at least one feisty crab that comes at you like an offensive lineman trying to protect a quarterback. Wherever you reach, they rush over and lunge for your flesh. Getting pinched in August is only a two out of 10 on an emergency room pain scale, but come fall, when crabs are at their biggest and strongest, their claws can crack a thumbnail.
When filling a customer’s order, sometimes the crabs do the work for you by holding claws, forming a chain like linked paper dolls. It’s important to give each crab a knock to ensure they’re still alive. Despite the company’s best efforts, sometimes nature claims some of the crabs, sending them to the seafood shack in the sky.
If you buy live crabs at Jessie Taylor and don’t want to cook them at home, you can just stroll 20 yards across the market. There, Joey Bowen will steam and flavor them to your preferred level of spice. He’s been at the job for 34 years. Sometimes, he says, all 11 steamers are going at once. On a sleepy summer Thursday, only about three were in use. The heady steam swirling around opens the pores and allows the Old Bay seasoning to seep into your soul.
“Extra spicy big daddy, you know how I like it baby,” Tyrone Hudson calls out when he passes a heavy basket of crabs to Bowen to cook. He’s brought a can of Budweiser, which Bowen pierces and sprays into one of the steamers like a college drinking feat. “It keeps those crabs tight, it keeps that meat tight,” Hudson explains. Jessie Taylor can’t furnish beer for cooking, but customers can bring their own.
Hudson has patronized Jessie Taylor all his life. “If you’ve been coming here for years, you know everyone,” he says. “These guys ain’t going nowhere. One of my boys isn’t working today. He looks like Mike Tyson.”
Like Hudson, Brenda has been coming to Jessie Taylor for 50 years. But she takes her crabs home alive and steams them herself in a mix of beer, vinegar, and cayenne pepper. She was there on Thursday with her octogenarian mother. Though there are other businesses at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, such as from Captain White’s Seafood, Brenda and her mom are loyal to Jessie Taylor.
Goodman compares the relationship between Jessie Taylor and Captain White’s to the Hatfields and the McCoys. “I’m getting a little dramatic,” he admits. “I love them as long as I don’t have to smell their breath the next morning.”
Both Jessie Taylor employees and the customers stay the same year after year while the city around them changes rapidly. Through years of exchanging currency for crabs, they’ve forged bonds.
“I’ve known Clarence for a long time,” Brenda says. “I was around when he lost his wife. I supported him then and I continue to support him now.” When she lived in D.C. year-round, she brought trays of free sandwiches down to the dock for employees to eat.
“We deal with customers all day long,” Wise says. “I react the way they react … If they’re in a good mood, I’ll keep it that way. If they’re in a bad mood, I try to lift their spirits. That’s the idea around here.”
Goodman calls Wise Jessie Taylor’s best salesman. He’s quick to beckon wandering twosomes and threesomes to his station behind the live crabs. More often than not, he closes the deal.
All this isn’t to say Jessie Taylor is unchanged. “When I started in 1971, we didn’t have nothing like we’ve got now,” Goodman recounts. “We had a little trash can that we used to cook crabs [in] for people while they waited. There certainly were no call-in orders. Now we’ve got fancy ice machines and guys assigned to pick up our trash and take it away. I was that guy when I started at 16 years old.”
Goodman recalls that a dozen crabs started at $2 for females and $2.50 for males when he began work on Fourth of July weekend 1971. On a recent Thursday, a dozen started at $14.
For a business trying to stay afloat in the shadow of a billowing $2 billion development, the price isn’t bad.
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