If you drive on 16th Street in the morning and pass Upshur, you might have seen Edith Menard. She's the diminutive woman, with the gray top knot wrapped in a brilliant scarf, endlessly watering her lawn, trimming her hedges and what she calls "wet scrubbing" the sidewalk, even in the rain. The corner of 16th and Upshur is Menard's stage, where each morning she performs her one-woman show. Her costumes are elaborate kimonos, embroidered blouses, loose satiny pants, delicate slippers with curling toes. She is obsessed with China, though she's never been farther from home than Mexico.
Maybe you've caught a glimpse of the strands of gold and pearls she wears around her neck, or her long dangling earrings encrusted with stones that sparkle as the sun catches them. Or maybe, especially if you were speeding down Menard's block, you've been the recipient of a cold squirt of water from her green garden hose.
Menard, 67, who is a native of Washington and a graduate of Dunbar High School, Howard University and Minor Teachers College, has always wanted to do exactly as she pleased -- it just took her a few more years than she figured. Asked with some hesitation whether she would describe herself as eccentric, and she bursts into girlish glee.
"Oh, I love that term. That's fabulous! Eccentric, exotic, I've always wanted to be different, I never cared what anyone thought of me." she said. "Most of my close associates always wonder, 'What will other people say?' I never worried about it. That's why I am as I am."
Her house is a typical sandy brick row house with a green awning. Menard has decorated her house with images and symbols that are important to her: bright red, white and gold butterflies painted on the walkway and walls, enormous plants hanging from everywhere, occasionally touching a visitor's neck with an unexpected caress.
More butterflies, these nearly two feet wide, are tied with silk ribbon to the pine trees in her yard. What appears to be a two-headed ceramic cat crouches in the center of the red-carpet-lined walk, its necks draped with red and yellow beads, silent companion to the Angora and Persian cats that are Menard's only companions since her mother died. Everywhere -- on walls, floors, furniture and ceilings -- is stenciled the Chinese symbol for long life, in memory of her mother, who died last year at the age of 92.
After nearly 40 years as a teacher of English, first at Howard University and then at three District high schools -- Cardozo, Eastern and Wilson -- Menard retired in the early 1970s. She says she quit teaching because she was bored and wanted to try something else. Menard was born in a house near 13th and U streets, and has lived for 31 years on 16th Street.
"I never married. No one ever asked me, it's that simple," she says with a laugh. "I figured I'd get bored. I don't understand how women stay with one man for so long -- and I didn't want children. I prefer being around plants, animals, paintings and books more than people. I think I was born without a maternal instinct."
However, she liked teaching children even though she didn't want any of her own. "It was like being on stage every day," she said "I'm basically a ham, a big show-off; always have been."
She sleeps when she feels like it, usually in spurts during the day and early evening. She's usually awake by 11 at night to watch the news, then Johnny Carson, then Nightwatch with Charlie Rose, whom she loves. Usually she takes a nap from 4 until about 5:30. When she wakes up, she eats, mostly fruit, then dresses meticulously for her day ahead.
"I dress for action, for success," she says. "Oh, I know how to do it, honey. Something different every day. And all my clothes are exotic. Yes they are. And I always dress my hair, always wear it just like this, in a top knot, wrapped with a bright scarf." It does not take her long to dress; her eagerness to go outside will not allow it.
At 6 a.m., Edith Menard makes her entrance. "When I'm dressed," she says, "I take a deep breath and greet the public on 16th Street. I walk around, look at the property, look like I know what I'm doing, which I don't." She chuckles. "But I'm a great actress."
For three hours Menard waters her lawn, hoses the sidewalk, greets each and every passer-by, waves to her fans as they speed along 16th Street. The Metro bus drivers all honk as they pass, people wave as they drive by. Once she received a letter from members of a car pool from Rockville, telling her how much joy she'd given them over the years. "I give them the high sign by holding the hose up in the air as they pass," she says.
There are, of course, a few who do not enjoy Menard's daily performance. Once she sprayed a speeding driver from California who turned around and came back, angry at being sprayed. "I told him, 'Sir, into each life some rain must fall, and I'm providing the rain,' " she laughs. "But the majority of people have been most supportive. Even the ambulances on call, the day care van, the school buses, they all wave."
Sometimes people stop to ask her who she is, why she's all dressed up. She smiles, introduces herself, tries to explain. But it's not easy. There's so much life, energy, creativity and passion in her that it all spills out in a kind of jumble. When she speaks its almost like a song. A listener strains to grasp the lyric. "I enjoy it, I enjoy it, I'm old, single and independent," goes the refrain. At least one verse goes, "If you're fairly secure with yourself, you do what you want, you don't care what other people think."
Menard waters her lawn -- and sometimes the lawns of her neighbors -- three times a day. She is in love with gold paint and cleanliness, so she refurbishes the walls or chairs or bric-a-brac every day with gold leaf paint and cleans half a room in her large house. She also painted the manhole covers in front of her house and the traffic box on the corner of 16th and Upshur, adding several colorful butterflies and a potted plant to an otherwise dull rectangle.
Though she has never been to Paris, she loves the city where she intends to live for a spell by the time she's 70 -- and China -- where she has applied for a job teaching high school. When she is not performing on 16th Street she does other things she loves: goes to the National Gallery of Art, visits friends like former mayor Walter E. Washington and his wife Benetta, browses in Lord & Taylor's in Chevy Chase. "If I see something I have to have, they hold it for me until I get my pension check," she said.
But usually, she stays close to home, tending her yard, sweeping the street, interacting -- verballly, visually, or with a spray of cold water -- with what she calls "the parade of humanity" passing along 16th Street.