My grey Honda is my cocoon. Surrounded by glass and steel in a vehicle that is practically ubiquitous, I feel safe and anonymous in a crush of drivers. That’s the way I like it. The only distinguishing characteristics to my car are the various dings and dents I have collected over the past nine years, a small round sticker that identifies me as a contributor to PMA, and a blue spider. Only the initiated will know that PMA is the Philadelphia Museum of Art and that the impetus for my sticker was saving Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” from the claws of the Walton family in their museum grab a few years ago, or that the spider is the logo for the University of Richmond, my daughter’s alma matter. My license plate’s number was assigned to me by the state of Pennsylvania two cars ago. It is showing signs of wear, but this long relationship means that when I have to record the digits when I’m dropping the car off for an oil change, I finally have it memorized.
My penchant for privacy makes me wonder about people who reveal themselves via vanity plates and bumper stickers. Did the driver of the BMW that proclaimed, “Live simply that others may simply live,” notice the ironic juxtaposition of this noble sentiment with an obvious symbol of wealth and privilege? Of course, there are the cars that are plastered with political stickers, declaring themselves Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or whatever. Don’t they know that they make themselves a moving target for people of the opposite point of view who drive clunkers? Then there are the cars with decals from every Ivy League college. Do they want me to be impressed with their children’s intelligence or the debt they have incurred? We have stolen the country stickers that Europeans use as a practical identification because they cross borders so frequently, and instead use them to flaunt our favorite vacation destination, our kids’ preschool, or even our gym.
Vanity plates reveal a great deal about a driver in seven characters or fewer, a feat that makes sticking to Twitter’s restrictions seem easy. Some are clever (10SNE1 is my all-time favorite), some are obvious (JAXBMW), some are confusing. A person I worked with had the plate SGRSPIC. I’m assuming it meant “Sugar and Spice” (as in “sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of”), but other people read it very differently. There are websites that list top 100 vanity plates, which shows how much attention they can draw. Statistics show that drivers are distracted by texting or by talking on a cell phone. I wonder how many accidents are caused by drivers trying to figure out just what that license plate in front of them means. I am too cheap to shell out extra money just to send a message to other drivers, but I am also too insecure to find out that the bon mot that I thought was so clever just isn’t.
My son’s CRV sports an “I Drive Naked” sticker which makes him stand out from the crowd almost as much as the deer’s head he had strapped to his front grill for a few months. For political reasons, my daughter immediately stuck an oval “BVI” over the “Bush 2008” sticker on the Impala she inherited from her grandfather. My children are much more willing to share their views with the world than I am. They are like many millennials who willingly share personal information through social media. Perhaps vanity plates and bumper stickers are a pre-high-tech opportunity to let everyone know who we are, where we go, and what we stand for. I still prefer to keep my business to myself, especially when I’m driving.