the chorister's c




3 Jan 1999

They span the expressway from Virginia to Florida, the southbound and northbound streams converging on an unremarkable crossroads of the coastal plain, just one of many intersections of I-95 and US 301 as these two roads braid around one another along the Southeastern seaboard, marked on the map as no town, but only as North Carolina's Exit 1.

They are the billboards leading the way to the tackyplex of motel, restaurant, campground, gas station, coffee shop, game arcade, souvenir store, amusement park, and fireworks stand, situated just across the state line, that is South of the Border, South Carolina.

The unifying design element of the wayside is Pedro, a nightmarishly stereotypical Mexican from the 1950's. At night, the place is ablaze with lights, some kind of Vegas on the Pee Dee River, guarded by a miniature Eiffel Tower topped by a huge sombrero. Only the Mobil station, a recently added casino, and a place offering "adult games" escape the fundamental organizing principle of Pedro.

The multiple souvenir stores sell the sort of cheap junk that is designed to keep the children occupied until the minivan reaches Myrtle Beach or Orlando. Then and only then, Mom and Dad hope, the fanny pinchers and oversized whistles will fall to bits and crumble under the front seats. There are some retro entertainments as well: the shops still sell auto bingo cards, and I saw skee ball offered at the amusement park. The "giant white shark" touted on the billboards is, as you might have expected, 30 feet long, made of plastic, and inflatable, suspended over a wan indoor wading pool of a fountain. Something I had never seen before were tables of small hand towels, such as you might use for bowling, with repulsively raunchy sayings printed on them. It is a humorless place beyond irony, a hundred acres of Ubuesque 'pata-irony.

But it was the billboards that caught my imagination, this inevitable sequence of exclamatory hucksterism. Over the years, the artisans executing the signs have changed, and styles have varied somewhat. Today's formula for a board features a cartoon Pedro on the left, recumbent with guitar, a sombrero covering his face. (The fact that we can't see his face is critical: we are are drawn in, required to complete his physiognomy with our own projections, forced to enter the image and become Pedro.) Usually his mudbrick dwelling is seen in the background. At the bottom of the image is the text South of the Border shot through with a zigzag stripe of Southwestern color, along with a telephone number and the mileage remaining. Within this frame, the remainder of the board consists of the specific text.

If most of the texts are clichés, awful puns, and knock-knock jokes that even your five-year-old is weary of (You never sausage a place! (You're always a wiener at Pedro's!) with applied sculpture of a hot dog), the worst (as we perhaps understand that word to mean) are downright offensive (a board painted upside down with the text Too moch tequila?). The best, however, enter a Zen-like realm of no-advertising. What else are we to make of a slogan that is so persuasion-free as Plum perfeck!? The only content in a message like You ain't seen nothin' yet! or The best is yet to come! is the signs' own self-reference, a reflection, as the boards become the viewer and the viewer becomes the boards.

As we near the nexus, the boards become more elaborate. See the Rauschenbergian combine with clockwork sheep spinning past a bleary-eyed Pedro and the text Your sheep are all counted at Pedro's! Now that we can see his face, we have become one with the Pedro, and the only remaining message that can be put is the acknowledging HI!, no longer a word to be written with a child's finger on a steamy window, but rather the message become the window.

But this explanation strikes me as too superficial. What is the true meaning of these signs? It can't simply be that elaborate market research indicates that a board picturing a flamingo with the text You'll be tickled pink!, followed precisely three-quarters of a mile by another board that only gives motel room rental rates--that this advertising strategy will maximize return on investment. Are the billboards an exploration of series art, as practiced by Morris Louis and Andy Warhol? A board teases Everything old is new again! and gives the remaining mileage in Roman numerals. Are they the result of a 40-year university prank gone seriously wrong, a Sisyphean struggle between two junior colleges, one on each side of the Carolina state line? Certain evidence suggests an large-scale polemical experiment in environmental engineering. Item: a board with a wrecked 1964 Mustang bolted to it and the text Smash hit! Meteorological research is emphasized: the alarming Pedro's weather report: Chili today, Hot tamale. Are the boards simply landing instructions for an ancient interstellar civilization?

billboard scan

No, I think the key to the signs is in their placement, in relationship to one another and to other signs on the road. While most are spaced rather evenly, one every two or three miles, sometimes one finds clumps of three or more within the space of a quarter mile, all visible simultaneously. There is a secret code, a cabala of the freeway to be discovered here. Perhaps the initial letters of each ad, taken in order from north to south, spell one of the names of God. There is a tradition of buried treasure on the coast: it is possible that a grouping of four boards means to read the next marker for an antiques mall, to call that phone number, and thereby receive directions to a hidden trove. Or we might discover, in a numerological abecedarianism, the true author of Shakespeare's plays.

On my next drive, I mean to read this hidden language whose lexicon and thesaurus is written in these boards. I am heartened: the last sign I read as I returned north offered the clue Etymologically correck!

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©1999 David L. Gorsline.
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