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The Beltway Chronicles: Tramp Stamps

This post is Part II of a multi-part series. For an optimal reader experience, it's best to read Part I first.

I’m sure you’ve heard the one about the dog owners that look like their dogs.

Googling that phrase returns 192 million hits, including some hilarious images. Like this one:

Or this one:

But as I sit here measuring my life in highway exits, I realize in many cases car owners look a hell of a lot like their cars.

There’s the paint-splattered work truck ahead of me with the ladder attached by one bungee cord, whose driver no doubt plans to work most of the day sporting a healthy amount of ass crack. 

The VW Bug two lanes over has a plastic daisy in the cupholder and a round-faced woman behind the wheel who was once the girl next door.

The SUVs with the tinted windows are driven by guys who won’t take their sunglasses off inside. And the driver of the aging Honda with the body kit spits as much smoke out the window as his glasspack muffler.

A lot of the cars around me have bumper stickers. I have a few myself; a sticker of the bar where I work, a Ducks Unlimited sticker, a UMD magnet near my license plate.

The easy analogy for me to make is that bumper stickers are like tattoos. For a second, that comparison holds water: they express who you are. Some people have a couple of meaningful ones; others, like a few of my sleeved friends, just litter their trunk with them and don’t give a shit what they say.

But I’d argue bumper stickers are more like clothes, because they really only express who you are in the moment. You make your point, convey your personality to the cars around you. Then you peel them off and slap something else on.

I am glad for this, because I’ve sported some really embarrassing bumper stickers over the years. The worst one was the pink Vineyard Vines whale that said “DC” in it, which basically told everyone around me I buy clothing I can’t afford, but I feel like I have to because I rent a studio apartment in Van Ness that I also can’t afford.

Yet because of their impermanence, the bumper sticker can sometimes not provide enough of a rush. Sometimes car owners need to show the world how strongly they feel about something. They don’t just need a new shirt or a pair of shoes, they need a tattoo. A sexy tattoo, one others can see when you’re bending over or behind you in line at McDonald’s.

Enter the vanity plate: the tramp stamp of the road.  

I don’t have a vanity plate for the same reason I don’t have a tattoo. I’ve never believed in something strongly enough to emblazon it on my tailgate. A vanity plate feels like a permanent endorsement of a position; it tells people behind you at the drive thru this is my identity. How could I distill my entire existence, my being, into eight characters or less?

Needless to say, no one in the Hedenberg family owned a vanity plate, either. My neighbors growing up did, though. It was on a white Ford Mustang convertible, which seems like a badass car to own, until you remember it was the 1990s and Mustang bodies at the time looked like they’d been drawn by a blind boy being described a muscle car.

The Mustang’s vanity plate read “GUITARS,” presumably because my neighbor Jack wanted everyone to know he really liked guitars.

The reason Jack’s Mustang and his plates are cemented into my memory is because for about four months one winter, we watched Jack try to extract GUITARS from his side yard.

To make room for a party at his house one night, Jack parked GUITARS on the grass between our houses, and then he left it there for two days while a Nor’easter poured buckets of rain. When the storm cleared and Jack tried to return GUITARS to the driveway, he found it hopelessly stuck in the mud.

My family and I watched from our window as he yelled and cussed and burrowed the Mustang’s wheels down to the axles. Then Jack yelled for Betty, his 80-pound waif of a wife, and had her push on the car’s rear while he gunned the engine harder.

Now, as someone who’s gotten stuck in the mud once or twice, it’s admittedly an emasculating event. When you’re stuck, you’re stuck, and you’re going to have to ask for help.

But Jack was a stubborn dude, and he didn’t relent. Rather than calling AAA or a friend with a tow strap, he just repeated that same process of yelling and gunning every couple of days for the next six weeks. And, good neighbors that we were, we watched it from the other side of the fence with delight.

When one of us would see Jack marching out to the excavation site, we’d yell across the house:

“You guys, come quick! Jack’s out to work on GUITARS!” It was like watching a new episode of your favorite sitcom.

It was a momentous occasion, sometime around Easter, when Jack finally relented and got a buddy with a tow truck to haul GUITARS out of its mud prison. From our window, we clapped and cheered. “It’s free!” we yelled. “GUITARS is free!”

So in my head, these are the type of people who have vanity license plates.

The good drivers of the Capital Beltway don’t do much to improve my long-held prejudice. This morning, a BMW with the license plate ELON MOM tailgated me around the on-ramp. She swerved to my left, then to my right, as if we were in the 4th turn at Talladega and she was trying to slingshot past me. Out of my way, goddammit, I could hear her yell. Can’t you see my child goes to college?

Likewise, on the way home, another Beamer with the tag SEEM3, cut me off in the merge lane. I did indeed see your M3, sir, but the other people in the lane must not have, because nobody would let you in. That didn’t halt your progress though, as you rode the shoulder and revved your engine until someone left you enough daylight to squeeze through.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but I really do think people with vanity plates are more aggressive and self-absorbed on the road than those of us with normie plates. Once I started looking for vanity plates on my commute, I saw them everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic like there was no one else on the road.

Each one I saw was a testament to its driver’s self-confidence… or lack thereof. A Honda pickup with the plate “STR8BLN;” a Nissan with the tag “OMGZZ;” a hardtop Mustang reading “BADALI.” Do Mustangs just come with vanity plates? Is that something you hash out with the dealership when they hand you the keys?   

Another issue I have with vanity plates is the frustration I feel in trying to decipher them. Virginia gives you 8 characters to play with, which means creativity is significantly limited.

As such, I see a lot of shitty puns. There’s the Altima with the plate “WENZDAY,” a name that’s only cool 1/7th of the week. Or the Honda reading “URDABST,” which feels like the driver is fishing for compliments. I’m the best? No, little Civic, YOU’RE the best.

Then there are the confusing ones. Take the Chevy Malibu I saw with the tag SLWK. What are we talking about here, Malibu? Are you having a slow week? Are you bragging about owning a silver wok? I need to buy a couple vowels.

The problem with this license plate shorthand is that it can cause for some really awkward interactions with people you actually know. My buddy William has a vanity plate that reads 2BGGGG, and for the longest time, I assumed he wanted the world to know the nickname girls had for him in high school.

But then I overheard him explaining to some colleagues 2BGGGG was actually an aphorism from his grandmother about being gracious, giving, grateful, and some other feel-goody G word. 

While I appreciate his nod to grandma, to me, that shit’s too complicated. If I had a gun to my head and was being forced to choose a vanity plate, I’d keep things simple, maybe use some kind of number pun.

Like the guy in the Mustang convertible who used the suicide lane on Franconia Road to pass me last week. His license plate read “GR8CAR,” a plate I could really get behind.

Holy fuck, I thought. That dude’s dick must be 2BGGGG.  

Now, my disdain for vanity plates doesn’t come without complication. In addition to William’s too big tag, I know plenty of people who’ve ponied up the extra dough to express themselves via rectangles of aluminum. My buddy Dan has a vanity tag that reads POET-LIC, which feels appropriate given he’s an English teacher and also kind of snarky.

Likewise, my friend Chris has a plate that reads RAVES. Before I knew him super-well, I assumed Chris was a fan of the Baltimore NFL team, the RAVENS. But after learning he was a Chicago Bears fan, I realized the plate actually advertises his love of raves. You remember raves, right? They were popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, known for being a venue for the exchange and consumption designer drugs and a breeding ground for venereal disease? Yeah, those are the ones. Chris owns it with pride, and I can’t help but respect him for it.

Of course, the most embarrassing part of this whole thing is that now comes the part where I admit something: I, Sam Hedenberg, hater of all plates vanity, currently have a vehicle sitting in my garage fitted with vanity license plates.

Hell no, it’s not mine. It’s my wife’s.

They came a few months ago in the mail, and when I opened the package and saw the tags, I was confused. Who in god’s name would order license plates reading EGL SHIP?

When Melinda got home, I confronted her. “Did you order vanity license plates for your car?” I asked, brandishing the tags with two fingers like a dirty diaper.

“Oh, yeah,” she said dismissively. “Thanks.”

“When did you do that?” I said. “Were you going to tell me?” Granted, ordering vanity tags was not a life-altering event that required my consultation, but I was surprised Melinda hadn’t given me a heads up.

“Oh, I ordered them the other day when I was mad at you.”

Ok, yeah. My wife sometimes makes choices out of spite, like the time we had a fight, and to get back at me, she ordered checks for our joint bank account with a Hello Kitty background.

In this case, she knew my stance on vanity plates and ordered them just so that every time I use her car, I’ll have to drive the Eagle Ship.

It’s not so bad, I guess. After all, I do like the Eagles football team, and even though that’s not what the plate means to Melinda, I guess vanity plate meaning is in the eye of the vanity plate beholder. 

 And you know, the more I think about this whole thing, maybe the problem with vanity plates doesn’t lie with their owners, but in myself. Maybe the reason I have such disdain for vanity plates is the same reason I was hesitant to wear American Apparel v-neck t-shirts during the great deep-v craze of 2007: I’m scared of what others might think.

Maybe I need to throw caution to the wind and invest in my own vehicular identity, put myself out there to the rest of the Beltway community. Maybe I need a tramp stamp that really encapsulates who I am as a person: a husband, a teacher, a writer, a human.

…nah. I’m good.

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