wind by their share of oddball tourist
entrapments: Rock City
, a Stonehenge
replica, the world's only double-barreled cannon
and a museum that exhibits a wart
removed from Elvis
's wrist in 1958
, to name but a few.
The South is indeed a dingy, ignert, concrete-block-nite-club-strung-with-blue-Christmas-lights kind of place; these are qualities I began to appreciate the moment I got the heck out. I'm not sure what it is concrete block nite clubs say about the South, or if this is a positive statement, or why the thought of them makes me so blasted homesick. Maybe it's because Southern seediness is so honest. There are no intellectual overtones. Postmodernism is installing a new mailbox.
One roadside attraction has come to epitomize what I miss about my homeland across the Mason Dixon in all its dilapidated grandeur. A roadside attraction so grimy, so abominable, so je ne sais quoi that even the hipsters can never claim it in good conscience: South of the Border, a curious complex of Mexican-themed crumminess situated along the line between North and South Carolina. What exactly South of the Border (or Pedroland, as it's occasionally called) is cannot be adequately described in words, unless those words are WREE-TEEN LAK DEES, amigo!
Last August as my father and I drove north to Swarthmore College on I-95 from my hometown of Savannah, Georgia, the infamous billboards popped up between those advertising Virginia Slims and Idle Hour Lounges. "217 MILES TO SOUTH of the BORDER!" exclaimed the first of hundreds. Each sign featured a gnomish chap garbed in sash, sombrero, and sandals. His hands held his belly, a droll little mustache curved down his mouth, and his expression was one of ohhh-no! This golem was, of course, pedro (never Pedro), South of the Border's logo and host. His picture was accompanied by remarks like "Chili Today—HOT TAMALE! (thees sign guarantee accurate 51% of time!)," or "HOLY MACKEREL" alongside a halo-ed fish ("pedro GOT MEELIONS OF CATHOLIC FRANS!"). Generations of road tripping Georgians and South Carolinians have been kept amused for hours by these advertisements, including my little brother and I every summer when we went to visit New Jersey grandparents. As the years passed, we went from anticipating the ads for their promise of impending delight, then (expectations disappointed) for their sheer absurdity, and finally for nostalgia alone.
As in the days of yesteryear, Pops pointed out every sign, shaking his head. "'South of the Border: best in this NECK of the woods!' And…a picture of a GIRAFFE. Look at it. Cripe." I stared out the window, brooding and contemplating. Each mile marked by a pedro sign was another mile between me and my boyfriend, my old band, and my kid brother (who had recently developed a Mongolian alter ego, which I also missed). For years I had eagerly awaited my escape from the heat and faded shambles of Georgia, but at that moment the thought of leaving everything familiar, even familiar dreadfulness, made me ill.
Before long, that most scenically incongruous of landmarks loomed along the horizon: South of the Border's 200-foot Sombrero Tower, shimmering in the heat like an oasis mirage. The billboards increased in frequency, blocking the sun from view as they frantically noted every one-thirty-second of a mile: "YOU CAN'T MEES EET!" ("You know, I bet most Mexicans don't enjoy this pedro stuff," mused my old man.)
After we exited the highway and pulled in to pedro's gas station, I embarked on a survey of the premises, which comprises sundry rest stop recreations and retail opportunities. One of the more endearing aspects of South of the Border is that though the merchandise inside each store is always exactly the same (ponchos made in Indonesia, ceramic enchiladas, cheap cigars—all labeled with the words "SOUTH OF THE BORDER" in striped block letters), their signs rotate constantly. What was the Dirty Old Man Shoppe last year is now labeled Club Cancun. The Leather Store was hauled over in favor of Pedroland Park, where there's "sometheeng for every juan!" including bumper cars and the El Toro Arcade. Regardless of name, the knickknacks available in one kiosk are exactly the same as the knickknacks available in the others. (In fact, South of the Border exists as one big advertisement for itself: they'd hawk pedro bumper stickers without an actual Pedroland if they could get away with it.) One year there might be a campground: the next, a tennis court. Both resemble the same littered parking lot. It's the poor hombre's Disney, with a neon color scheme. One expects to see some fellow clad in an oversized, threadbare pedro suit, murmuring "hey, meeester..." and posing for photos.
Pops retold the tale of my grandmother's first trip to South of the Border: "She opened the car door, looked outside, and vomited! She hasn't been back since!" A radio broadcast buzzed tinnily from speakers around the grounds, but the truly ubiquitous sound was that of grill grease sizzling. We strolled by the Golf of Mexico Indoor Putting Green, a gorilla statue, a fireworks depot ("pedro's FIREWORKS! Does yours?"), and the Hot Tamale Grill. Most classic of all was the Motor Inn and Carport, which advertised "heir-conditioned honeymoon suites complete with a complimentary bottle of champagne!"
A chat with the inn receptionist revealed that South of the Border started out as a beer stand back in 1949. It eventually grew to cover 350 acres of land, thanks to the efforts of founder Alan Schaefer who died last July. "He had a vision," stated the receptionist, who had known him personally. "Every cent he made, he put back in. He had a T-shirt printing plant installed right here."
Legend has it that Schaefer began referring to all of his Hispanic employees as "pedros" back in the 50's because he couldn't tell them apart. The powers-that-be obliged him to minimize the Mex-speak in roadside advertisements, but the South of the Border web page still welcomes visitors like so: "BUENS DIAS, AMIGO! pedro VER' GLAD YOU COME!! pedro got 112 meelion amigos, who stay weeth heem, opp teel now all satisfy come back, send frans…thees make pedro ver' HAPEE…like for frans come back all time…pedro hope YOU make 112 meelion and wan happee amigos! you come back soon, too, yes?" According to the receptionist, no Hispanic people actually work at South of the Border.
Pops and I have a running competition: whoever finds the most useless South of the Border relic for under three dollars has the other person buy it. I headed to El Drug Store, where souvenirs abound (albeit under a hearty layer of dust). After sorting through garments labeled "MY PANDRES WENT TO SOUTH OF THE BORDER AND ALL I GOT WAS THEES STEENKIN' T-SHIRT," plastic back-scratchers, and a bin of straw footwear, I unearthed a sombrero-shaped ashtray for only 1.99. Capital! After all, what could be more appropriate than purchasing souvenirs by which to remember a souvenir stand?
Eventually Pops and I made our way back to the station wagon with the trinkets. A glimpse at the trunk, laden with luggage, reminded me of our journey's purpose. Home was hundreds of miles away, in both directions. And there I stood, at the dividing line between youth and adulthood, on the threshold of carving out a new existence at some intellectual epicenter. pedro's dread visage beamed from all directions: pedro, the master spider, reeling in motorists with billboards and 70-cent chili dogs. One day I would return to his plywood habitat: the sole emblem of my youth that won't ever transform.
I hopped in the car with Pops. We cruised betwixt the sandals of a huge pedro likeness, and within moments we were speeding onward. Billboards blared anew: "WRONG WAY, AMIGO! SOUTH OF THE BORDER HALF MILE BACK!" The Sombrero Tower receded in the rear view, and suddenly we had reached North Carolina.
The following is an excerpt from the South of the Border Heestory promotional booklet:
"In 1950, pedro, hitch-hiking down U.S. 301 on his way back to Mexico, got lost. Arriving at a place called Hamer, S.C., almost starving, he stopped at a farm, scrounged some bread and cheese and went back to the road to catch a ride.
A Hungry Yankee saw him, hit the brakes, and offered him $5 for the sandwich. Pedro immediately decided that at $5 for a nickel's worth of cheese and a slice of bread, this was the place for him!
So pedro bought a wheel of cheese, 3 loaves of bread, borrowed a tobacco crate, and set up business by the side of the road. Sadly, no one stopped.
Desperate, pedro grabbed a board off an old barn, and wrote on it: SANWEECH $5. The Yankees still kept whizzing by. A day later, the bread getting stale, pedro changed the sign: SANWEECH $1. Six or eight people stopped. pedro was in business. Soon, he changed the sign again: SANWEECH 50 CEENTS. Business Boomed! pedro sent for hees brother, pancho. They added another crate, and wrote two more signs, reading SANWEECH 10 CEENTS. They were mobbed!
In the Mad Rush, pancho was run over by a New York Cab Driver who had no insurance. Pedro decided queek, he better get off the road.
Off the road, not so many Yankees pulled in to buy the Sanweech. So, pedro put up more Signs, and More and More. An' pedro leev happily Ever Seence! Hope you are the same."