Thoughts on a trip south via license plate bingo

Very recently, I realized just how much I needed some quiet time on my own, so I rented a tiny house near the Shenandoahs for three days-and-nights starting yesterday. After Wednesday’s insurrection (please watch this excellent video on it; I almost never watch MSNBC, but this is a must-see), leaving felt risky and untimely. I asked the boys if I should stay home. Jack said, “Mom, I’m not scared, I’m just pissed and disgusted. You deserve to go have some time for yourself. Have fun. I love you.” Ol said, “I’ve always wanted a tiny house. Can I come? No? Okay, well I’m fine, I just can’t believe people STORMED the Capitol with guns. They are awful.”

So, at a minimum, I have two extremely well-adjusted children. And, I am enormously proud of their righteous disgust and anger. I adore them.

When I was little, my sister and I had a variety of ways to amuse ourselves on long car trips to and from visiting family in Georgia. Perhaps what I most loved was license plate bingo. We had these thick cardboard pieces with a state in each bingo slot. As you saw that state’s license plate, you got to slide shut a transparent, red plastic door. Do y’all remember those? I swear this is what we had.

Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 7.31.02 PM.pngScreen Shot 2021-01-09 at 7.31.02 PM.png

Anyway, even though I have always suffered from horrendous motion sickness, I loved this game and still love the idea of it. Roadways fascinate me. They are a country’s vascular system, taking those in transit to all manner of place, an intricate web of vessels that intersect, splinter off of, run parallel to, and diverge. I loved when one car and ours would drive together for a while before that other chose to exit, carrying it away and toward something different than what lay in my future. Those brief intervals of overlap, of connection, they are meaningful in some weird way. Coincidental, fated, a thing in common before the break. Fleeting familiarity flanked by strangerness.

My favorite plates, for no reason beyond immediate aesthetic reaction, included Rhode Island’s simple gray wave, Vermont’s unapologetically spare green and white, South Carolina’s Palmetto and moon, and New Mexico’s turquoise and yellow with the central zia symbol. I still find them all pleasing, though my relationship with them has changed somewhat.

Things, for good and bad, so often become imbued with meaning: idolatrous, nostalgic, nationalistic (rather a twin to idolatry, I suppose), romantic…a simple figure can be appropriated in ways that leave some revering it with fervor while others, who previously loved said figure, suddenly shy away in discomfort or revulsion.

As I drove down to the Shenandoah Valley by myself, in a hybrid car studded with progressive cause bumper stickers, I found myself playing license plate bingo without enthusiasm. Yes, I had researched this area and this rental beforehand. I asked the owner to tell me more about Harrisonburg, in light of this week’s turmoil. She assured me that it was a very progressive town, albeit in a fairly conservative county, that I would be fine bringing my car, that you couldn’t see the parking space from the main road.

And she was right. Black Lives Matter, Biden, and Hate Has No Home Here signs abound. Masks are mandatory. Hand sanitizer is everywhere; in fact, it’s much more prevalent in commercial places here than back home. And true to its moniker, Harrisonburg is an exceptionally friendly place.

And yet.

I intentionally bypassed not a few places on my drive down in which I could have stopped for gas. You could not have paid me to pull off in a sea of mud-spattered pickups boasting the Don’t Tread On Me version of the Virginia license plate and Blue Lives Matter stickers on the cab’s rear window.

The Alabama-plated truck that came roaring up behind me? I pulled immediately into the next lane and did.not.look.left.

Pennsylvania and New York plates? Hard to tell. A little stressful. A Mainer this far south? Probably ok.

Any hybrid car regardless of plate? God, it’s nice to see you.

I hate this form of license plate bingo. I despise fear and otherness and assumption based on symbology. And yet, as the trump years have shown us, a red cap is not just a red cap. The American flag has several meanings, not least when its color scheme is changed to black, white, and blue, or the one flown is an older, much older, version.

Growing up in Louisiana, most every friend had a parent with a pickup truck, many with gun racks mounted in the rear window. My dad had an F-150 for decades, though never a gun rack. I was never scared. I didn’t like guns, and Dad was never a hunter, but the truck and the rack and the weaponry didn’t provoke fear.

Today, the black pickup with a loud engine and slightly darkened windows or a tell-tale sticker? I don’t love it. Huge eagle and American flag decals? Suspicious. Second Amendment, assault weapon, or pro-life stickers? I’m racing in the other direction. Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina plates? I wonder.

Let me repeat, I hate this. It is antithetical to every fiber of my being. My in-laws live in Virginia, for pete’s sakes. But in response to the militaristic actions of trumpers, pro-lifers, 2A’ers, nationalistic white supremacists, blue lives matter folks (who tend to be anti-black lives matter), and Fox News and OAN watchers? It sometimes feels smart to take the exit away.

This afternoon, I went to the Carrier Arboretum at JMU. It was a stunning day. Cold, brisk, blue, winter. I thrilled in the vestiges of fall foliage, in trees healthy and dead, in the ducks and geese that swam as if unperturbed by the frigid water, in the brave green of plants that have figured out how to thrive in tough times, in the various mosses that I just fancy beyond articulation. I had a perfect couple of hours, but as I approached the small parking lot, alone, no others around, I saw two big trucks pull up on either side of my car. There were other spots; they didn’t need those. And so I did another lap around the duck pond, another visit into a wooded area. One truck left, and the other backed into a different spot. Heart pounding, I headed for my car. My electronic key failed to let my trembling fingers pull the handle open. I was forced to put my bag on my car hood, dig for my keys, unlatch the physical key from the electronic fob, slide it into the lock, figure out which way opened it, and finally slip into the driver’s seat.

I’m not going to lie. In that moment, I was worried. It was like being a woman (like me) walking alone at night with her keys between her knuckles (like I have done many times), ears pricked (all the time), hurrying but not obviously hurrying. This really pisses me off. I have every right to put social justice stickers on my car and not worry I’m going to be harmed or targeted because of them, whether visible from the main road or not. I have every right to travel alone as a woman. I have every right to walk home late at night unmolested. I have every right to wander through an arboretum lazily, mooning over mosses and bird calls and root systems and green in winter.

Why do 45% approve?Why do 45% approve?

Why do 45% approve?

As Republicans whine about healing and unity, let us understand that if someone perpetrates violence against another, healing does not mean pushing said violence under the rug and chanting kumbaya. Freedom of expression does not mean “I don’t like what you’re saying so I will now kill or threaten or harm you.” Violence and hate and related action are NOT protected by the Constitution, nor should they be. There must be consequences. (< Please watch the video accessible via that link.)

Let’s recognize who’s culpable in the why behind license plate bingo not being the same game it once was for me as a white person, and as it NEVER was for people of color. Let’s change things by demanding accountability, consequence, and justice, especially for white thugs and the man who encouraged their hatred and violence.

As an aside, here are some photos from today. Such beauty in this world.

Latest posts