U.S. 278. If you live in southern Beaufort County, you'll likely find yourself driving that road every day. Running from the Hardeeville line to the bridges to Hilton Head Island, the highway moves locals and visitors past a long line of car dealerships, businesses and neighborhoods. Along the way are people, places and stories you don't know. Get to know them in this occasional series. Come drive the road with us.
Mr. A--hole was born in the “Barmuda Triangle.”
In the old Triangle, that is, sometime in the 1990s, near Hilton Head Island’s Sea Pines Circle, and in places like Shag’s and Shakers and other now-gone joints near that area.
Folks could still smoke in bars then — an important detail of the story, I learn from Ken Peterson. He’s about to introduce me to Mr. A--hole, a well-known character who throws snark at bartenders, servers and, sometimes — if they’re game — tourists, and who might turn up on nights later in the week or on the weekend as he makes his rounds at the bars on the island’s south end.
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Peterson and I are nursing a couple of Bud Lights at a high table around 6:45 p.m. on this Thursday night. We’re at the Frosty Frog Cafe, a watering hole in Coligny Plaza. There’s live music: amplified acoustic guitar, a woman singing The Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” It’s loud.
Peterson frowns beneath his glasses as he tries to talk over the din. He has white hair, fleshy cheeks and a lined face. Servers buzz past him with trays, and the Frog’s daiquiri machines whir, constantly churning their frozen contents behind the bar.
Suddenly, the lights dim.
But a clock mounted on a nearby wall in honor of Mr. A--hole gleams.
It hangs high behind the bar, to the right of a sign that says, to paraphrase, No whining, groping or B.S. It looks down on another that says “Welcome.” On its face is the same picture 13 times over — a large one in the center, smaller ones for each hour — of Mr. A--hole.
That character, Peterson tells me, made the Frog’s bartenders redirect some nearby track-lights at the clock so it’s easier to read.
The clock, though, is another story — first, Mr. A--hole.
He was born of a cloud of tobacco smoke and a hacking cough — neither his own. From his perch at the bar at a joint in the old Triangle, he watched as a woman finished a cigarette and retched. “Hey, why don’t you have another?” he joked.
“A--hole,” she said.
Peterson finishes the story, and he’s finished his first beer.
“It’d be nice to get two beers over here,” he hollers toward the Frog’s bar. “Dying of thirst over here.”
A server brings the brews and sets them on the table, near the balled-up polo shirt he’d earlier taken off. Peterson leans back in his chair, propping his foot on another, resting his right arm on his paunch. He’s wearing a white T-shirt.
“Nice shirt, Mr. A--hole,” a young waitress says to Peterson as she motors by.
“Thanks!” Peterson replies, grinning.
On the front of the shirt, in cursive script: “Key West, Fl.” On the back: “My parents said I could be Anything ... so I became an A--HOLE.” An old friend gave him the shirt, he tells me earlier in the night, when he asks me to take a picture of it.
The Montana native came to Hilton Head in 1976. He served in the Army in Vietnam and is a member of Beaufort VFW Post 8760. He keeps the books for MAPtech Packaging.
Peterson’s never been an actor. He’s never done stand-up comedy. His face rests in a natural frown — he doesn’t practice his routine.
He’s a bachelor — never married, no kids. He goes out because it beats sitting at home, alone.
Island bartenders say he has a “heart of gold.” Servers give him hugs. Some regulars call him “Mr. A.”
“Like I said, I just go around and like to have a good time,” he says. “Cheer people up.”
He does that with lines like: “Get back in the kitchen and wash some dishes.” “Get a haircut and a shave.” “You look nice for a change. What’d you do — take a shower?”
Or, “Get your education!”
And, “Get back to work,” which is what he says on this night to “Wofford” — he nicknames the servers, sometimes after the colleges they attend — the waitress who’d complimented his shirt.
“He really isn’t what he pretends to be,” the Frog’s Shawn Brockway once told me. “After he’ll belittle me, he’ll ask me how my kids are, how my wife is.”
Another Frog employee, Rusty Jaquiss, said Peterson stays in character, introduces himself as you-know-who and sometimes raises the eyebrows of not-in-the-know tourists. But they figure it out eventually, Jaquiss said. (And for the record, Peterson said he doesn’t direct the routine at the uninitiated ... unless they pick up on it and join in.)
Peterson’s sipping his second beer now. The singer launches into another song, perhaps The Eagles, maybe “Desperado.” He glances at the bar and eyes his clock.
He tells me Jaquiss made the Mr. A--hole clock after breaking the bar’s original one.
The accident drew Peterson’s ribbing, which intensified when a replacement clock — shaped like a frog — was hung. The frog clock was hard to read.
“I offered to buy him a new one,” Peterson says. “I said, ‘I’ll give you money so you can get a clock that you can actually read.’ But he said, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry about it.’ ... And then he asked if he could take my picture. ... And I didn’t think anything of it.”
Around the same time, Peterson took a few weeks off from the Frog.
Soon, people started telling him about the clock sporting his mug. He didn’t believe them. But it’s on Facebook, they said.
“I have no idea what that is,” Peterson tells me, frowning. “I don’t do (Facebook).”
When he finally saw the clock, he “laughed like hell” — even though the time wasn’t right. (An upturned corner on the No. “10” mugshot kept trapping the clock’s hands.)
“It makes me feel like I have some good friends,” he says, when I ask him about the clock. “Some excellent friends.”
The sun’s starting to set outside Coligny Plaza, and I tell him I need to drive home.
I’ve got a full beer — which would’ve been my second — and I offer it to him.
He takes it. Shakes my hand. Thanks me for hanging out — he didn’t believe the folks at the Frog when they’d called him a week earlier, telling him a reporter wanted to write a story about him.
Thanks again, he says.
“Have a safe drive home,” he says, smiling.
Then, he scowls.
“Have a lousy drive home.”