Friday, February 22, 2013



There’s a scene in Sex and the City when Carrie and her soon-to-be boyfriend are walking along Central Park, chatting and flirting the way you do on Sex and the City. Suddenly, he bends down to pick up a stray playing card on the curb. She looks at him quizzically, in that exaggerated, "I’m a New Yorker! No shocking sexual secret will surprise me!” way those Sex and the City girls have:

Soon-to-Be-Boyfriend: I collect found playing cards. They're all over the city.
Carrie: I never noticed.
Soon-to-Be-Boyfriend: You will now, that's the thing. I'm hoping to get a full deck. Insert the obvious joke here.

I remember watching it on my friend’s couch as a teenager, thinking, I wonder if that’s true, if the streets of San Francisco are littered with lost playing cards, just like New York and I’ve walked around my whole life never noticing them? And then thinking how not only is the guy totally adorable but also smart and how someday maybe I would be flirting with my future smart, cute boyfriend over trampled Bazooka Joe comics as we strolled through the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, or whatever the West Coast equivalent to the Central Park/playing card scenario would be. As time went on, and I failed to see even a single playing card or Ron Livingston look-alike waiting on the damp San Francisco sidewalks, it became clear to me that the whole premise was probably bull, not to mention kind of a red flag that the dude is pretty pompous. But that didn’t stop that little sensation that maybe I would find someone or something perched on the curb waiting for me one day.

I have not yet found that boyfriend. I have, however, become that boyfriend. 

It started innocently enough. A friend and I started texting each other pictures of strange custom license plates. In Chicago, walking home from the El, I spied a black Lexus in a Potbelly’s parking lot proclaiming I ORGNZ U and sent her the picture, chuckling to myself. She responded with a plate from a church-front parking lot reading THEREV.

I’ve always had an eye for strange signage, but after I ORGNIZ U, I found myself looking not for strange café offerings or weird celebrity street names (abundant in that proud city), but plates, instead. Did the MY on that battered gold Corolla up the block end in GURL or just a string of random digits? Would I see I ORGNZ U cruising up to the corner of Diversey and Sheffield?

When I moved back to California and started driving more, the habit got worse. I started scanning license plates for patterns with distracting intensity. Most of the time, the combinations I puzzled over weren’t anything: a kernel of a word buried in a jumble of numbers. But at least once a day I found a custom job, and recognized them triggered a glowing feeling of satisfaction: obviously, only my "trained" eye could suss out these small marvels. It felt like the time I was on Market Street in San Francisco and saw a bright green parrot sitting among a flock of battered pigeons on the sidewalk. A group of seemingly German birdwatching tourists passed below on their way to the street cars and Telegraph Hill, unaware they’d just missed what they traveled so many miles to see.

Just as Carrie’s boyfriend warned, once I started seeing them, they were everywhere. There in front of me on the Bay Bridge was NEXTGOD. I followed SNUPFAN up Piedmont, and spotted ONAWHIM gracing a white Porshe Camero at a stoplight in Berkeley. On the curvy back roads of Marin County was a bright orange PT Cruiser sporting WEIRDOS. On vacation in the Colorado desert was the genius Alaska ORBUST. My neighbor’s car, parked in our grim and gray cavern of a parking garage reads NAZGOOL. Parked at the grocery story was a plate reading IMAWII, with the county, Bowler, underneath.

And it’s hard not to read into them. As I stumbled through a deserted parking lot early one morning in Emeryville, a hulking truck had one that read UPNATEM. Tutting over Lindsay Lohan’s money woes, I glanced over and spied LILO1 outside the appropriately named Pawn 90210. Cut off a by a red SUV in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I muttered, “bitch!” under my breath. YESIAM.

Half a dozen times a day I find myself wondering who these people are. Is CCHAPLIN a fan of silent film or just some guy named Chris Chaplin? Who is the mysterious SLIMGIM? Why is MSBUTCH always in the same strip mall parking lot? Unlike the boyfriend, who can collect his full deck if he just looks hard enough, the stream of plates is neverending. Who knows which ones I miss when I take 880 instead of surface streets, or if I catch BART into San Francisco instead of going over the bridge?

But I love that they're neverending and weird, and that I'll never have the full deck. They’re like a pat on the back from the universe. ZPTE2DA.

Emily Gadek is a freelance writer and radio producer living in Los Angeles. She's the creator and producer of Footnote, a podcast of quirky and overlooked history, available on the web and on iTunes.

114 Comments / Post A Comment


I'll never forget the plain white van that bore the immortal TRPN BLZ.


@Vicky My brain interpreted that as TREPAN PLEASE


@Amphora potayto potahto, really.


@nonvolleyball I have a creepy white van with FRE CNDY, though it is not yet posted to my blog vanityplated.tumblr.com


Girl, spend some time in Virginia. Vanity plates are so cheap there that every second car has one AND the obvious slogans have been used, so they can be tricky/hilarious to decode.


@charmcity Or New Hampshire. I don't know if it's just because vanity plates are cheaper there, or if it's just that Hampshireites have, um, an independent streak.

Roxanne Rholes

@DianaPrince They're SUPER cheap! And, you know, live free or die and whatnot.


in Virginia, the plates are cheap because they are made by prison labor.
That always made me less into them...

down the rabbit hole

@charmcity Oh my god I am so glad you said this. I grew up in Virginia, moved to Tennessee 9 years ago and have since been astonished each and every time I go home to visit family at the sheer number of vanity plates. I am glad I am not making this a bigger thing in my mind than it actually is! (So many Bible verses.)


how cheap are we talking about in virginia?


@charmcity Fun fact! New Hampshire has the highest number of vanity plates per capita. The best one I saw in my hometown was a stoner guy who had the license plate SHRQQMS. I'm sure he couldn't imagine why he got pulled over by the cops all the time.


This is AWESOME!!!@n


PAMPERS is the best/worst i have ever seen.

RK Fire

In Maryland, we have two specialty plates where the sales go to support a nonprofit trust in that area: one for the Chesapeake Bay and one in support of agricultural lands. I have spied a few times a truck in the Annapolis area with a farm plate with the license of "IH8FARMS." My friends and I have also spied a Chesapeake Bay plate with the custom tag of "IPOLUTE."

Also, who can forget the "EATTHE" kids first license plate in Va?


@RK Fire Ah, I hate that farm plate (BAY FOREVER) and would lose my mind if I saw IH8FARMS.


@RK Fire Oh no! I loved the farm plates! I finally changed my registration to DC recently and had to give them up, and I was so sad. Now I have "taxation without representation" plates which annoy me because I really do not think that DC should have representation, considering the current state of the DC government.


@RK Fire I live in DC and when I registered my car, the DMV man told me the letters/numbers are in alphabetical/numerical order based on the date of registration! So for instance, the first person to register was (presumably) AA 0001!! This now completely obsesses me, to the point that, when I walk by a car with DC plates (so, all the time) I automatically consider whether they registered before or after me, etc. Next comment: my license plate is not a vanity plate, but starts out "DT" and once someone asked me if it was supposed to be a question, as in "Date?" I got defensive, explained the registration thing, and said no. But then I thought, maybe yes?


@causedbycomma I am intrigued by your DC-related aside! It's about representation for DC residents in the US government... I don't understand how DC's Representative not getting to vote in Congress does anything to punish the DC city government? Is that what you mean?


@causedbycomma DC city government is toothless because all local laws and the budget have to be approved by Congress. Washingtonians serve on juries, pay taxes, and serve in the military without representation. Giving DC budget autonomy and a federal-level voice would ameliorate a LOT of city problems.


Washingtonians serve on juries, pay taxes, and serve in the military without representation....wrecking balm


My mom and I were once driving somewhere in my hometown when we saw a license plate that said LVECATS. We had a semi-heated debate about whether the owner meant "LOVE CATS" or "LIVE CATS."


@frigwiggin Maybe they were Cure fans?


@BattyRabbit Agreed - definitely love cats.

uncle jesse

Is this an American thing? I don't think I have ever seen a license plate that spelled actual words before.


@uncle jesse Vanity plates are, as far as I know, an extremely American thing.

Quinn A@twitter

@uncle jesse If it is, it spilled over into Ontario. It is not so much a thing in the Atlantic provinces, though. I've never seen them in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia.


@uncle jesse I am not American! And I used to live next door to "B1G P00", and last week I saw something like "G4N G5TA". Lots in the East End, usually on cars with the top down even in snow, blaring loud hip-hop. (secretly I want to be the people who drive those cars; I will never be that cool.)

Spooky Behaviour

@Quinn A@twitter Also a thing in Manitoba! I think I've seen way more in Winnipeg than I do in Toronto.


@uncle jesse It's true, they're not very common in NS. But there's one a few blocks from me that reads ECOTECT, whichI find annoying for some reason.

The Lady of Shalott

@amirite They are a Thing out east as well. I see them occasionally here in NB, and I've seen them in NS, and a couple PEI ones as well. Also I have seen a few Quebec ones, but not very many?

I have never seen a Nunavut vanity plate but I desperately want to! All the Nunavut plates I've seen are boring numbers.


@uncle jesse Sometimes people get them in Australia, but it's not common - it's definitely seen as obnoxious to have them, just like those "my family" stickers; people really hate those here.


Best ever, many years ago (like 30) in Oregon -- whitest state going -- where it apparently just sailed over the head of the censor in Salem: MUHFUH. It would never get by today.

Betsy Murgatroyd

@purefog I remember years ago (definitely 30 some years ago) there was a kerfuffle in Oregon about the vanity plate that said Petard.

miss buenos aires

I still remember the license plate I saw in New York that said "BABY DOC." I hope it was an OB-GYN and not a deposed dictator.


definitely not just american! in fact, i think ontario (canada) has the vainest plate holders. i've also become obsessed with the pl8. in fact, i came up with my first and only hashtag to celebr8 the phenomenon: look up #vntypl8 on instagram for a growing collection of (mostly toronto's) best of the best.

possibly the best i ever saw (but didn't catch) was a young lady in a fancy convertible: WASHIS


@coopthereitis That is the best vanity plate ever


I saw MAGICMAN Florida plates the other day (in NY). Of course it was a big rusty shaggin wagon. I also used to try to find "patterns" in plate numbers with a friend of mine during high school. As in, finding the relationship between the numbers on each plate. But I used to smoke a lot of weed, so.


"She called my vanity license plate 'inscrutable'. ICU81MI – hilarious!"

Agreed with the previous poster who mentioned Virginia - I think it's about $25 for a vanity plate there? It's out of control.


I amused myself during my move from Georgia to Illinois by writing down all the vanity plates I saw on the drive up, which seemed to increase significantly as I went farther north. Notables:
OSOLTL - on one of those super-compact cars
GORGEUS - pretty, or desirous of overeating?
SP8R - this has to mean something, but I dunno what.
PRRRTPNE - same. What?
RWAY1 and RWAY2 - an RV and the van it was hauling. Awwww.


@BattyRabbit #3 was James Spader. You just missed him!


@BattyRabbit PRRRTPNE = pretty penny? Not sure why it needs so many RRRRs, though.


My favorite ever: N'TORIUS

Rachel Hadaway@twitter

a friend and I drove from DSM->CLE a few years ago and spotted so many rebus-like vanity plates on the trip. We complemented each other well because the ones that stumped me seemed to come to her in an instant.

Michelle LeBlanc@twitter

I'd just like to point out that there TOTALLY ARE cards on the street all over NYC and I whenever I notice them I think of that scene. But also that doesn't make that character any less pompous. or it any less gross that he picked things up off the street and presumably took them home.


@Michelle LeBlanc@twitter me toooo!


@Michelle LeBlanc@twitter I found a 13 of diamonds on the ground in chinatown, so naturally I took that one home. It also has roman numerals on it.

a small sea

@enic I have found a few cards in my much smaller city. And I always take them home. I'm sure I won't ever have a full deck, I just like collecting things. I also pick up tickets (like to movies or whatever) that people have dropped and cool little rocks and all sorts of weird stuff. Meh?


a huge tricked out range rover with tinted windows in hollywood with the plate "PONOMO"

Lily Rowan

I still miss my old neighbor IMAQT.


Oh come on, like you don't know Soon-To-Be-Boyfriend is named Jack Burger who eventually breaks up with Carrie on a Post-it

Valley Girl

@allofthewine I didn't remember this scene but I was like "That's GOTTA be Burger".


The one that haunts me is GLURBL.

What does it meannnnn?

Roxanne Rholes

@yeah-elle I was stuck behind PUGSROK in traffic once, and it didn't dawn on me until later that it was "pugs rock," not "pugs are okay." I was just sitting there like "man, do people really hate pugs that much?"


@Roxanne Rholes PUGS R OK though—I don't know why that's so funny to me.

Roxanne Rholes

@yeah-elle Right? What is that thought process like?




Lily Rowan

@yeah-elle Because it's hilarious, is why! PUGS R OK. I mean, not great.

Miss Kitty Fantastico

@Roxanne Rholes omg I am silent laughing so hard at my desk at PUGS R OK


@Lily Rowan You know, they'll do.

Disco Sheets

@yeah-elle Glue Rebel? GL you are BL? (not that i know what THAT means.) glurrrrrrrrrrrrblllll? maybe they meant to say "gurbl" like "gerbil" because they really love gerbils but it was taken?

GREAT, now it is haunting me too.

oh! valencia

@Roxanne Rholes you guys I think it's "PUGS ROCK" but I agree PUGS ARE OK is funnier.


"PRN LOVR" spotted multiple times in Chicago. darth's dad & i have spotted it in the flesh (metal?) but it's also shown up on deadspin, or something.


@darthvadersmom Wow. I didn't know people who were big fans of shellfish were so into it they would get a plate that reads PRAWN LOVER.


In the parking lot of the Lake Chabot Golf Course in the Oakland Hills: MEOWZDA. We took turns posing for pics next to it.


@whizz_dumb Oakland has some great ones. Down 60th/MLK (by Lois the Pie Queen?) I saw a minivan once with the back window filled with those family member decals? And the license was "1MORBB."


One time, I went to a hair show in Richmond, Virginia, and the parking garage was about 90% hair-related license plate puns.


When I was a kid I though vanity plates were the height of cool and a marker of adulthood - getting to dictate like that - and therefore really wanted one.
I now see they are most often douchy, but will never forget the most-excellent lime green beetle with the plate that read "BOOGER"

Miss Kitty Fantastico

growing up, my friend's mom had a minivan with the vanityplate KIDLIMO


@Madeline Shoes I feel like this is an optimal way to discourage adult children from moving home, should one want to.


I used to live near a FNCY LDY, which is my favorite ever.
Also, this: http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2011/04/floridas_obscene_license_plate_5.php


One day while commuting from SF to the Silicon Valley, I spent most of the trip behind STVHOLT. I could not have been more delighted and had to be persuaded not to pass the car, throw my hands in the air, and shout "Steve Holt!" I'm sure that happens to the owner on a regular basis.

a small sea


Pound of Salt

My favorite: DIM WYT


@Pound of Salt That one is great. Reminds me of me. I could do WIZ DUM.


I died when I saw PB4WEGO on a huge SUV that had at least 9 members of a stick-figure family on the back window.


I remember seeing a Hummer with Acclim8 right around the time An Inconvenient Truth came out.


I once saw a minivan with the plate FIVESOME


I just spent about twenty minutes trying to find a screenshot of David Wenham shouting 'NAZGOOOOOOOOOOOL', I KNOW IT EXISTS BUT WHERE IS IT.


There seems to be a specific genre that keeps cropping up for me: cat ladies. I have seen both CATTMOM and KAT M<3M within a ten-mile radius-- now I am ever vigilant for plates like this.

Also, I am able to measure how late/early I am for work based on whether I pass a Corvette with a ROTTGUT plate during my drive.

Queen Elisatits

Some favorites:


my carpool buddy & I once saw one that said--I shit you not--"VAGINA." & they laughed & waved when they saw me taking a picture. (said photo is the only reason I can be sure I didn't invent that in a dream.)

a small sea

I'm a grad student (in microbio - it's relevant) and my advisor's vanity plate is AUG2UGA and the first time we were out by his car he called me over and asked me if I knew what it meant and I said "uhhhhhhh" and then realized that it's basically START 2 END because AUG is the amino acid code for Met^i which is the first amino acids in all proteins. And apparently UGA is one of the stop codons which I didn't know but made an educated guess about.



@a small sea The only reason I have the stop codons memorized is my professor's mnemonic device: "U are awful, U are gross, U go away." Microbio is the best.


I have always hoped to catch another glimpse of a white hummer with some shiny silver and sparkly details, ICE BOX. I like to imagine this guy driving it.

Also, someone in my neighborhood has SBLACK and a bunch of Harry Potter stickers, so I always smile at them on my way to work.


I guess they must be cheaper in Alaska than in Oregon (where I'm from), because Juneau seems to have a disproportionate number of vanity plates.

Stacy Worst

Best one I ever saw was DEV NULL.


Been collecting them for years! Some favorites:
2MOMS (New Hampshire!)
MULLETT (Vermont!)

Collecting them has totally given me Stockholm Syndrome. So now I'm that Masshole living in the south sporting the plate UNSW33T


@cinetrix I have a blog of those myself and friends have collected! http://vanityplated.tumblr.com
I've been lazy so I have about 200 sitting on my phone waiting to be added. My most popular plate was SHHHHHH, and the plate GO ON was reblogged by the official tumblr for NBC's Go On.
What I love now is the repeats... My friend sent me ZOMBIES but I had gotten that one 4 months before. I missed FAMILY twice before finally catching him. 3XDAFUN I shouldn't have chased for 10 minutes because now I see him a couple times a month.
I've converted so many people though - all across the country I've got my scouts.


It is so strange that you were watching Sex And The City in HS dreaming of a boyfriend while I was already married and the mother of 2 in my 30's watching the same thing... now in my 40's reading what you are writing knowing that we really never age except for in the mirror and wondering when exactly it happens? Nothing to do with vanity plates but there are all things we women collect and one of them is the bizarre proof over and over of how we really are who we are from a much younger age than our younger selves realize and just how amazing a newish pair of Chuck Taylor's look on a 40 something year old as they did on the same teenage girl.


@Niffy 42 here, and totally loving this comment. This train of thought has been tripping me OUT lately. <3

Oh, squiggles

I'm sort of worried that one day I will be in an accident because I am so distracted by trying to interpret what a vanity plate is saying.


@Absurd Bird I take pictures of plates for my tumblr (http://vanityplated.tumblr.com) I got chased by PRO NRA... pretty sure this hobby is definitely going to be what kills me.

Sarah Gordon@facebook

Ohmyword! I totally have been seeing so many lately. Yesterday was "Beliver", and all I could think was are they a believer and misspelled it? why would you leave out THAT e? or are they liver? maybe it's their last name! the possibilities... endless.

PS you need to star a tumblr.


@Sarah Gordon@facebook I have one!
vanityplated.tumblr.com Was BELIVER a DE Plate?


Here's one I saw on my way home one day along W Riv Pkwy: ICUDV8.

Turns out, I knew the driver of the car sporting the plate.


During my senior year of college, I used to often end up parking next to an old beat-up Honda Civic with a license plate that read, 2DXREME


Two best vanity plates I've ever seen:

I495SUX - Yes sir/ma'am, indeed it does. For non-DC folks, 495 is the Beltway.
BUBBE 1 - the most Jewish car I've ever seen. Also had a bumper for a local Jewish day school, with the slogan "Making Mentsches since 1972." I actually got a picture of that one.

Tammy Pajamas

Best and worst vanity plates I've ever seen (both in Los Angeles; CA plates):
Best: WKD SMAT (that one took me a minute... I was tipped off by the Red Sox sticker on the car)

does it need saying

Ok, I'm gonna be that person. I just have to know, what is a Porsche Camero? Am I reading the sentence wrong?
On a brighter note, I am loving all of the PL8S

martin f-er@twitter

@does it need saying No such car. Probably the Cayenne SUV.


The two best I've seen in Boston are XKCD and KHAAAN, and there's an ICUCNME on my way home from work every day.


@Gansett omg that KHAAAAN one is f'ing genius!


my boyfriend's aunt used to have one that said ILVRDSX- as in "I love the Red Sox." she had to change it after a few people took it to mean she loved "road sex."


I wish I could post a picture here, because I took one of a car in front of me that said "jrkstor" with a frame that said "they're running out of you".
Also, one that got past the censors "310HSS4"

Chareth Cutestory

My favorite: AU DGGR on a gold car.


@Chareth Cutestory My dad sent me SMURFED on a bright blue car http://vanityplated.tumblr.com

martin f-er@twitter

Giant yellow Hummer with PHO KING.

Ladies Who Punch

I ordered mine almost two months ago [which reminds me I need to figure out when its supposed to be here!] & it says BEX SPEX. My real name is Rebekah & I wear glasses. ta-DAH! Nothing too cutesy though.


My Mom surprised me with vanity plates a few years ago, NIGEL. I love Spinal Tap but in Australia there's the nickname "Nigel No Friends" plus people just assumed I was driving my (non-existent) older husband's fancy car or something so I had it changed. Then she surprised me with UP TO 11 and I get confused looks a lot. I'm taking my keys back.


I did a wordsearch to see how many times ASSMAN came up and it was zero. ZERO mentions of ASSMAN. The best fictional vanity plate ever and nary a mention. ASSMAN.


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