Sunday, October 18, 2009

Road Rules: Vanity Plates

John Hiatt--"Tennessee Plates (live)" (mp3)

Forgive me if I spend a few posts talking about the road, but after a whirlwind Fall Break to New Orleans (America's greatest city--no competition), I've been doin' some of that philosophizing that one does when puttin' in the long miles behind the wheel. You get to feelin' like you're pretty smart and that you've got things figured out about whatever you're thinkin' about.

And then you see somebody's vanity plates and you realize that the universe makes absolutely no sense at all, or at least that it's going to be a lot harder to figure out than whatever progress you thought you made during that last 127 mile stretch.

The plate that caught my eye today was one that just read "Caramel."
And, of course, I had to try to figure out why. All I could think of was some guy, the driver I guess, going, "Honey, I'm going to get me one of these here personalized license plates and it's going to say 'Caramel.' It's for _________.'"

That's as far as I can get. In truth, I can't think of any good reason why someone would pay good money to buy a license plate that says 'Caramel.' No idea at all. Somebody's name? A dead pet? A reference to somebody's private hair or even private parts? I'm grasping at straws here. I really do not know. I just figure it's got to be something pretty important or meaningful. Don't you? It can't just be those little candies that are so hard to unwrap, can it?

What I do know is this: you get, at most, 7 letters to spend when you shell out for a vanity plate. That means you could go for 'STEELERS' but not 'BAYWATCH,' MRJONES' but not 'MRSBROWN.'

I also know, or think I know, that there must be Vanity License Plate Censors (VLPC) who have to be able to determine whether something on a vanity plate is offensive or suggestive. They must be current on popular culture. They must be hip to the double or triple entendre. A postal worker who wanted to celebrate his or her job with a 'LICK ME' vanity plate probably won't pass muster. But how do they know whether 'ANYWHRE' means anywhere or any whore?

Back in my Deadheadier days, I conceived the idea of buying my own vanity plate. It was going to read 'USBLUES,' a reference to the Dead's song of the same name from Live at the Mars Hotel. I once attended a New Year's Eve party where, as part of an impromptu pick-up band, we played this song at the stroke of midnight. It was a meaningful experience for me. As a license plate, I thought it would have many meanings: 1) coded language that would identify me to other Deadheads, 2) a wry commentary on my country, 3) any number of meaningful, open-ended possibilities.

But then I realized that, like Beauty, vanity plates are in the eye of the beholder. Because the plate wouldn't have periods or spaces, I could envision some guy thinking, "US BLUES? Are they blues singers? Do they have the blues? About what? Wouldn't WE BLUES sound better? Or USB LUES? What the hell does that mean? Is that a V? LIVES? Does 'LUES' mean 'LOSE?' Was 'LOSE' already taken? What am I missing?"

Vanity plates are a letter to the world in a language that can be impossible to understand. Plaster your car with bumper stickers, and, at least, the person in the car behind you is probably going to be able to know your politics, your favorite bands, maybe even your sense of humor or some store you shopped in that somehow convinced you that you needed to put their store sticker on your car. But your vanity plate? Who knows what the hell that's about. Let's say that you love a guy named Kevin and you need to tell it to the world from the back of your car. For starters, a basic 'I Love Kevin' is way, way over the limit. That leaves you with cuts and choices you'll have to make. Usually, it seems to be vowels that go first. You might end up with something like 'LVNKVN,' unless you want to spend a vowel at this point: LVNKEVN. Still, it looks kind of Russian or Slavic and I'm not sure your message is getting across.

And even if it does, whoever reads it doesn't know you or Kev and is not likely to give a crap on his or her way past you at 85 miles an hour on his way to the next gas and bathroom stop. I understand that a vanity plate is ultimately for the person inside, for his or herself, but then why broadcast it so imperfectly?

John Hiatt's Hiatt Comes Alive At The Budohan is available at Itunes.


Goofytakemyhand said...

Wish Hiatt would release a new live album. There have been two within the last several years, but Austin City Limits is a reissue from '93 and the other one was only available by mail and judging by the set list is another one from 15-20 yrs. ago.

"Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan?" is a great album.

Anonymous said...

My issue is paying the man extra for something i don't want to pay for in the first place....especially every year.


BeckEye said...

A) I freaking love Hiatt.

B) There is a (weird but good) Blur song called "Caramel." Maybe that's that person's favorite song. But since we're in the U.S., that's probably a long shot.

Randy said...

Remember when a certain male soccer coach was here, and he wanted to list his place of employment, followed by his alma mater? MS UVA. I loved that.

troutking said...

Steelers has eight letters.

Goofytakemyhand said...

Speaking of UVA- I still cannot believe this was once approved for one year before someone with half a brain revoked it. You can see the license plate at UVA tailgates.

Goofytakemyhand said...

Ok, TinyURL it is:

Bob said...

Man, Troutking, way to bust my bubble. I guess my STEELERS license plate will just have to say BIG BEN, but then someone will think I'm a fan of some clock.

I'd forgotten about MS UVA. That was classic. I can just imagine people pulling up beside that car and going, 'Huh? It's just some guy with a soccer ball on his head.'

Jason said...

Why would you get "STEELER" when you can have America's team


Sorry Bob, couldn't resist.