Alexandria resident Gayle Reuter will never forget the day she broke her ankle and had to send her two daughters, ages 12 and 10, to the store for supplies.
The girls set off through their Del Ray neighborhood with a little red wagon. Reuter stayed home with her foot up, anxious.
Then the calls started coming in. Grocery clerks and business owners along Mount Vernon Avenue phoned Reuter to say the girls were safe as they progressed up the street. A neighbor bought them a frozen drink from the convenience store.
To Reuter, that day several years ago embodies all that's good about living in Alexandria, a city of 135,000 that is rapidly growing more urban yet, some say, remains a small town at heart.
Residents stroll through quaint farmers markets in Old Town and Del Ray on weekends, or turn out to cheer for the city's public high school football team -- the Titans. They gather at such popular coffee spots as Misha's and St. Elmo's for lattes and the latest gossip.
Recently, however, the town gossip has turned ugly, morphing this cozy Mayberry into a nasty Peyton Place, as months of fallout from the drunken driving arrest of School Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry continues with few signs of dissipating.
Everybody is squabbling. School Board members are quarreling among themselves. Some African American churches in town are angry with the School Board. City Council member Joyce Woodson (D) is in a dispute with the city's police union over her behavior when her son was a suspect in an egging case, an incident of vandalism connected to the Perry arrest.
"I think it's only going to get worse," said James Boissonnault, whose house was egged. "People have been gone during the summer, and now they're back, looking at what's going on. During everything that has gone on, there has been a huge leadership void, and people are pretending things don't stink when they stink. Nobody has stepped up to do the right thing."
Perry did not want to discuss the repercussions of her arrest. "It's time we all focus on schools and education," she said. Some longtime residents, however, attribute the scandal's staying power to the fishbowllike life in this 15-square-mile city.
According to the census, Alexandria is a highly transient community. About half its population is new to the city within the past five years. But many residents have lived for generations in Alexandria.
"It's such a small town you don't have any privacy. You can't call city hall to complain your garbage is being picked up late without everybody knowing about it," said activist Ginny Hines Parry, who heads the organization Alexandrians for Sensible Growth. "Everybody's too close. Everybody's tripping over everybody else. It's almost embarrassing."
During Hurricane Isabel, neighbors ratted out other neighbors, calling police to report who was stealing sand from the town volleyball pit to make sandbags. Yet during that crisis, Alexandrians were also quick to lend each other sump pumps and throw neighborhood barbecues after the storm, when some residents went days without power.
And, as Reuter pointed out, any small town has its golden moments. In 2002, more than 40 loyal customers of Cafe MezzoGiorno in Old Town made national news when they helped bus tables and wash dishes while the cafe's owner, William Grogan, was recuperating from a heart attack.
"You get to know a lot of people by name and run into them in the street, and that adds to the small-town atmosphere," former City Council member Claire Marie Eberwein said. "That makes it special. You don't have that in some of the other jurisdictions in this big, metropolitan region."
Civic debate over seemingly minor issues such as parks and stoplights can rage for months, which is another reason nobody is surprised that the controversy over Perry's case has not abated. "Alexandria's motto should be, 'Alexandria: Where We Never Reach Closure,' " former City Council member David Speck quipped.
After Perry was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated in April, she managed to retain her job. But three other local officials have gotten caught up in the reverberations from the arrest. School Board member Gwendolyn H. Lewis, who is African American, was voted out of her post as vice chairman after she alone voted against allowing Perry to keep her job -- a demotion that angered black churches.
Boissonnault, a parent, organized a petition drive against Melissa Luby, another School Board member, who went drinking with Perry at Joe Theismann's restaurant the night Perry was arrested. Perry and Luby had gone there to relax after an acrimonious meeting with parents.
In July, Samuel Howard Woodson IV and Luby's son James were charged with misdemeanor destruction of property after Boissonnault's home was egged in retaliation for his stand. James Luby pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor; Woodson was found guilty in a District Court trial.
The city's police union and the detective investigating the case alleged last week that City Council member Woodson tried to harass and intimidate the officer by filing a complaint against her on official city letterhead. The complaint was investigated, and the officer was cleared. Woodson denied that she tried to harass or intimidate anyone in the case.
Now the embattled School Board is trying to refocus civic attention on things it believes matter by holding community meetings for parents. At the first meeting, Perry said she was questioned about substitute teachers and curriculum.
School Board Chairman Mark O. Wilkoff said the board's decision to hold the town meetings had nothing to do with the lingering residue of Perry's arrest. "That was my idea. It has nothing to do with" the Perry controversy, he said. "There are some people in this community trying to keep this issue alive any way they can. If people spent as much time tutoring kids and helping kids as they do energy keeping this issue alive, the world would be a better place."