He stood 50 feet tall, a billboard-sized peanut wearing a monocle and top hat, cane folded over his arm and legs crossed in an aristocrat’s jaunty stance – Raleigh’s forgotten ambassador.
Decades ago, the first thing anybody saw driving into Raleigh from the south was the towering Mr. Peanut sign on Wilmington Street, ringed in neon lights. You could smell hot peanuts when you passed. You could collect sno-cones and candy at the Planters store nearby, a reward for keeping your mouth shut in the back seat.
For a kid coming in from Smithfield or Goldsboro, Mr. Peanut meant the big city. He meant the carousel at Pullen Park, the Ferris wheel at the State Fair and new school clothes on Fayetteville Street.
For a kid leaving Raleigh, he represented a last wave goodbye on the road to the beach. Wilmington Street quickly turned into U.S. 70, and tobacco fields pretty much made for the only scenery all the way to the ocean.
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Mr. Peanut straddled the line, a checkpoint at the border, a legume-shaped marker between comers and goers.
I bring all of this up because I’d never heard of Mr. Peanut until Thursday night. I first came to Raleigh in 1993, and the landmarks that caught my eye then all stood on Hillsborough Street: Bourbon Street Social Club, Pipes by George, the cylindrical Holiday Inn.
But Thursday night, I helped judge a storytelling contest called the Bard Brawl at Kings Barcade. The winner, Doug Llewellyn, who owns Square Rabbit downtown, told the crowd about moving here from Kinston as a kid. For him, relocating 80 miles west meant a huge step toward civilization and urbanity, and as he hit the city limits, Mr. Peanut welcomed him with white gloved hands.
It got me thinking about home and how you know you’re there.
Most of my family lives in Baltimore, and four or five times a year we slog back down Interstate 95 after visits, listening to singalong music from Neil Diamond or Johnny Cash, eating bad food out of cardboard boxes, trying to spot all 50 license plates, forcing our 8-year-old to do his math homework on Scootpad rather than watch another episode of Clone Wars.
The first sign of Raleigh appears right about the time you pass Wendell on U.S. 64: a few skyscrapers poking out from behind a hill. When it’s summer, I know I’m home when I see the crape myrtles and hear the cicadas. If it’s winter, I can see the obelisks in City Cemetery from my driveway.
But I envy the generations ushered in and out of Raleigh by a giant peanut. I have no idea what became of him. His building still stands as a used car lot, down the street from the check-cashing joint and the homeless shelter on the sad boulevard that South Wilmington Street has become.
I wonder. Do legumes still wear spats and cufflinks? Do peanuts still adopt a dignified air? Does Raleigh still salute its people with dash and flair?
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