“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
I’ve always been impressed by vanity license plates—at least when they’re genuinely clever or funny—and have long thought that a little back bumper wit on my part might help my fellow Silver Hillbillies endure the one stoplight that interrupts our 25-mile cruise from here to town. But there are perfectly good reasons why I’ve never managed to make a move on customized license plates. First, I’m so practical as to have trouble rationalizing an expense that is so obviously unnecessary. Second, I like to change my mind about things, and so have been hesitant to commit to any one message, however witty or insightful. Most important, though, to get customized plates I’d have to actually go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a place that is the seventh circle of bureaucratic hell even in a world already overflowing with superfluous administrative horseshit. I just haven’t thought of a vanity plate that would be funny enough to make it worth the misery of spending an afternoon at the DMV.
Of course that didn’t keep me from thinking about the possibility, and occasionally I’d toy with an idea for a tag. I figured I’d go with something that would assert my identity as a high desert hillbilly, like DSRT RAT or BSN RNGE or GR8 BSN or DSRT MTN. Even something like NEWWEST could be cool. Or I might instead go with a cute, place-based proclamation like IM SAGE, or maybe I could tap the nickname we use for rattlers out here: BZZZWRM. It also occurred to me that I could cleverly use the fact that our state tags boldly say NEVADA atop them to create a two-word slogan by adding NO WSTLD, since “Nevada: Not a Wasteland” is the slogan used by those of us who would just as soon not have the nation’s nuclear waste buried here. Another two-word message could be produced by choosing WD OPN, since another of our many equivocal state mottoes is “Nevada: Wide Open,” a slogan that seems vaguely to refer not only to landscapes but also to accelerators and legs.
While I was dreaming up customized Nevada tags I came up with a lot of ideas that I thought might work for somebody else in Silver Hills, if not for me. One of my neighbors who is a professional poker player might either DBL DWN or FOLDEM. The old lady at the only gas station in our valley likes to play slots, so she could hope to HIT 37S. The guy up the road from us raises longhorns and so might like to claim that he has BIG BLLS. Or maybe not. But he could still use STEERNG. My friend who paints desert landscapes should use RBBT BRSH, and our neighborhood dowser could ask WHRS H2O. All the equestrians out here can argue over BITBYBIT, and the lady mining engineer might confess to being a GLD DGR. Our road’s resident conspiracy theorist should have CNA UFO. And our mail delivery woman, who is very nice but nevertheless has frosted blonde hair, poor taste in clothes, and a lower back tattoo that reads “LADY,” might do well to order up NTA HKR.
I also found a website called something like ZILLIONTAGS.COM, which not only had thousands of actual vanity plates but also had them organized by state, which I thought might help me determine where the good ideas were coming from. Of course I began with my home state, which I soon discovered had mounted the most pathetic custom tag display imaginable. Nevada had a total of four entries: IHVNOJB, 99 PROBS, IH8 WMPS, and the incredibly dumb NOT DUM. Next I turned to Utah, which provided no encouragement whatsoever. Utahans are either too frugal or too well-mannered to excel at self-expression in the highly specialized medium of the vanity plate. Like Nevada, Utah boasted a total of four entries, three of which I couldn’t understand; the fourth was GOLFING, which struck me as genuinely depressing. Next I tried Idaho, which had a whopping five tags, not a single one of which made a lick of sense to me. Could these be survivalist code messages instructing rural neighbors to hoard whiskey and guns?
In desperation I turned to Oregon, whose tags were weirdly sincere, like B YRSLF and GOD NO1 and BE GR8R, though one lady who reminded me of an old girlfriend had confessed to having PMS 247. Thankfully I found that the Sand Cutters down in Arizona were more creative, and had come through not only with many more tags but also with a variety of respectable entries, including AEIONU, SCO BEDO, IMLAME, VNTY PL8, MMMBEER, FATTKID, and RCY BOBY, not to mention the charmingly confessional IFARTED.
Although the plates of a few Arizonians were slightly risqué, like GETNAKD and IL SPNKU, they couldn’t hold a candle to the work of my neighbors to the west. California had hundreds of custom tag entries, at least half of which were pornographic. Even those that were not explicitly sexual seemed obsessed with power and money – a sentiment elegantly distilled by 2L8 I1 on a new jag. But the California tags were also expressive, irreverent, and comical in ways that might prove instructive over in Utah and Idaho. Among the countless solid entries from the Californicators were FROMMYX (on a Mercedes), MO FAUX (on a Caddy), JST 1MPG (on a Hummer), FRENDLY (on a creepy, windowless panel van), BLONDE (with the tag mounted upside down), GEEKDAD (on a Prius), H8LAFWY (on an old pickup), UGHHHHH (on a Tercel), and my personal favorite: CMON WTF (on a yellow VW bug).
Despite all this inspiration, I still hadn’t come up with anything sufficiently clever to drive me into the dreaded DMV. But all that changed on my last birthday, when my wife Eryn said that she had made up my mind for me, adding that the deed was done and the plates were already ordered. She refused to tell me what message my custom tags would proclaim, but she seemed confident that I’d like it, and at this point I had no alternative to being vocally appreciative and silently curious.
The state bureaucrats aged my paperwork as if it were a fine Pappy Van Winkle rye, but after several months we finally received word that my custom plates were available for pickup. Of course fetching my new slogan meant a trip to the dreaded DMV. I considered putting a fat splash of Pappy in my java on the day I had set aside for this onerous chore, and although my prudence triumphed over my anxiety I confess that the prospect of being stone cold sober at the DMV was an unhappy one. This instinct was confirmed as I arrived at the facility, where the inadequate parking had triggered a Darwinian battle for spaces in which I was twice nearly sideswiped. As I entered the building I took a number and then sat down to wait on the DMV chairs, torture devices which are bolted to the cinder block walls and made of wire mesh that leaves a grid pattern on your butt – though in truth the mesh may have been practical, given that several of my fellow citizens looked as if they might at any moment begin to urinate on themselves.
I say “my fellow citizens” because a visit to the DMV offers a spectacularly disturbing opportunity to witness what a cross-section of local humanity actually looks like. On one side of me sat an older man who sounded as if he were in the midst of negotiating the specifics of an important business deal. Only later did I notice that he had no Bluetooth headset but was instead simply talking to himself. The young man sitting on the other side of me had a haircut that looked as if somebody had slapped a small soup bowl on his noggin and shaved everything below the rim. He passed the time by loudly repeating every number as it was called by the DMV’s automated voice system. “Three hundred sixty nine,” said the robot speaker, calmly. “Oh yeah! That’s right! Three hundred and sixty nine!” yelled hair tuft guy. “Three hundred seventy,” said the quiet, mechanical voice. “Yeah baby! Three hundred and seventy! That’s what I’m talking about!” shouted the man. I looked down at my number and winced. 482. I had a long way to go.
Nearby a lady was giving herself a full pedicure, complete with those little spacers that splayed her toes while the toxic fumes, perhaps mercifully, gave those of us around her a mild contact high. There were babies crying, and people snoring, and a deaf man playing a ukulele that was out of tune. Near two teenagers who were passing the time by making out sat an angry looking lady in a full clown suit, who was herself sitting next to a young woman wearing a tight T-shirt that advertised for the famous Mustang Ranch brothel. Let’s face it, blithe platitudes about democracy, equality, and love for one’s fellow man are sorely tested here at the DMV. I doubt that even Pete Seeger, may he rest in peace, could have endured more than an hour here. The DMV is the place where populist sentiment comes to die.
After the better part of two more hours the automated voice finally called my number, although I didn’t notice that until I was startled to attention by the unflagging enthusiasm of hair tuft guy, who shouted “No lie, people! I’m preaching the gospel truth here! I’m talking four hundred and eighty two!” I walked up to the DMV lady who occupied the chair beneath the flashing number 482 and politely presented my folder, which contained all the required documents: registration, smog check, proof of insurance, and receipt for custom plate payment. The lady sat motionless, staring at me with a completely expressionless face that offered not a single word. “Um, ok,” I stammered, “I’m here to pick up some customized plates. I have all the necessary paperwork. My name is Michael Branch.” After a silent pause that seemed interminable, the lady rose stiffly from her chair and without a word simply shuffled away like an overmedicated zombie. She may have been going to get my new tags, but that was not at all clear to me, and after five minutes I began to wonder if she had gone on a cigarette break, or perhaps even left for the day. Or maybe she had simply stepped into the mailroom to pour some whiskey into her coffee, a sensible measure that I was already regretting not having taken myself.
Zombie lady eventually shuffled back and reoccupied her place in front of me. When after another long pause she finally spoke, her entire discourse consisted of only two words, which were phrased as a question: “Five bucks?” I pulled out my wallet, plunked an Abe Lincoln on the counter, and waited to see what might happen next. She reached out and slowly slid a large, manila envelope across the counter, completing the motion by drawing the five spot back. She quietly folded her hands over the bill. “Have a nice day,” she said in an expressionless monotone.
It was not until I staggered back out into the light of day that I opened that envelope and pulled out out what to this day remains the finest birthday gift I’ve ever received.
The beauty of being a humor writer is that everything in life that isn’t pleasure is still material, and in that sense ranting has inoculated me against despair. In the life of a RANTER, a good day becomes a memory, a bad day becomes a story, and even a visit to the DMV can have a happy ending.