Caprice is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of Arlington County, unless you're a Maryland driver trying to find your way around.
Arlington is the Washington area's serious civil servant, its navy blue suit and sensible shoes. And now, in one couple's front yard, behind a Metrobus stop, it's also the home of an 18-foot-tall carved wooden mermaid with a shapely derriere and bare breasts that must be at least size DD.
Whimsy has come to Arlington, and residents don't know how to take her.
"A monstrosity," says a woman in the neighborhood grocery store.
"Can I touch her?" asks a wide-eyed child who, with her mom, has stopped by for a close look.
SUVs and minivans slow down on busy Route 29, their drivers doing a double take. Some of the curious park on the first side street they come to and walk back to make sure they've seen what they think they've seen.
"It's amazing someone would exhibit that taste in this county," says Barbara Favola, who chairs the county board.
"I like it, it's unique," says next-door neighbor Joan Banikas, mother of four. "Now I can give great directions to our house."
The mermaid in question has no name yet, but one could say she's the love child of Nancy and Paul Jackson.
She used to be a white ash tree, more than 100 years old, a grande dame that shaded the Jacksons' graceful, Mediterranean-style house on Lee Highway near the Falls Church line. It took sick, as old trees do, and her grieving owners couldn't bring themselves to chop it down.
Remembering tree carvings they had seen in Lancaster, Pa., they decided to hire a wood sculptor to give it a new life. But what did it want to be?
Nancy thought about her husband's favorite things. "His primary passion is fishing. He also loves women, and I tolerate the fact that he loves women. When I said, 'How about a mermaid?' his eyes lit up and I realized I had tickled all his fancies." Nancy went to the Internet and searched for wood sculpture. In early summer, Scott Dustin, a Frederick artist, arrived with a collection of chain saws.
White ash, an off-white hardwood with a yellowish hue, inspires visions of baseball bats, church pews and bowling alleys. Dustin was working from a different picture. He hired a tree service to help him strip off the branches and bark. Then, starting at the base, he carefully chipped out each scale of the mermaid's tail. A fish and a seahorse emerged. Moving up, he created a graceful rear end, then gave the lady long, manlike arms that reach skyward, releasing a dove. "If there are mermaids, they need powerful arms to get through the water," he says.
Dustin makes a good business from what-ifs in the Washington suburbs. Charging $300 a foot, he has turned dead or dying trees into portraits, benches, thrones, small woodland creatures and even a 13-foot Peter Rabbit. Howard County's planned communities are his biggest customers; the mermaid in Arlington is his largest project.
Speaking of large, how about those breasts? he is asked.
"Nancy had told me she wanted her well-endowed," Dustin says. "I said the way the tree had grown, I didn't think she'd be big-chested. . . . When I realized she was going to be rather large, I intended to have her hair fall over her nipples."
The Jacksons -- make that Paul Jackson -- pressed for full torso nudity, arguing that because she is turned partly toward the house, the breasts wouldn't be that noticeable from the street. "And let's subtly put some nipples in there because everybody has nipples," he told Dustin. (Subtle is the operative word; the nipples are not much bigger than a quarter.)
As a conciliatory gesture to the Banikas family, whose view is second-best to his own, Paul Jackson inquired of Bob Banikas, as the project neared the end, whether the breasts should be reduced a bit.
"Don't touch them!" Banikas replied. "They're my inspiration in the morning!"
Banikas sees the lady in his rearview mirror on weekdays when he backs his Hummer H2 out of the garage. "Then I'm ready to go face my day no matter what happens," he says.
Of course, Banikas has ruffled some feathers of his own in the neighborhood, driving his maroon Hummer. Drivers have shouted at him; some have given him the bird, and we don't mean the kind perched on the mermaid's outstretched hand. It would seem that neither his tank nor the sea creature next door are "the Arlington way." The Malibu way, maybe.
But why shouldn't a little piece of California be welcome in a neighborhood of mostly red-brick homes lined up like Monopoly pieces?
Why should District residents, with their painted fiberglass pandas on street corners, have all the fun? Like an exclamation point in the middle of a simple declarative statement, the mermaid has caused people to stop and take notice of their surroundings, scratch their heads and wonder what it all means. Isn't that something?
"There are so few things that are creative around here. It's a plus to have the mermaid there," says landscape designer Ann Sulkie.
County code enforcement officer Richard Freeman wasn't so sure when he was taking his normal driving tour of homes on a Saturday morning recently and saw people jamming on their brakes in front of the Jackson house.
"Oh, no," was his first thought when he saw the mermaid. He took pictures, went back to his office. After receiving several complaints, he returned to talk to Nancy Jackson.
As he studied the sculpture up close, he fell, if not in love, in like. He returned to the county building, consulted the law and talked it over with his fellow officers. "We deemed it art and closed the case," he says.
That doesn't surprise Tom Wolfe, a neighbor of the Jacksons' and not a fan of their sculpture. As conventional as Arlington appears to be, he says, "Arlington government will permit anything and everything." (Wolfe is a Republican and chief of staff to a Republican member of Congress. Arlington's County Board is composed of all Democrats. Just so you know.)
The mermaid "is a work of art," Wolfe continues. "Somebody put a lot of skill into it. But it just has no place where it is, in somebody's front yard."
Why? Is he bothered by the nudity? The breast size? He says not. It's the overall size that bothers him: "It seems to me to be about 30 feet tall."
Sulkie, the landscaper, has a quick response. "Oh, you can only have art in a museum, not in someone's yard? I didn't know that.
"If you look around Arlington, you'll see some of the most old-fashioned, overgrown landscaping in the world," Sulkie continues. "Here are homes selling for $800,000 up, with the same landscaping they had when they were built 50 years ago, the same cracked concrete walkways, the same azaleas, the same yews and hollies."
Sulkie can't be objective in this debate; she has been hired by the Jacksons to landscape the front yard around the mermaid. As the mermaid rose from the ash, even Nancy Jackson had some doubts about her vision.
Sulkie has proposed grouping five one-ton rocks around the mermaid's base to resemble a shoreline and planting ornamental grasses farther out that, when caught by the wind, will bring waves to mind. Then, says Sulkie, "she will look like she is supposed to be there."