When is a personalized license plate a good omen?

Posted: Friday, May 02, 2003

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

I have a confession to make: For more than a few weeks now, I have been staking out the driver of a dark pickup. I think her name is Ann.

It all started by accident. I was idling at an intersection on Egan when I noticed I was tailing a pickup with the license plate "ANZTOY." I realized I'd been behind Ann and her toy coming home from Blockbuster, on the way to the gym and pulling into the gas station. Ann, toy and I were traveling in the same circles, yet her identity remained unknown. I became curious.

Who was this Ann? Could she be the frizzy-haired woman picking through the salad bar at A&P? Or, perhaps Ann is a waitress at the Hangar, young and fond of low-slung jeans?

I once thought I saw "ANZTOY" park and became convinced that Ann was the elderly woman in line ahead of me at the dry cleaner, having her beaded sweater laundered. The thought flashed across my brain that I should introduce myself. But then what does one say when meeting the owner of a personalized license plate? "Hi, you must be Ann. I often drive behind you."

This is the stuff of restraining orders.

Anyway, when the Ann suspect with the sweater turned around, her face was pinched and squinty. I deduced she was not the type to spell her name with a "Z" or refer to her car as "toy." I later saw her driving a beat-up Buick with a bad muffler.

That's the thing about personalized plates. They are both intimate and enigmatic, like finding someone's shopping list blowing down the street. You may know what a person is eating, you might be able to hypothesize they are a cook (fresh tarragon), or single (Hungry Man meals), or if they have a cat, or even hemorrhoids. But still, they could be anybody. The license plate, like the abandoned shopping list, is merely a tiny, intriguing clue, a window into another life you can't help but try to imagine.

I'm not sure at what point I began to imagine Ann, but I eventually developed a profile. She must be a confident woman in her 30s, to whom a large piece of steel with manual transmission is a plaything. Maybe she has a brown ponytail and wrap-around sunglasses. I saw her listening to the Ramones, pushing 65 on that stretch of Egan between Twin Lakes and what used to be Kmart at the end of an unseasonably hot day. Ann was tough, I imagined, the type of woman who can fillet a 60-pound king salmon or crush one of those fat brown Southeast Alaska spiders with her bare thumb.

I tried to think like Ann. Would I ever get a personalized plate? I attempted to come up with something that would sound edgy or esoteric on my ancient, disintegrating Toyota truck, like "ANGST," or the more philosophical, "WHY?" but neither seemed appropriate for a vehicle that routinely leaves pieces of its underbody on the highway. I also tried to condense longer words, like "Mold Mobile," or "Oil Leaker," but they were unintelligible and I gave up.

Ideally, a personalized plate should say something about both vehicle and driver, like the minivan "MOMCAR" or the decisive-sounding "ANZTOY" on a pickup - a simple, direct license plate that confers an air of power, like the sight of a small woman astride a large horse.

One day when I was particularly broke, I ended up behind "ANZTOY" on the way to the post office. When I went inside, I found my tax return in my mail box. I wondered if there wasn't a superstitious significance to Ann sightings. "ANZTOY," I thought, could be kind of a rare good omen, like when you are walking at Sandy Beach and a great blue heron flies low over your head.

Later, as I was trying to decipher the plate "PRRPWR" on a car I happened to follow to Costco, it occurred to me for the first time I could be reading Ann's plate wrong. "An" could be short for Anthony and Toy for Toyota, for example. Or, it might not be "Ann's Toy" at all, but "Anzt Oy," like some kind of a Yiddish inside joke. Ann was not a good omen; she was probably not even Ann the spider killer. I had imagined myself into delusion. I was embarrassed. After that, I didn't see her truck for weeks.

Then, one night I was waiting at the intersection near the Douglas Bridge when I noticed "ANZTOY" ahead in a neighboring lane. I was going to turn; she was going straight. I should change lanes, I thought, catch her and pass her. Once and for all, I should see who she was. The light changed but I froze. Someone behind me honked. I watched "ANZTOY" disappear down the dusty road.

Looking back, I think I stopped because I prefer it this way. I prefer that Ann is one of those people you pass but never meet, a woman who may have the power to summon tax returns and good luck, a woman, possibly with wrap-around sunglasses and a brown ponytail, who has no trouble telling the world that she is Ann, to whom a dark truck, and presumably many other large and powerful things, are merely toys.

• Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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