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Vanity, thy name is LCNS PLT

April 05, 2006|Seth Faison

EVER SINCE MOVING to Southern California six years ago, I have paid attention to the license plates of cars I see on the freeway. My eye catches on those old blue plates from the '70s, and on the older black ones with gold letters and numbers. Like any dedicated license-plate watcher, I am most drawn to the personalized ones, commonly known as vanity plates. I will miss a turnoff or risk an accident as I strain to decipher a passing personalized plate. I myself would never pay extra to customize a plate, of course. Yet I am fascinated to see how others choose to express themselves in seven spaces or less.

There are fanciful plates that capture the spirit of Southern California, like SRFR DDE, which was heading up Pacific Coast Highway (no board in view). EVL VLLN was the plate I saw on an aging Mercedes-Benz (complete with a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror) driven by a man with long gray hair, smoking. There are exhortations, like CMT 2 GOD and TIP RDIE, presumably belonging to a waiter. There are inexplicable ones, like LMJDPJ or KRSTSNR, understood only by their owners and perhaps family and friends. 7 A MOI had me puzzling for weeks after I saw it on a parked car around the corner from my home in Santa Monica. Only when I saw its companion SUV parked nearby, 7 A ELLE, did my dormant French kick in.

With a population of more than 36 million, California now has more than 33 million registered vehicles with license plates. A million of those are personalized. It costs $41 extra to pick your own combo of letters and numbers. The Department of Motor Vehicles keeps a list of banned combinations, though, such as the letters F, C and K in close proximity. A team of specialists, with ability in several languages, tries to make sure nothing unseemly gets through.

Every once in a while, though, someone succeeds, like the driver who got an FDUBYA plate. A fellow motorist, presumably a Republican, called the DMV to complain, and the plate was recalled. The scofflaw has not complied, however, and said plate is still at large.

Another type of personalized license plate holder emerges from those who came here from a far-off domain, drawn by the sun or by Hollywood, and who maintain a hankering for the old home. I assume that NYKR is one of those. So is I {heart} BSTON.

So was the driver of a car I saw recently in Santa Monica with the license plate PS8 BKLN. Here was a plate that struck me like a secret code. In another century, I attended Public School 8 in Brooklyn, at the corner of Hicks and Middagh streets.

I saw the car pull over and park. A bearded man with sunglasses got out, and I asked if he too had gone to P.S. 8. Only for a couple of years, he said, before he moved to a private school, same as I did. Curious, I asked his name. I smiled with recognition. My sister's onetime boyfriend. Now an agent in the entertainment industry, he misses the old neighborhood. And has no plans to go back.

We talked for a while, mourning the fate of the Knicks, inquiring about each other's father, both of whom still live where they did 40 years ago. He asked after my sister. Why the vanity plate? I asked. A touch of home, he said. The original home, evidently, not the current one. If none of us can ever really go home again, some of us, at least, have the option of putting it on a license plate.

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