Here’s Looking at You, JP/Give Me a Brake – and a License Plate Game

By Gustaf Berger

Special to the Gazette

We surrender ourselves to “Gypsy,” our unerring GPS, to guide us from Boston to a friend’s home in Brooklyn. What can go wrong? We let her doze until we near New York, where we wake her up and follow her dulcet tones to – Brookville, Long Island! Programming digital devices is still a challenge.

When I finally realize we’re going in the wrong direction, we’re 15 miles and a lot of traffic further from our destination. No problem, we’ll just reprogram Gypsy. And we try. Until she announces detachment from her ethereal connection: “GPS signal lost.” Okay, so I go the way I remember; after all, I grew up in NY. I’ve lived in Boston for 23 years, however, and my memory ain’t what it once was. But we do know how to read maps.

Then we smack up against a mind-numbing jam. Luckily, it’s hours before sunset and time is of no essence. Ha! What do you do when you’re stuck in traffic? Look at people in other cars? Search phone for messages? Curse the traffic gods? Talk with travel mates?

I glimpse a Florida license plate and reminisce about games we played in the car long before the digital age. Remember those days? Many years ago, on a trip from New York to California, we spotted all 50 states and most Canadian provinces. The Grand Canyon parking lot filled in plenty of blanks including South Carolina, the last found.

The state-finding game is good for long trips. Hopefully this delay will be brief, so we play a fast moving numbers game. You add up the digits on a plate until you have reduced it to one number, e.g. 74DB95=7+4+9+5=25=7. First you have to find a “1,” then a “2,” and so on until you reach nine. If you want to compete, first one to call out the answer gets the number. There’s a simple shortcut that will make this easier. E-mail me for it.

We pass the cause of the backup, one of my major peeves – a rubbernecking delay! I wonder if a distracted driver is at fault for this fender bender. Last year, I sat in front of Caffe Nero and observed over a thousand drivers. Twelve percent were using phones or GPS; some were even texting.

In the past two years, our car has been hit twice by drivers on their phones. And I’ve had some near misses while I was walking. Cars are getting safer, but drivers aren’t. Studies have shown that texting while driving is six times as dangerous as drunk driving. The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving in the U.S. has led to 1.6 million crashes, nearly 390,000 injuries, and over 4000 deaths annually. Give me a brake!

We’re moving now, if you call 25 MPH moving, and we switch to a word game. Take the three letters in a plate and make a word containing them in the same order, e.g. XME could be “example.” One point for the first with an answer and one if opponent makes a longer word, such as “extremely.”

By the time Gypsy shakes off her stupor and locates her signal, we’re almost at our destination. We arrive two hours later than planned.

If you have children, and you can pry their eyes from electronic devices, there are plenty of license plate and other car games for all ages. I’ll be happy to send you rules, including a challenging one I made up especially for MA plates. And here’s a website with additional games including car bingo and free-to-print games for kids:

What car games do or did you play? Please e-mail me at [email protected]

License Plate Trivia

Years ago, when NY plates contained county abbreviations, some savvy commuters registered their cars in Fulton County to get FC plates, allowing them to park in spaces reserved for foreign counsel.

Beginning in 1901, New York was the first state to require registration numbers to be affixed to vehicles, but owners had to make their own plates out of metal, leather or wood. In 1903, Massachusetts became the first to make and issue license plates. Since 1920 almost 5 million plates have been made in the MA prison system, beginning at Charlestown State Prison and now at MCI-Cedar Junction, Walpole.

Except for Vanity Plates, the letters “O” and “Q” are not used. The last number on a plate shows the expiration date. “1” is January. “2” February. “0” October. Vanities expire in November. The current two letter, four number license plates allow for over 5-million different plates. Three letters and three numbers contain over 12-million combinations. It’ll be a while before we use them up.

As I walk around JP, I observe and survey the landscape: Irrelevant walk buttons, people who drop mail in a postal box and open the lid a second time to see if it went down (40 percent,) how many homes have AC (50 percent.) For a month, I recorded every license plate I saw around JP – over 6000 in all. One in thirteen came from another state or Canada. Only eight states were missing and, as expected, New York and most New England states had the biggest numbers followed by Pennsylvania, Florida, and California.

Whether at home or on the road, I hope you enjoy the summer. When you can, turn off those electronic devices and engage with one another and the world around you in more “old-fashioned” ways.

Gustaf Berger is a writer living in Jamaica Plain. He is the author of “Death Postponed.”



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