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Answer Man: The Big Hands of the Law

By John Kelly
Monday, June 20, 2005

My query is about the two enormous hands on black-and-white pillars outside the Internal Revenue Service building across from the New Carrollton Metro station. A friend at the IRS suggested they represent the idea that "the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing." Somehow I feel there is a more lofty story.

Gretchen Dunn, New Carrollton

The two pillars are just 66.6 percent of artist Larry Kirkland 'ssculptural work in front of what is technically, if rather drably, known as the Federal Building.

The centerpiece is a black granite pyramid etched with the U.S. Constitution. Across a little plaza are the two columns. Each is composed of alternating bands of black granite and white marble. (For some reason they reminded Answer Man of the Hamburglar 'soutfit.)

The most striking elements are the huge, white marble hands atop each column. Each hand points skyward, one with the forefinger extended; the other is an open hand, the fingers ever so slightly cupped.

They are open to many uncharitable interpretations: One hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing. The pointing hand is the IRS telling you to pay your taxes; the other is where you put the money.

So what's really going on?

The 1997 work is called "Vox Populi," which is Latin for "the voice of the people." The hand with the raised index finger represents deliberation, argument, the gesticulation of a speaker giving his or her opinion. The hand with an open palm represents the act of voting or taking an oath.

The columns are engraved with more hands, the profiles of people engaged in conversation and quotations from various well-known figures, including Ben Franklin , John Milton and Frederick Douglass . One catchy selection is from the late senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), whose basic forms of "Americanism" include "the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, the right of independent thought."

Stream of Consciousness

Last week's column on the run/branch/ stream/creek debate brought a trickle (hah!) of letters.

Duncan Wheatley said there's at least one "run" somewhere other than the Maryland-Virginia area. "A 'run' runs through Arsenal Technical High School deep in the heart of Indianapolis," he said. It's called Pogue's Run and it runs mostly through underground concrete pipes in the city, rising to the surface on Tech's 64-acre campus. "There's also a Pleasant Run in the city."

Bob Noyer of Winchester wrote, "You omitted one in your piece on creeks: cricks!"

The Dictionary of American Regional English has a listing for "crick," which is another pronunciation of "creek." According to the map tracking its usage, the crick-line basically runs horizontally across the country. Interestingly, you're more likely to find it north of the line, from New York to Pennsylvania, than across the upper Midwest to the Pacific Northwest and California.

As for Roach's Run, Alexandria's Joan Sweeney said she remembers seeing Hollywood pioneer Hal Roach , who produced classic short comedies starring Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals, mention on a TV program that his family had once owned land that bordered land owned by Robert E. Lee . "Thanks for filling in the story."

Send a Kid to Camp

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Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to Family and Child Services, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237. To contribute online , go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly . Click on the icon that says, "Make a Donation."

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Julia Feldmeier helped research this column. Questions? Writeanswerman@washpost.com.

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