The Mayberry I knew is gone. The Town of Farmville just upgraded the security at the courthouse, and while I understand the need for it, I dislike it. Perhaps the Mayberry I knew never really existed, except in comparison with what I left behind in New York City.
The Mayberry I Knew: Farmville, Virginia
The first time I saw Farmville, Virginia, I fell in love. Is it possible to fall in love with a town? I know I did. It reminded me of my hometown, Floral Park, and my adopted Long Island hometown, Huntington. Quaint sidewalks, old-fashioned lampposts, storefronts marked with cornerstones reading 1920, 1918, and statues to the town’s Confederate soldiers. Behind it all, like a smiling benevolent presence, stood the neo-classical campus of Longwood University with its colonnade reminiscent of Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia, its brick buildings with arched windows and domed central hall.
I loved it. I loved the way the trees turned vivid shades of crimson, ochre, and golden yellow in the fall light. I loved the way people held doors for you and folks stopped to chat.
But most of all, I loved the courthouse.
It stands back from Main Street across a short expanse of tightly clipped putting-green lawn. Two walkways lead to the enormous front steps with columns that proclaim its purpose proudly for all to see. The Light of Reconciliation, a beacon of hope after the turbulent period of the 1950s-1960s when the Civil Rights movement came to Farmville, shines on.
Next door, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Baptist church. There’s a plaque in honor of his visit on the church wall.
The history, the context, the richness of this town sings out in the courthouse. I loved walking up the broad expanse of stone steps, through the double doors into the hushed quiet of the public hall. The main hall at the top of the steps leads to the treasurer’s offices to the left and the public payment windows, like bank teller windows, to the right.
On our first visit to the courthouse, we did not know where to pay our tax bill. We went into the treasurer’s office. A lady wearing a bright purple and pink pantsuit stepped out of her office and smiled at us, making small talk while she guided us across the hallway.
We learned later this was the town treasurer.
At the teller windows, the lady at the first window has a collection of solar-powered motion figures. Dancing cacti, Santas, even a flamingo with wings that flap. She sold us Shadow’s dog license the first time. She had soft photos, clipped from calendars, of puppies and kittens adorning the walls of her station.
When she saw Shadow’s paperwork that told her story of adoption from the town’s animal control shelter, tears pooled in her eyes. “You saved her life,” she said, stamping our receipt while sniffing back tears. I swear, if she could have waived the $5 dog license fee, she would have (she didn’t.)
At the end of the hallway beyond a central stairway stand the two courtrooms serving our entire county. On days when the court is not in session, the doors stood open. The gleaming dark wood of the judge’s bench, the jury chairs, the quiet splendor of the rooms proclaimed the seriousness with which justice was dispenses within. Burly bailiffs stand quietly by the doors, nodding to passers-by.
Now you can no longer stride up the enormous stone steps and pass under the portico into the gleaming halls. We saw a sign on the Main Street doors asking people to use the rear entrance, near the sheriff’s office and the jail, on Saturday when we went to see the High Bridge Rail Road Club’s exhibit nearby. We thought it was because they were setting up the grandstand for the town Christmas parade on the courthouse lawn and didn’t want people going into the building to use the restrooms or sightsee.
Turns out, it’s permanent.
Now you have to proceed through one small entrance near the sheriff’s office on the first floor. Two county police officers search your bags. You step through a metal detector. It’s like the airport – or the McGraw-Hill building I left behind, the one that had crazy strict security because Standard & Poors is located in the same office space.
The burly police officer seated at the folding table called me back twice to go through the metal detector. I didn’t mean to step past it – I’m just so used to going right to where I need to without impediments that it took several tries for him to catch my attention and point to the metal detector. I actually had to walk through the archway, then back out through the side to proceed up the steps to the tax payment office.
My father, who loved to give everyone nicknames, would have called this officer Moose. Moose stands 6′ 5″ at least and spans the width of the metal detector. But his eyes are kind; he said softly, “Sorry, ma’am, but we have to check for guns and knives.”
There used to be a sign near the doorway that stated, “No guns or knives permitted inside the building or the courtroom.” As if you need to be told this, but in an area in which I have found that even little old ladies pack pistols under their skirts or in their purses it’s truly needed.
Now, however, a sign alone proves insufficient. We must be searched. No more wandering the halls in search of the proper office; to wander proves suspicious.
The people remain as friendly as ever. My favorite clerk, she of the dog licenses and dancing flamingo toys, wasn’t at her station on Monday, but the other three ladies smiled and chatted with customers in that kind, genteel Southern style I have grown accustomed to since moving to central Virginia. A trip to the tax office to pay the yearly property taxes isn’t just handing a check over.
It’s an intricate display of friendliness, small town charm, and old-fashioned good manners.
“How are you doing, Ellen?” The cowboy-hatted older gentleman tips the brow of his hat to the woman seated behind the teller window.
“Shoo-ee, but this here’s a long line! Bet you’ll be glad when Wednesday’s come and gone.” Wednesday is the deadline for all 9,000 souls in the county to pay our property taxes. We can mail them in of course. But where’s the fun in that?
“You got that right, Earl. You want a receipt?”
“Sure thing, honey. How’s the boy?”
“Doing well. He got himself a new job up DC way.”
“Sure nough! What he doing now?”
“There’s work here in that.”
“I know, but you know these kids – ” wave of the hand, roll of the eyes – “They crave the city.”
And so it goes. The dance – question, answer, family ties, catching up on local lore – takes precedence over the transaction, the line of customers. The customers don’t mind. We’re chatting among ourselves, commenting on the metal detectors (Elderly woman in front of me: “Lawds, what are we coming to? It’s like New York City here!” To which I merely smile. I can’t explain that it’s still miles better), the line (“Moving like molasses in January, it is”) and the town’s Christmas decorations (“Did you see Main Street? Like a movie set!” – It is.)
I love small town life. This is what Floral Park was like in the early 1970s. It may have been a town on the border of Queens, New York City, but my mom would push me in my stroller to the grocer, the bakery, the deli. The deli man gave me a slice of bologna and the bakery lady gave me a chocolate chip cookie while my mom caught up on town gossip.
It’s still Mayberry, underneath, my Farmville. It’s still a small town, a southern beauty. But the metal detectors strike a jarring note. I want my civil servants safe. I want the judges, the mayor, the treasurer in her flamboyant pants suit and the lady with the solar-powered toys giving out dog licenses not to worry about crazed meth addicts with guns and knives going to court to insist they were innocent of robbing their grandma’s purses.
I want it both safe and quaint, modern and old-fashioned. Until those metal detectors went up, I felt as if we didn’t need them here in modern Mayberry, Farmville, Virginia.
We don’t, right?
My beloved small town, Farmville, Virginia, remains at its heart the same.
But the metal detectors are a reminder that indeed, times have changed.