Southern Californians affectionately call Seal Beach “Mayberry by the Sea,” comparing their town to the fictional setting of the popular 1960s sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show. Andy Griffith’s Mayberry had one traffic light, a sheriff, an inept deputy, the lowest crime rate in North Carolina and one long-distance telephone. Seal Beach California has 23 traffic lights and 31 police officers for 24,000 residents who crowd into fewer than two square miles of residential space. A natural wildlife refuge and the U.S. Navy occupy the other 10 square miles. The Internet speed from the most prevalent carrier crawls along like a turtle on dial-up. A gated retirement community accounts for half of the residential square footage. A 2011 tragedy, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before or since in Seal Beach, sent Mayberry by the Sea’s crime rate soaring. Without this aberration, the crime rate in Seal Beach is regularly about half that of California and the US. Both Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and SoCal’s iteration of it are predominantly white. Seal Beach is 84% Caucasian. Both are old-fashioned. Andy Griffith’s Mayberry was filmed in the 1960s, but hearkened back to a time in America more like the 1930s. The average age of Seal Beach residents is 20 years older than the US average. Both the fictional and real Mayberry towns are acutely aware, almost to the point of paranoia, that out-of-town robbers, scam artists, people with felony warrants and vagrants could ruin their slice of the American dream. Los Angeles County borders North Seal Beach, so there is some justification, but it’s possible that a town’s desire to keep safe amidst mayhem can make it intolerant and inhospitable.
I lived in Seal Beach for the first six months of 2014. Every week for comedic enjoyment, I read the police blotter in the typo-ridden volunteer newspaper, The Sun. Long-time residents have a running bet on which story they will vote most ridiculous at the end of the year. Typical stories are about officers shooing possums from garages, checking in on potentially abusive parents whose toddler’s tantrum had alerted neighbors to the horror of a 7 PM bedtime and counseling the potentially insane—those Bluetooth wearing culprits who talk to themselves in the park.
Resident surfers from the ’60s lament “The place isn’t what it used to be,” but they have no plans to move any time soon. Yes, Seal Beach is safe, but the trade-off is a stuffy sort of oppression. I blame the population density. Privacy is at a minimum and premium. I felt as if there always was a “concerned citizen” peering at me with two fingers wedged between closed blinds and another placed in the rotary dial ready to call 9-1-1. In all fairness, maybe I will be the same way in 30 years. Perhaps the mantra better safe than sorry is what has protected Mayberry by the Sea from its more crime infested neighbor to the North—Los Angeles’ Long Beach. However, the overbearing police presence destroys the very concept of peacefulness for which the town Mayberry stands.
Here’s one take on how an innocent day for new Seal Beach resident, Murphy Lawson, can take a turn for the worse under the watchful eye of “concerned citizens.”
All of the police reports in this story are real; taken from the June 17th, 2014 edition of The Sun.
For the Dogs
New resident Murphy Lawson was ready for a new start. He carefully picked his keys up from the table and tiptoed toward the door to make a quick bank run before lunch. A month ago, he had moved his family to Seal Beach, a quaint town as historic as Southern California gets. There were quite a few houses that had been built in the early 1900s. Several had been restored to their former glory and stood tall and proud upon the beachfront. The town had a unique charm usually reserved for places steeped in history. Seal Beach reminded Murphy of the good things from his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He liked it here and was eager to make a good impression on his neighbors whom he hadn’t yet met. The street fair that was being held that day seemed a good opportunity to do so, and Murphy wanted to take out a little bit of cash before it started.
His attempts at slipping out of the house unnoticed were unsuccessful. As if on command, the dogs heard the keys jingle and leapt toward the door; wagging, panting and begging to go with him. Murphy reasoned that since the family would be gone for hours, the dogs deserved a ride. They would be trapped inside for the latter part of the afternoon. He didn’t have the heart to say no. “C’mon guys,” he waved them along toward the car. They jumped in the back seat when Murphy opened the back door as if it was their first time going anywhere. It wasn’t, but their unbridled enthusiasm always put a smile on his face.
In true LA form, Murphy drove the eight blocks to the bank and parked. It was an exceptionally hot day, so he left the engine running and air-conditioning blasting. He hopped out of the car and clicked the key fab to lock it behind him. On cue, the horn honked twice. There was a small wait for the ATM, but his turn came quickly enough. He got up to the machine and before he had the chance to enter his PIN, the unmistakable red and blue lights of a police cruiser lit up the parking lot. Like any respectable east coast native would do, Murphy tried to ignore the commotion behind him. The murmur of the small line for the ATM grew louder and forced him to take notice at what was happening in the lot. To his surprise two police officers were at his car. They peered inside. The dogs started going nuts; barking and hopping wildly between the front and back seats. One of the officers tried the door handle and the car alarm blared. Now, Murphy was paying more attention.
He turned anxiously back to the ATM half in hopes that he was imagining everything and it would go away if he ignored it long enough. He punched in his PIN. It was wrong. He punched it in again. It was right. The next screen asked him to choose a language preference. “Oh C’mon-you’ve got to be kidding me. Can’t we do this later” He felt the glare of the impatient line in back of him, and punched the Spanish button on the screen by accident. “No! Goddamn Spanish!” He howled and resisted the temptation to hit the screen. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
Murphy had been muttering out loud pretty loudly. A glance over his shoulder revealed a rather large contingent of unhappy Hispanic bank customers. Some shook their heads and looked down. Others were more like the gum smacking, paunchy, angry woman next in line. She stood with her arms crossed high upon her large chest and stared at him unblinking through squinted eyes.
“Definitely from the east coast,” he thought “Newark maybe?” It took forever before the ATM finally spit out his cash and receipt. “Muchas gracias Senor,” the machine sang happily. Murphy snatched his cash, mushed it into his palm along with the receipt and turned to face the angry woman. He shrugged at her as she marched forward to take her turn. In two steps, the beep, beep, beep of the ATM signaled that Murphy had forgotten his card in the machine. He spun back on his heels to grab it back, but the “Humph,” of the angry lady blocked his access. She had claimed the machine as her own and was intent on blocking this Hispanic-hating man from getting his card back. In desperation to get it back, he reached over her and his fingers grazed her shoulders, but he wasn’t fast enough. He felt and saw the plastic card snap back into the ATM. It had been swallowed up in a flash, eaten alive, claimed by the bank as its own, hasta la vista baby. Murphy backed off from the woman who had turned around in a fighting stance and he inhaled deeply. “Accept what you cannot change,” he murmured to himself. “Accept your fate…” He hadn’t really accepted anything, but he had to deal with the police and dog circumstances unraveling before him.
The Spanish diatribe of the ATM machine only was drowned out now by the car alarm. The two officers looked as if they had started to strategize. One gripped the handle of his nightstick while the other nodded—almost too enthusiastically. Murphy rushed toward them fearing their next move. When he was within ear shot, he shouted “Officers, what’s the problem here?”
They turned almost in slow motion and answered in unison “What?”
Before he could begin to explain, Murphy realized the key fab was still in his hands. He clicked on unlock and the alarm stopped whizzing, beeping, honking and chirping. The once restful block had been awakened with Murphy’s declaration “This is my car! These are my dogs! They have air conditioning!” Murphy looked at the officers and then at his crazy dogs jumping back and forth in the seats and slobbering over everything. He shrugged his shoulders again and added a smile. He was sure one of the dogs had peed on the driver’s seat. One always did. “License and registration please,” one of the officers said. Murphy fumbled in his back pocket for his wallet and handed the cop his documents.
The cop’s partner explained that a concerned citizen had called in the emergency when he had left the two dogs in the car with the windows rolled up. “But I was running to the ATM for one second officers. I don’t understand how someone could have called you so fast. I literally just got here,” Murphy tried to explain.
His words fell on deaf ears. “Please be aware of the danger here Mr. Lawson.” The officer examined Murphy’s license in one hand and heaved up his pants with the other. “Leaving your dogs unattended in a hot car with the windows rolled up is a very dangerous proposition indeed. I’m going to let you off with a warning this time because your dogs seem to be okay, but don’t let us see this happen again.”
“Yes sir,” Murphy replied. Murphy just wanted it to end, so he didn’t respond with any of the things he wanted to say. After the officers took off from the scene, Murphy stood in the bank parking lot scratching his head for a while. He started to feel eyes on him and opened the car door. “Ah, perfect.” He thought as the urine-soaked driver’s seat seeped into his khakis.
POLICE BLOTTER #1
Murphy turned over the morning’s events in his mind. He tried to make sense of it all, but the timing of the call was inexplicable. It took only seconds for him to slam the car door behind him and walk to the ATM. To quiet his nerves and the barking beasts in the back seat, he had decided to drive home the long way, around the park and along the shoreline. He had only gotten a few blocks away from the bank when his cell phone rang. It was his elderly father Steve, a Korean War vet who had lost some of his wit, but none of his angst. He was ranting about those damn “zipper head cars” that were recalled for faulty relay switches, “…or some such horse shit,” he’d always add. His dad announced “I’m coming over now, so you can look at this hunk-a-junk you made me buy and tell me whether it’s okay,” adding “I know those damn zips probably did it on purpose.” Before Murphy could object to the blatant racism and impromptu visit his dad hung up. Murphy worried about his father. He hadn’t yet visited their new neighborhood and he often got lost while driving, while thinking, and even while talking. To make matters worse, the old man refused to own a cell phone, so there was no way to reach him and Murphy knew his Dad was racing his car toward Seal Beach at this very moment. His father had always loved racing cars and his advanced age hadn’t slowed him down a bit. Murphy murmured a prayer, “Please God let him take it slow. Don’t let him put the pedal to the metal. Dear God let him see the street signs and remember that he’s not avoiding mine fields in Korea.” Murphy was muttering these prayers repeatedly when a thought came to him. He remembered that he actually had a relay switch in the garage somewhere. “Will wonders never cease?” He began to perk up and let his fingers start tapping the steering wheel in rhythm to the music on the radio. If Steve arrived in one piece, Murphy might be able to perform a quick fix. “Maybe I can get Dad in and out in under an hour and save the day.” Murphy, always the optimist, turned up 92.3 Hot Oldies, rolled down the car’s windows, stopped muttering to himself and started whistling.
POLICE BLOTTER #2
Meanwhile, Trixie, Murphy’s 16-year-old daughter, met up with Ronny, her newest crush at the Greenbelt, a stretch of grass in the center of town. Ronny had been head over heels with her since he first layed eyes upon her. The Greenbelt was the park that had been built on the site of an old railroad line. Ronny introduced himself to her one day after following her on one of her walks. He had pretended to bump into her.
Today, weeks later, they met up again as boyfriend and girlfriend. In typical nonchalant teen fashion, sprawled out on their favorite park bench with a group of friends. Trixie almost felt accepted, so when she saw her father drive by on Electric Avenue, she held her breath. When he drove past, Trixie exhaled. “Thank God!” She was relieved he hadn’t seen her because her parents were so un-cool and very strict. “They’d ruin my chances at popularity before school even starts,” she thought. Admittedly, Trixie didn’t want her parents to see her hanging with this group of kids either. They looked a bit rough around the edges. Low hanging waist lines and skulls on their T-shirts could have given the wrong impression. Her parents would have easily misconstrued them as gangbangers, even though a closer examination would have reveled surf boards, white teeth and organic juice; all obvious indicators that they were just young teens trying to be cool.
Today a couple of them planned escapes from their parents insistence on going to the street fair. The surfers prepared for the epic surf expected that night. “Dude, it’s the biggest swell in a decade,” one of them said. His lackey followers nodded, each chiming in “Right on.” ‘Yea Dude Right On-Righteous.” In fact the surf was so epic that they had pitched a tent, so they could surf until they dropped without wasting time on needless terrestrial travel.
As soon as Murphy’s car had turned the corner, Trixie announced, “Gotta jet. Catch up later K?” She figured the chances of getting out of that stupid fair would be much easier if she spoke to her parents separately. Since her Dad was still driving around and running errands, she had a short window to take advantage of. Plus, Ronny’s younger brother, whom they all called Goober had been showing off a BB gun all morning. Ronny had tried to snatch it from him twice but hadn’t been able to. Ronny was more annoyed than he had let on in Trixie’s presence. He had sensed her annoyance early on with Goober and his BB gun. Ronny was so enamored by Trixie that he would have done nearly anything to spend one more moment with her. “C’mon,” he begged. “Don’t go so soon.” He pleaded with her for a while, but she insisted on leaving.
When Trixie had disappeared into one of the alley ways, Ronny didn’t hold back. He blamed Goober for Trixie wanting to go before angrily grabbing the BB gun from Goober’s hands. Two BBs were discharged accidentally. One hit a bottle on the ground and the other nearly shot a seagull flying overhead. The noise sent all of the teens scattering. Trixie heard the shot and picked up her pace toward home.
POLICE BLOTTER #3
Trixie arrived home in what seemed like seconds. She held on to the railing to climb the steps of her porch. At the top she paused to collect her thoughts, catch her breath and consider how to approach her mother. Before she had thought it all through, Trixie just went for it. She stormed into the kitchen confidently, but her pleas to get out of the fair didn’t work. Her mother slammed the spoon she had been mixing cookie dough with down on the table and declared “No way!” Trixie turned to her old standbys. Her mother hated raised voices and yelling of any kind, so Trixie started a fight. If Murphy and the dogs hadn’t returned the crescendo of the decibel level might have persuaded her mother to let Trixie out of the family obligation, but Trixie was out of time. Murphy arrived and took over for his wife. “You’re going Trix! No ifs, ands, or buts about it. One more word and I’m taking your phone away for a week,” Murphy threatened. He was happy to be the disciplinarian. With that hiccup well in hand, Murphy turned to the job of saving the day’s plans and headed toward the garage to search for the relay switch.
Trixie had lost the battle, but not the war. Defiant and spoiled, she did the unthinkable. She picked up the phone and pretended to be a concerned citizen when she called the police.
POLICE BLOTTER #4
“That call was perfect,” she thought as she hung up the phone. The bangs, whizzes and booms coming from the garage would convince police. Then, Trixie slipped out the back toward Ronny’s house where she planned to spend the night. She didn’t want to be at home when the cops showed up and had almost had made a clean getaway when her mother caught sight of her. “Your daughter’s going over to that boy’s house again,” she yelled into the garage. “Please go and get her Murph! She shouldn’t always get her way you know.”
Third Time’s A Charm?
Murphy heard and tried to ignore his daughter’s defiant, distant and what had recently become all too familiar cry: “I’m running away! I hate both of you!” He frantically sped up the search for the relay switch, but, it was of no use. He was forced to grapple with the truth. Spending time with his family at the fair was nothing but a crumbling dream. He was sweating like a pig, smelled funny and looked a little like a mad scientist when the dogs began barking again. Red and blue lights were in his driveway. “Oh no,” he thought. “I hope Dad’s alright!”
Obviously, the call wasn’t about his Dad.
After Murphy had been completely humiliated in front of the crowd of neighbors who had ventured from their houses to watch Murphy get a scolding from the local police, he felt the phone buzz in his pocket. He waited for the neighbors to disperse before pulling it out and reading the text. It was from Ronny: “Trixie locked herself in my parent’s bathroom. Help!”
Murphy’s heart sank. He didn’t want to deal with Trixie’s teenage antics after the day he had just had. He waited until the cruiser was well out of site before getting back into his car. It still smelled like urine from the morning. The wetness seeping back into his pants, which had since dried was a rather cruel reminder that he had been wearing the same pants all day and must have smelled like a sewer in front of the last set of officers. The car radio was still on, but he didn’t have the heart to whistle to Neil Diamond sing “I’m a Believer.” Trying to look on the bright side, he managed a chuckle as he reviewed the bank, his father, who still hadn’t arrived and the scene at home that had just concluded. With that behind him, he thought, he had had his quota of police interactions for the year –for a lifetime! As he made the turn up the hill to Ronny’s house, he relaxed in the knowledge that lightening doesn’t strike twice, let alone three times, in the same spot. Murphy’s optimism was dashed when he saw those old familiar blue and red lights flashing in Ronny’s driveway.
POLICE BLOTTER #5
Stay tuned for next week’s episode when Murphy discovers the street fair is a car show, and Trixie has to take her punishment. Now, a word from our sponsors…