by Tim Gilmore, 1/10/2023
The man seemed off, didn’t fit together right. His proportions were wrong, disturbingly so. The dimples up and down his body reminded Eliot Ray, five years old, of the way the roasted shell felt along his fingertips, the way the dry husk shattered and peanut dust scattered across his suddenly desolate hands. The man’s beanpole arms and legs appeared to wound, to stab, to pierce the rounded body beneath the top hat. And why, beneath that monocle and beside that walking cane, did Mr. Peanut not wear a shirt?
Decades later, Eliot tries to piece together the way he’d felt as a child, to taxonomize these impressions. What remembering (re–membering) and recollecting (re-collecting) does to the sense he’d retained of those impressions makes them ghostlier, pushes them further away. Still he tries to re-inhabit them: to under-stand.
“The vague sense that something was wrong was worse than if Mr. Peanut had been some kind of monster,” he says. He felt the soft menace of something that shouldn’t be, a disjointed hybridity, the perceived sentience of someone – no, worse: something – who shouldn’t have been aware of him: should not have known of him what even Eliot himself had yet to learn.
Every school day, Nanci Guest waited for the bus to collect her and her friends beneath the 54-foot-tall Mr. Peanut at the Planter’s Peanut Store here on Arlington Expressway. When they missed the bus, the owner of the nearby gas station gave them a ride to school.
When the bus dropped them off in the afternoons, they’d go inside for a Coke and a package of peanuts. You’d take a couple of swallows, then fit a few peanuts through the mouth of the glass bottle. The Coke fizzed up around the peanuts, but didn’t fade fully away. The bubbles adhered, the salt came off the legumes, and the Coke gained a saltier, nutty, off-peanut-butterish flavor. Nearly every kid in the South in the 1950s popped roasted peanuts into their Coca-Colas.
Outside the glass-walled triangular store stood a much smaller Mr. Peanut, the height of a third-grade child, and mechanical rocking horses with coin slots for nickels. Inside, the “nut man” scooped hot roasted peanuts out of stainless-steel pots. In the multi-tiered glass display cases and metal racks posed bags and boxes of chocolate-covered peanuts, red-skinned “Spanish” peanuts and peanut clusters glued together with toffy-like confection.
Advertisements for the Peanut Store said, “See Planters Peanuts roasted right before your eyes and mail them to your friends back home!” The store sold metal Mr. Peanut penny banks, pencils, cups, bowls and salt and pepper shakers.
Valerie Kennedy-Grisham remembers the “live” Mr. Peanut who walked up and down the median in busy Arlington Expressway, attempting to lure passersby to the store. She and her sister bought translucent plastic Mr. Peanut cups. Val’s was green; her sister’s was red.
A Terry Parker High School student, Alan Nelson, got paid to dress up as Mr. Peanut for a while and walk up and down the expressway and the service road in the early 1960s. Nelson dropped out of school, joined the military, ended up marrying one of Nanci Guest’s best friends. He died not long ago. A few Terry Parker alumni recall rumors of a “live” Mr. Peanut getting smacked by a 1950s Chevy.
The Mr. Peanut that loomed over the vast suburban Promised Land of Arlington across the St. Johns River from Downtown vanished before the Mr. Peanut that stood over U.S. 1 at Daytona Beach. Jacksonville’s sign came down in the early 1960s. The Daytona Mr. Peanut outlasted the store beneath him, which closed in 1970, then transformed into different characters, including an artist with an easel, until, half-rotten, he was demolished in ’97.
Jacksonville’s Planters Store became a boat store and a series of used car showplaces. This particular Sunday morning, you can buy a former Volusia County Sheriff’s Department patrol car whose rear panels still advise you to dial 9-1-1. A thin man with sleeves of tattoos says he knows about Mr. Peanut because he can smell his ghost roasting when he first comes to work in the mornings.
Eliot Ray had no emergency number to call when he saw the softly menacing man-legume in top hat and monocle rise up at him through the crisp clear windows of his parents’ Ford sedan 65 years ago. He remembers he noticed his parents paid Mr. Peanut no attention; only he was aware of the danger. It’s ironic his grandfather farmed peanuts in Georgia. Then again, his father ran as far and as fast from those acres of peanuts as he could as soon as he was able to get a job helping repair appliances down in the city just under the border. So Eliot suspects that maybe his fear wasn’t “totally unwarranted or unfounded.”