Saturday, October 15, 2011

Vanity Plates

Once, I said the words vanity plates to Dan. Probably I was cooking up some scheme to promote my first novel, Sisters, for which I made a part-time living out of movie options for five years, and I was thinking how classy that single word would look at the bow and stern of our tiny Honda. 
We don’t have vanity plates, Dan replied, gently but firmly. In my mind’s ear I can still hear his slight emphasis on we. He was so sure about this that I didn’t argue. A quiet, private man, he had, 99 percent of the time, impeccable taste (I did save him from one terrible plaid suit), while I am this sort of messy, overextended person who will risk making a fool of herself. As a book editor, Dan was always involved in marketing, but my novel had sex scenes and a character that was based on him; the local library had a copy, probably that was enough. Get a business card, take an ad, but we don’t advertise ourselves all over town; maybe we don’t want all our neighbors in Hollowville NY to read the book. 
If my second novel had sold, I might have tried again—Carolina would have looked so cool on the plates—but it didn’t, so I didn’t. 
But this year, last month, I could not resist. I have no Dan to keep me in line on good taste, to say no, you’ll hate those T-shirts when you get them home, or, that music is awful, you’ll give the CD away two days after you buy it. 
And I wanted plates with my blog address. 
I thought about it for months.
It was probably tacky . . . it would look so cute. 
Because of New York’s eight-unit limitation, the address would lack one letter . . . I’d get a business card with the address, give it out to anyone who asked.
I might regret it . . . so I’d change it again. 
And then one late-August day, I was walking up Warren Street in Hudson, our county seat in Columbia County, and there was the DMV office. Imagine it shimmering on the corner. I walked in. I would just ask about a vanity plate, just get the price. I wasn’t driving, so I didn’t have my license plate number, which I could never remember. 
The woman at the information desk was absolutely going to sell me vanity plates. With my driver’s license she easily found my car registration on her computer. The plates would cost $60, less than I had imagined. The woman at the information desk was a widow. I wrote out the blog address for her to take home. I needed this plate, those business cards. I had enough money in my checking account, and there was no line.
The plate didn’t go through automatically. Up in Albany, some computer questioned my taste. A telephone call was required. Dan would not approve, said the computer. But . . . but . . . I mean no harm . . . there’s nothing salacious about this . . . he doesn’t have to drive the car . . . he’s safe in heaven . . . the computer relented.
Then I waited, checking the mail eagerly for “four to six weeks.” Actually putting on the plates was another adventure, and yes, I was out there in the garage with what I dreaded most, the new plate on the back of the car and the old plate stuck onto the front. Chances were pretty good that I could drive the one mile in town to the shop where I get the oil changed without being arrested and there be a source of amusement before I paid someone to change the plate. I kept working with the WD-40, putting my whole weight against the screwdriver, and finally I did it. 
I have vanity plates. I put them on myself.
People smile at my car.