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The Shipwreck Rose: Mayberry

Wed, 01/17/2024 - 16:56

The funniest scene in the funniest television program, to me when I was 9 or 10 years old, was the moment in the old “Andy Griffith Show” when Gomer Pyle makes a citizen’s arrest of Barney Fife on the Main Street of Mayberry.

Does anyone remember Barney Fife and Mayberry? “Andy Griffith” was already an ancient document, a black-and-white broadcast from, as the cliché goes, an earlier and more innocent time, when I watched it in rebroadcast on afternoon TV in the late-1970s, I used to run around shouting “Citizen’s arrest! Citizen’s arrest!” whenever I saw someone do something particularly foolish or particularly objectionable.

I still do.

I still love this joke.

Citizen’s arrest!

Don Knotts was the character actor with the bobbing Adam’s apple who played Barney Fife, the officious pipsqueak sheriff’s deputy of Mayberry. Jim Nabors played Gomer Pyle. In the immortal scene, Barney issues a ticket to Gomer for pulling a U-turn in his 1955 Ford F-100 pickup truck (the same iconic Ford pickup, by the way, that you see in sentimental illusions of snowy scenes at Christmastime). And then Barney climbs back into his police cruiser, immediately pulls a U-ey, and is chased down and citizen’s-arrested by Gomer as a crowd of indignant citizens gathers in support. Barney tries to Boss Hog his way out of it, but Gomer won’t let him.

“You hear that, folks?” says Gomer Pyle, an incredulous innocent. “There’s two sets of laws. One for the po-lice and one for the ordinary citizens!”

Gomer Pyle was the auto mechanic at Wally’s Filling Station and Mayberry’s moral conscience. He was a slack-jawed rube in a fishing cap but extremely morally upright. When he wasn’t shouting “Citizen’s arrest!” he was shouting “Shame, shame, shame!”

The idea that Americans could chase someone down and, exclaiming “Citizen’s arrest!” drag them in to face justice, struck me as both fantastic with potential and hilarious when I was a fourth-grader lolling on the floor before the television, watching reruns of a happier — or at least more naive — America.

Whenever I see someone double-parked, to this day, I exclaim it out loud, “Citizen’s arrest!” and then I chuckle softly to myself. A car idling in front of a fire hydrant or going the wrong way up a one-way street. A grown adult wearing Crocs. Criminally bad writing by highly paid writers in esteemed magazines. (See “Shane McGowan Leaves the Astral Plane,” The New Yorker, Dec. 1, 2023, or the editor’s note, February 2020, in Condé Nast Traveler. Citizen’s arrest!) Just this week, I texted a friend to suggest the citizen’s arrest of Julia Roberts for her egregious performance in “Leave the World Behind” on Netflix. In October, it was Leonardo DiCaprio who, I complained on Facebook, should be citizen’s-arrested for his hambone turn in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (That DiCaprio is a movie-destroyer.) It’s evergreen. A personal joke with myself. The moral indignation.

It’s no mystery to me why Mayberry sent me into a reverie at the age of 9 or 10. So much had happened since the episode “Citizen’s Arrest” was filmed in 1963. Not even 15 years had passed, by the time I saw

it, but the document came to us on our milk-crate-size, rabbit-eared analog television as a relic from the age of the Pharaohs.

The late 1970s were a sort of debauched backwash of the late 1960s, and I didn’t love that moment in America. The late 1970s could be grim. The late 1970s smelled bad, like pot, B.O., and garbage. I remember driving in our station wagon through New York City during the trash collectors’ strike of 1977, wide-eyed in the way back like Gomer Pyle. I remember an X-rated version of “Fritz the Cat” on the marquee of what was then the United Artists Cinema on Main Street, and I remember a very drunk or high woman in the theater lobby who had somehow lost her shirt and bra during the late show and was being escorted out, topless. Even the view of Studio 54, from the height of a child, was seedy. Mayberry was lattice-topped pies on windowsills, cotton aprons, cars as big as paddlewheel boats.

“The Andy Griffith Show” was in black and white, but a rich, thick, warm black and white. Not the stark high contrast of, say, the Fred Astaire musicals that I also examined with a (metaphorical) plastic magnifying glass, my face three feet from the TV. The male actors’ hair on “Andy Griffith” was neat and short and smoothed with Vitalis. No one was shooting drugs or assassinating anyone on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Gomer said “golly” and “shazam” a lot, because he was always amazed. I was a bit of a Gomer Pyle myself. The worst that happened in Mayberry was a pair of glove-wearing old ladies who were caught selling moonshine out of a florist shop.

Less clear to me is the reason why I particularly identified with a character called Aunt Bee. Why did I feel like, if I were a character on “The Andy Griffith Show,” instead of being the love interest, a comely pharmacist called Ellie Walker who gets engaged to Sheriff Andy, I’d be Sheriff Andy’s 60-year-old aunt? Aunt Bee wore stiff straw hats with fruits or flowers on them, and spent most of her time packing picnic baskets with fried chicken and cornbread, baking butterscotch pie for church suppers, and being snookered by unsuitable suitors, like a handyman who only loved her for the free pork chop lunch. I may have to speak to a therapist about this.

The opening credit sequence of “The Andy Griffith Show” may be familiar to you, even if you’ve forgotten the characters and storylines. It features a catchy whistled ditty and Opie, played by Ron Howard, heading out to fish alongside Andy, his dad. Because of the pine trees in the background of this opening scene, I somehow thought that Mayberry was in Maine. (I’d read the book “Blueberries for Sal” and associated the pine trees with the bear-inhabited rocky coves of northern New England.) But Mayberry was actually set in the Carolinas, modeled after a real-life place called Mount Airy, apparently.

Mayberry was a fictional white world; maybe the ultimate fictional white world, so warm and cozy, of the many that America dreamed up and projected on the screen in the 20th century (River City, Peyton Place, Seneca Falls). There were no Black residents in Mayberry. And, now that we’re talking about it, Andy Griffith was a corrupt officer of the law: In one episode, he arrested a band that was traveling through town so that he could give a local boy a chance at stardom. Another time, he conned an antiques dealer into buying an old cannon. Citizen’s arrest! Citizen’s arrest!

Googling “citizen’s arrest,” this morning, it turns out that there is a dark and foul history to this American tradition that I was foolishly ignorant of until now, and it’s not comical at all. Hang on a dang second! (As Barney Fife might have said.) Goll-ee. It turns out that the right of a citizen to apprehend another citizen without warrant has been abused by racist citizens’ brigades like the Klu Klux Klan for, lo, 150 years. The white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 claimed they were only trying to make a citizen’s arrest.

And so we must grow up and bid goodbye to the illusions of childhood. Shazam.

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