DUCK SOUP: Poetic Licenses
Have you noticed that a North Carolina license plate looks sharp on a black pickup or a red coupe, but clashes horribly with a burnt orange Corvette? Does that bother you?
When you're following two southwestern cars do you suddenly realize that the teale blue Taurus wears a burgundy Arizona tag like a crown whereas New Mexico's glaring red and yellow on the metallic purple Riviera makes you feel unwell? It happens to me all the time.
Why can't our culture exhibit a little pinch of fashion sense when it comes to an object as ubiquitous as the license plate? We could encourage creativity and cultivate good taste while we deepen consumer satisfaction with a major durable good essential to jobs, security and the American Way! Must folks spend five years' salary on a snazzy auto and then muck it up with an insipid tag? I realize that highbrow art has become so mysterious and controversial that politicians are reduced to spluttering, "family values," but this is bumper art. The time has come to let drivers design their own license plates!
In the bad old days before our salvation by interstate highways and computers, each state had a distinctive color-coded tag. A small-town cop could instantly identify out-of-state cars that required ticketing for minor violations. Plates from adjoining states were familiar, but when a vehicle appeared flying the foreign flag of a Nevada or Utah or (shudder!) New York, the sheriff warned bank guards to keep alert and parents cautioned children about candy and strangers.
Today we are all world citizens and knee-jerk xenophobia is a thing of the past. You hardly blink an eye when an out-of-state van pulls into your neighbor's drive and begins to load tvs and stereo equipment. "Must be moving," you tell yourself. Every day you see a dozen different state tags on the way to work -- except Hawaii. I guess the bridge crew is still on coffee break.
Meanwhile, computers have revolutionized police work. In go the numbers, out pops the info. In seconds the state trooper behind you knows your name, rank and serial number, your address, your children's and pet's names, your criminal record, marital status, bank balance, whether you drink your coffee black and the title of the X-rated videos you rented. Every state but Massachusetts shares its database nation wide, so your life is an open book.
But back to tag art. Northeastern and rustbelt designs -- outside of Maine's graceful loon -- were obviously designed by prison bureaucrats. New Jersey, the "Garden State," at least exhibits some humor. The white plate is washed with yellow haze that can only represent smog. All of them look wretched on a metallic raspberry sports car.
Elsewhere, computers have transformed tag art, often trending toward nature. Georgia has black letters on white with orange across the bottom which represents clay or squashed peaches. Virginia displays the cardinal while South Carolina offers either a Carolina wren or wild flowers. Kansas sports a golden wheat field, Minnesota a lake and Indiana a rural sunset. Another Indiana version looks like a child's finger painting, a positive step in the direction of auto rear-articism.
North Carolina's red, white and blue is okay on my gray van, but I have reservations about the Kitty Hawk "First in flight," motif. I would prefer Maryland's great blue heron which looks like a relaxed pterodactyl. Now that's<> first in flight.
Florida is the leader in self expression -- with two or three dozen designs. There's an option of either a Florida panther or manatee, another to commemorate the space shuttle Challenger, purple hearts for wounded vets and apples to support education. Alumni from state universities and pro sports boosters can show their colors, there are red or orange and green variations of the basic tag, two Key West sunset options plus a new Olympic Games design. If a tag looks wretched on a Sunshine State car, don't blame the government.
It's time to take the next step with a pro-choice position everyone can agree on. Let's demand our right to do-it-yourself fashion when it comes to plates. On the post-modern highway of life drivers should wear their art on their sleeves, or at least on their rear ends.