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Ever since the first personalized plate was made--in California in the early 1960s--the DMV has dealt with problems like this

By Novella Carpenter

We all look for signs from the universe. Some people wait for messages from God in a church; others go out to the desert and take peyote; and still others watch the gauzy screen of the television and hope for inspiration. Me, I check out personalized plates.

Well, usually I don't, up until a few weeks ago. You see, my boss and I were having another "discussment," so I walked outside to cool off and make a mental list of reasons I still need a paycheck. I had gotten past rent and food, and I had started a sublist under food--daily gelato, parmesan, salami--when I noticed something about my boss's car I had never noticed before. He had vanity plates on his truck. They said, WEDO69. A little background: my boss is a bit of a circuit boy, a traditional "bear" with a long-term boyfriend who goes to all the circuit parties, too.

I'm not getting any more specific than that! I laughed out loud with the discovery. Suddenly my boss was a very public bad boy. I forgave him immediately. How on earth, I wondered, had he snuck that past the DMV?

Ever since the first personalized plate was made--in California in the early 1960s--the Department of Motor Vehicles has dealt with problems like this. Most DMVs have a small division devoted to reviewing personalized plates. They receive requests for the plates, and check to make sure that the sequence doesn't already exist (damn it, HOTCHIK is taken!). They also review whether "any combination of letters and/or numbers may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency, or which would be misleading."

Here's where the gray area surrounding WEDO69 comes into play. Did the person reviewing that plate think it meant, perhaps, a special wedding occurred in 1969? In a hilarious article in May 2002, Harper's magazine published letters of complaint sent to DMV offices across the country. This is one of my favorites: "To whom it may concern: I do not feel DMV should have allowed the plate I saw yesterday. While driving my small children down Route 347 at 6pm we followed a green Camaro with the plate 'BIGBAWLZ.' If you need me to explain why I found it offensive I can be reached at home at ----."

I love that people would take the time to complain to the DMV. I shouldn't be surprised, though--there's even a guy who has written a book and hosts a website devoted to watching other people's personalized license plates: www.vanity-plates.com. Dennis R. Cowhey is the plate watcher. He takes trips in order to interview people across the country about their vanity plates and even leaves notes on windshields begging for their stories. Here are some excerpts:

"TREND 22 is Faith's choice for the tags on her red Chevrolet Camaro Z28. She said, 'As in trendy. I am a very modern person in everything from cars to clothes. I like to be the first to have new styles and do things first.' The 22 is her birth date. She first had the plates on a red Fiero, now the Z28 and soon probably a new sports car. She said her car will always be new and therefore trendy!"

Or here's another sharp pencil in the drawer: "AS IF is on a red Nissan Sentra. The 27-year-old woman who drives it said that is her response to almost any question. 'Give it a try--it works!' she said. 'It's truly an attitude or statement plate to anyone who is reading it. It's kind of hard to explain ... '"

There's not a whiff of irony emanating from Mr. Cowhey's website, but I have to wonder, with commentary like this: "Back in Chicago, I found ONTYME (on time) on Ed Horak's wife's white 1992 Mustang. He has ALWYSL8 (always late) on his. It seems that she is always on time, but he is always late." Bone-crushing analysis--dare I suggest that Dennis Cowhey is the Forrest Gump of vanity plates?

If you'd like to add your vanity plate to Mr. Cowhey's growing collection of stories, visit www.vanity-plates.com, and fill out the form. IDAREU!

Novella still can't figure out what JRNY IS 1 means--it can't mean Journey, the band, is No. 1. Could it? Nah. Email her with your best guess: [email protected]

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From the May 19-26, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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