Wisps of silvery steam rise up from below hundreds of orange-shelled Maryland crabs piled in front of Donny Pham. Standing next to his co-workers, two middle-aged men with deep wrinkles and tobacco-roughened voices, soft-spoken 36-year-old Pham, clean shaven except for a thin mustache and goatee, could pass for a crab-selling intern. That’s not far off, actually, as he’s only worked at Jessie Taylor Seafood for six months, a blink of an eye compared to some of his co-workers who have spent decades here, steaming, seasoning and selling hundreds of thousands of local blue crabs. Donny, wearing a black Yankees cap over a jumble of medium-length black hair, a frayed beige sweatshirt, and yellow gloves, fills a sack with a dozen crabs and hands it to a college-aged woman in a Redskins jersey. As she walks off, Donny rests his elbows on the counter and sighs. It is one of his first sales of the day, and just the start of a long weekend.
October is always slow at the D.C. Fish Market, but rain has been falling on Washington almost non-stop since Tuesday, so business is unusually light. The market consists of a square of asphalt the size of a baseball diamond, surrounded on three sides by massive floating barges that rise and sink with the tide. Right now, the tide is high, and fish mongers and crab sellers alike serve customers at eye level. The barges face the dock with overloaded storefronts that showcase huge bins of fresh seafood: live, wriggling crabs, tidy lines of tilapia, cod, and salmon fillets stacked on top of crushed ice, and massive piles of translucent pink shrimp, oysters, clams, prawns, and squid. On this murky, wet Saturday morning, only a few scattered customers, bundled in overcoats and clutching umbrellas, roam around the storefronts. Despite the weather, the market is ready for business.
“How you doin’, buddy?” Donny shouts, with a thick southern accent, trying to get the attention of an old man shuffling by. “Got crab sale here! Some shrimp? Hot soup!”
The man eyes Donny for a split-second, glaring at him as if he were a potential mugger, jams his hands deep into his coat pockets, and keeps walking. Donny isn’t offended — he’s used to being ignored. It’s part of the business. Some customers are friendly, he says, but others show up certain they are being hustled. “Some people just come up here irate,” he says with a shrug. “In their mind, you’re just trying to screw them over.”
Donny doesn’t have time to ponder the hostility from some customers, because a young Hispanic couple, huddled under an umbrella, walks by the storefront.
“How y’all doin’?! Crabs here! Hot soup!”
They look at him blankly, so Donny adjusts his pitch.
“Hola, Amigos, Hola! Camarones! Sopa Sopa!”
Despite Donny’s energetic attempt at bilingual salesmanship, the couple keeps on walking.
Donny works 14-hour days at the fish market every weekend. Rather than make the four-hour drive back to his home in Accomack County, Virginia, to be with his wife and kids, he stays on the boat overnight. And while some might not envy working elbow- and knee-deep in seafood all day, then sleeping on a barge that sways and bobs with the changing currents of the Potomac River, Donny counts his blessings. He has lived through far worse.
When he was two, Donny and his mother were among millions who fled Vietnam at the end of the war. His recollections are murky, but he remembers fragments. They sat on a beach for nearly a week, waiting for rescue boats to come. The boats arrived and they were squeezed on board with other scared, hungry, desperate refugees. Soon after the overcrowded boats motored out to sea, he says, the ships came under attack. He remembers chaos, mayhem, and screams.
“They started bombing, shooting people like crazy,” Donny says. “We were the only boat that made it out of there. Two of them got blown up.”
Damaged during the attack, overloaded with refugees, and ill-equipped for the journey, the boat took a month to sputter north to Korea. Many of Donny’s fellow refugees didn’t survive the trip.
“We were out of food. They were just throwing bodies overboard,” he says. “You remember stuff like that… you can’t help but remember something like that.”
Donny and his mother moved to America as migrant workers, settled in Virginia, and became naturalized citizens. He trained and found work as a heating and cooling technician. He married “a typical Eastern shore American woman,” had three children, and eventually moved into a house built by Habitat for Humanity. For Donny, everything seemed to be falling into place, until last spring, when he was laid off.
Donny and a friend, who had also been laid off, drove up to Washington, looking for work at the fish market. The uncle of Donny’s wife has sold seafood at the market for nearly 25 years and encouraged them to come up. Donny’s friend took one look around — overwhelmed by the noise, the shouting, the haggling over prices, the wafting stench of crab and fish and shrimp — and bolted back to Virginia. But where his friend saw long hours, sore knees, and headaches, Donny saw opportunity. He stayed.
Donny was terrible on his first day — he bungled orders, didn’t understand what people wanted, and had a hard time handling cash exchanges. “I didn’t know nothing from nothing.,” Donny said, laughing. “I didn’t know nothing about seafood. But I tried.”
After more than a decade spending his days working with pipes, furnaces, and thermostats, crawling under buildings and into heating ducts, it took a while for Donny to learn the tools of “a people business” — talking to customers, engaging them, and making sales. It isn’t a perfect job, he says, but it’s steady cash, something to pay bills while he tries to build his own business as an independent heating and cooling contractor.
Donny hasn’t told his children much about what he went through before coming to America. He’s relieved that they have the safe, stable childhood he missed. He shares with them a little about Vietnamese culture, but encourages them to think of themselves as Americans. “I tell them, be proud of your heritage, but you’ve got American heritage, too. Be proud of that.”
It seems he has given himself the same advice. Donny Donny’s life embodies the classic American story: an immigrant who works hard to build a life, a family, and a better future. It’s not always easy, or fast, or glamorous, but in his case, he works towards that dream, one crab at a time.
Donny notices a short, middle-aged woman in a zipped up puffy red jacket, standing about ten feet away and squinting at the steaming mound of crabs in front of him.
“How you doin’, miss? Help you today? We got a crab sale going on today!”
The woman scowls at him. Donny pretends not to notice.
“Give you a good deal… Two and a half for fifteen dollars?”
She turns and walks the opposite direction, but Donny doesn’t give up. He calls out to her, one more time, even though the sale appears hopeless.
“Well, what are you looking for, miss? I can help you out! Got a full barge here!”
Donny shakes his head and smiles. He doesn’t mind a challenge.