21 February 2009
Of Mice And Mayberry
Just when you start to think that America is four thousand miles of homogeny, a dish of vanilla ice cream topped with Walmart and Wendy's, something comes along to surprise you, to prove you wrong. Such was my thought yesterday, when I found myself in Mount Airy, North Carolina.
Mount Airy was the inspiration for The Andy Griffith Show's Mayberry, and this small Southern community makes no secret of it. There's Opie's Candy Shop, Barney's Cafe, Aunt Bea's Restaurant. There on the left is Floyd's Barber Shop, across from the Mayberry Five & Dime. It is, needless to say, themed.
It's a gimmick, I thought, as I drove in on the Andy Griffith Parkway. It'll be contrived, a mini-Disney World cashing in on its vague connection to a fictional American idyll. I would later feel guilty for my skepticism.
The first clue that something here was different came when I stepped into a small consignment and souvenir shop. I needed to buy a Mayberry mug and send it home immediately. This was my shallow tourist mission, and I was fixed on my goal. Upon opening the door, I was hit with a wave of stale nicotine-laden air, and a twangy--but very genuine-sounding--word of welcome by the shopkeeper. I selected an appropriate vessel, and approached the register, where there was a small crowd lined up to pay--or so I thought.
"I'll ring'y'up, honey," she said, beckoning me to skip the people ahead. Reality slowly set in. These people aren't in line at all . . . They made a trip to this consignment shop to socialize. They all know each other. What kind of a place is this?
I decided to get a bite to eat; Barney's Cafe looked suitable. Compared to the sleepy main street, this diner seemed positively bustling. Photographs of Don Knotts and artistic charcoal sketches of a young Ron Howard adorned the walls. I could feel eyes following me through the room as I found a seat; I was not from around here.
People would look over and smile at me. I could hear snippets of conversation. The waitress said to one gentleman, "later than usual, Jack! We thought you weren't going to come in today!" This was The Routine for these people. This was Mayberry.
I didn't fit in here, as much as I would have wanted to. I stared intently at my plate, and made it halfway through the meal before I heard a gentle voice from two tables away: "Where are you from, young man?"
This serene, grey-haired man wore a blue healthcare volunteer vest, proudly adorned with various patches from local organizations. He sat at a table alone, sipping on coffee from a Mayberry mug. He had gone to Wake Forest when it was in Wake Forest, he told me. That was a long time ago. We talked about Florida, about North Carolina, about the four seasons and the coast. I had to go to Ocracoke, he insisted. "Take the ferry over from Hatteras." I told him I would.
When he had finished his coffee, he rose from his chair, tucked his newspaper under his arm, and made his way to the back of the restaurant. I watched as he worked his way forward, systematically saying goodbye to everyone in the room. They responded in kind; these were all friends bidding adieu to friends. When he reached me, he warmly said, "it was nice talking to you. It's good to have you here." He meant it.
When I was finished I made my way to the till, credit card in hand. It was met with an apologetic look. Surely, I thought, there can't still be places untouched by the tentacles of the Visa network? But there are, and here I was, standing in a diner forty years back in time. I scrambled to produce any bills I had. It wasn't enough.
"Don't worry about it, sweetie," said the waitress. This was preposterous. I was $0.70 short of the cost of the meal, let alone leaving a tip. It didn't matter to her at all. She insisted that it wasn't a problem in the slightest, as if people came in here and ate for free all the time.
Riddled with guilt, I ran back to my car (behind the Mayberry Soda Fountain: Homemade Shakes and Malts) and scrounged enough quarters to cover my sins. Running back into Barney's, the waitress shook her head at me.
"I really wish you hadn't done that, honey. It's far too cold out there for you to be running back and forth."
As I merged back onto Andy Griffith Parkway, heading out of town, I reflected. Here was a place where there was no reason not to smoke in your shop: your customers are all your friends. A place where it didn't really matter if you paid for your meal, as long as you kept yourself warm. There was no gimmick here, no manufactured charm. Mount Airy wasn't emulating Mayberry. Mount Airy WAS Mayberry. And I bet there are hundreds of Mayberrys scattered over the map, places where you can talk to anybody, you're welcome anywhere, where you can get a malt from the Soda Fountain before catching a movie on one of the two screens downtown.
I suppose you've got to peel back the layers of big box stores and cookie-cutter chains. Those places don't define America, not completely. In many cases, just below the surface, you'll find unadulterated character. The Andy Griffith Show aired forty years ago, and while it was fictional, it was based on a reality that is still captured in time, if you know where to look. We in the cities and suburbs tend to forget that.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a souvenir mug to put in the mail.