Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Vanity Plates


I remember one evening in Chicago. This is when I was there as an adult, on my own. I was living in the Streeterville neighborhood, working at Edelman Public Relations. I still had my car, which was a liability downtown and not at all needed. I walked to work, but even if I hadn't, the public transit system is good enough to make owning your own wheels completely unnecessary. I would part with the car eventually, but for the moment, I was heading up Lake Shore Drive with a boyfriend in the passenger seat. He was visiting from out of town. We'd had an instant attraction at a friend's wedding, then started writing to each other, calling, and then he sent me cassettes (yes, they were still in use; that dates me!). He was a musician, a small-town guy, smart but hindered by an incomplete education and a general lack of exposure to anything beyond his backyard. His music didn't suffer for it—he wrote clever lyrics, composed catchy guitar riffs—but his emotional health did. It was one of those doomed attractions of unequal experience. The more he liked me, the more he wanted to impress, and the more he wanted to impress, the more insecure he felt. With insecurity came paranoia. I first realized this on the night in question. Driving along, and I don't remember how the topic came up—maybe we were talking about driving, about cars, or maybe I was explaining how I liked Chicago for its relative lack of pretension—but I made an observation about the general absence of vanity plates in the city. You know what a vanity plate is, right? Those custom license plates you can register for a fee at the DMV. There are a fair share here on the East Coast, but nothing like in L.A. This is something I remember as being rampant in Los Angeles, at least when we lived there in the 1980s. Maybe it was really an 80s thing, but with car culture being what it is in California, plus the Hollywood effect, well, the vanity plates make sense there. Anyway, I said something about all the vanity plates I used to see in L.A., and my boyfriend flipped out. He got seriously angry, offended, accused me of rubbing his nose in the fact that he'd never lived anywhere but in his one town. All I'd done was point out a statement of fact, based on an experience I had: L.A. has a lot of vanity plates. And it was like I'd hit him below the belt, on purpose. As I said, he got paranoid. Maybe it was the pot he smoked. Maybe it was just emotional retardation. I don't know. I do know that the next day in the office, I asked my coworkers for their take: had I been insensitive somehow? "Oh, my god," my supervisor said, "there are SO many vanity plates out there!" We went on about it, and then everyone gave the verdict on the boyfriend. Unanimous thumbs down. Not that I would dump a guy based on a survey of colleagues, but it was an accurate assessment. The relationship lasted some months, but it couldn't last. There was certainly no future in it until he got over his own bitterness and did something with his life besides stagnating. I am happy to say that although I wasn't there to witness it, he did do that—he moved several states farther away, took some chances finally. I don't know where he is now, or if he's happy, with someone, settled again or still moving around; he could be back in his hometown, for all I know. I do wish him well, despite how much of a jerk he was, sulking and miserable in the bucket seat of a car with standard-issue plates driving up L.S.D. It's easier to have compassion for someone with a buffer of time, when they're not accusing you of bad intent when you'd had none. Being falsely accused is one of the only valid excuses for anger I can think of . . . unless you count as justifiable the road rage that results when SIKBOY cuts off 2KOOL4U on the interstate.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back! It was, in fact, an LA/80's (and 90's)thing. Having just returned from there, I actually commented about how there are a dearth of vanity plates now--a few here and there. It was prudent to ditch "huge-chip-on-my-shoulder-boy". GOOD4U

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