Monday, February 13, 2006

Just keep smiling

A few years ago, my husband and I both decided to take the plunge and get vanity (initial) plates for our cars.

Only six letters were allowed back then, but we didn’t mind. I wanted my plate to read, SMILE, because I was working as a photographer at the time and was saying, “Smile!” about hundred times a week. I also was writing humor.

My husband wanted WIMPY (as in Popeye’s buddy) for his plate because of their shared fondness for hamburgers. So we needed only five letters per plate.

Our cars each were registered in both of our names, so I headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get the plates for both cars.

“Sorry, SMILE is already taken,” the clerk informed me. When she saw my look of disappointment, she added, “But USMILE is available.”

I figured that USMILE was better than no smile at all, so I took it. I then asked about WIMPY for my husband. “Sorry,” the clerk said, “but that one’s been taken, too.” She checked a few things on the computer and then suggested WIMPY with a number one after it.

I debated for a moment, not really certain what to do. Finally I agreed to WIMPY1.

My husband was not pleased that night when I showed him his temporary plate.

“WIMPY1?” he whined. “If I can’t be the original WIMPY, I don’t want to be WIMPY at all!”

“Do you know how silly you sound?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, like it or not, you’re stuck with WIMPY1. I wasn’t crazy about getting USMILE either, you know!”

He gave me a look that clearly told me that I shouldn’t have bothered to get the plates at all. Perhaps. But still, I figured that once we’d had the plates for a while, we’d end up loving them.

Once again, I’d figured wrong.

My husband soon discovered that not everyone knew who Wimpy, the Popeye character, was. They did, however, know the definition of the word “wimp” and assumed that my husband was calling himself “Wimpy One” because he was a big sissy. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased.

And I discovered that most people were reading my plate as “U.S. MILE” rather than “U SMILE.” Too frequently, people were asking me if my plate meant that I liked to jog or run marathons. One look at me should have told them that the only “run” in my vocabulary was the kind I got in my pantyhose.

Even worse, I was parked in front of the post office one day and a mail carrier came by and said, “I like your plate! U.S. MAIL!”

As soon as it was time to renew his plate, my husband gave a swift, decent burial to WIMPY1 and got a regular old boring license plate. I, however, decided to stick with USMILE. A few people actually had read it correctly and said they liked it, and I’d even had some drivers pass me on the highway, point at my plate and flash big, toothy smiles at me.

Still, the “U.S. MILE” comments continued. And that’s why one afternoon my husband came home from work to find me, green permanent marking-pen in hand, drawing a hyphen after the “U” on my license plate.

“What are you doing?!” he practically gasped.

“I’m turning my plate into U-SMILE,” I said, coloring the hyphen even darker.

“You can’t do that!” he said. “That’s illegal!”

I shrugged. “It’s only a teeny dash. No one will even know the difference.”

Within seconds, he, party-pooper that he was, used some paint thinner and a rag to transform my plate back to USMILE.

Years passed and I kept the plate, mainly out of habit. It was easy to remember, and whenever my car was parked amongst a sea of other cars, I could find it in a flash because the plate stood out.

Then this past December, I was backed up in traffic and happened to read a vanity plate on the car in front of me. Realization suddenly struck me…it had seven letters!

“How long have the New Hampshire license plates been up to seven letters?” I asked my husband.

“Quite a while, why?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?! I finally can get a hyphen!”

The next month, January, just happened to be the month I had to register my car. Impatiently, I stood in line at the DMV. “I want a hyphen added to my vanity plate,” I blurted out when I finally reached the clerk.

“Where would you like the hyphen?” she asked. After I told her, she said, “Let me check to see if U-SMILE is available.”

I held my breath.

I’m pleased to say that I now have U-SMILE for my plate, and I haven’t been asked about running marathons since I got it.

But the other day in a supermarket parking lot as I was putting groceries into my car, two teenagers walked by and one said to the other, “Cool plate! U-SLIME!”

I can’t win.