"Do the police write you a lot of tickets?" asks the crossing guard at my daughter's school. I'm waiting in a long line of cars to pick up my second-grader when she gets out of school. "No," I reply, "I've only received two moving violations in about 20 years with these plates."
This same interaction happens to me so often that I wouldn't even have remembered this particular time, were it not for a young girl, maybe 8 or 9, who was aggressively giving me the evil eye as I pulled my car forward, to let my daughter in. My kid opens the car door. I hear the little girl tell her friend, "That man has a bad word on his car. My mother says he is a bad man."
Personalized plates are a form of expression in California. Mine say "DRUNK."
I don't think drunk is a particularly bad word. Me, a bad man? I'll let you make up your own mind.
Most of the country considers California and its vanity plates crazy already. The US has vanity plates all over, but California has a special car culture. I've always felt there was a certain art form to the way Californians express themselves through the highly restrictive communications medium of license plates. Growing up in Santa Monica, I'd certainly seen a ton of cute and creative ones. I remember seeing "CRE8IVE" around, and it's still a favorite, along with "6UL DV8."
Famed actor Dean Martin had the ultimate vanity plate. Dino's vanity plate read "DRUNKY." This is among the many reasons he remains a hero of mine to this day. The Hollywood star passed away on Christmas Day, in 1995. In early 1996 I was at the DMV registering my terrible 1965 Ford Galaxie 500 XL convertible, and the hardworking person behind the counter asked me if I wanted a personalized plate.
I guess they were trying to upsell us, back then, as today's DMV won't do a thing you haven't already filled out the correct form for. Back in 1996, when this smiling woman asked me that question, I tried to think of something brilliant. Something like Dean would have done! What did I ask for? I asked for DRUNKY, because I wasn't very creative. Predictably, they told me they cannot reissue a plate. Then, in a moment that changed my life, she spun her orange and black, WYSE terminal-ish screen and shared a list of similar but available words.
Near the top of the list was "DRUNK."
"I'll take that," I said.
A few weeks later I got a note from the DMV asking for additional information describing what the word meant personally to me. I wrote back that it was the past participle of DRANK. I am not sure I was correct, I've never bothered to check. A few weeks after that, I got a note in the mail telling me to come pick up my plates at the window.
I've had those plates on nearly every car I've owned since. The Galaxie, a Corolla, an Infiniti, a 1987 Volkswagen Westfalia, a Taco, a Hybrid Highlander (one of the very first) and now a lovely blue Porsche 911 S Cab. I've driven as far east as Chicago, as far North as Canada and South into Baja. These plates have roamed around national parks, wandered through the Hopi and Navajo reservations, and zipped back and forth between NorCal and SoCal so many times I could drive it in my sleep. Not that I do.
I've spoken to people who think those plates, and me by extension, are hilarious. I've had to convince a few worried individuals that they are not government-required disclosures (as there may be in other states.) I have met people who lost family members in drunk driving incidents. Generally these people find the plates offensive. I've received rounds of applause, been shown various body parts at high speeds on the freeway. I have heard a lot of name-calling.
The police have better things to do than harass a guy over his plates, but I have a few of those stories too.
The stories are why I keep the plates. I had no idea what adventures, odd experiences, and wonderful opportunities they would add to my life when I asked the DMV person for them at the counter that day nearly twenty years ago. I just thought Dean Martin was awfully cool, and I wanted to be like him.
Watch Boing Boing for those stories. They'll be coming.