by Emily Gadek

There’s a scene in Sex and the City when Carrie and her soon-to-be boyfriend are walking along Central Park, chatting and flirting the way you do on Sex and the City. Suddenly, he bends down to pick up a stray playing card on the curb. She looks at him quizzically, in that exaggerated, “I’m a New Yorker! No shocking sexual secret will surprise me!” way those Sex and the City girls have:

Soon-to-Be-Boyfriend: I collect found playing cards. They’re all over the city.
Carrie: I never noticed.
Soon-to-Be-Boyfriend: You will now, that’s the thing. I’m hoping to get a full deck. Insert the obvious joke here.

I remember watching it on my friend’s couch as a teenager, thinking, I wonder if that’s true, if the streets of San Francisco are littered with lost playing cards, just like New York and I’ve walked around my whole life never noticing them? And then thinking how not only is the guy totally adorable but also smart and how someday maybe I would be flirting with my future smart, cute boyfriend over trampled Bazooka Joe comics as we strolled through the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, or whatever the West Coast equivalent to the Central Park/playing card scenario would be. As time went on, and I failed to see even a single playing card or Ron Livingston look-alike waiting on the damp San Francisco sidewalks, it became clear to me that the whole premise was probably bull, not to mention kind of a red flag that the dude is pretty pompous. But that didn’t stop that little sensation that maybe I would find someone or something perched on the curb waiting for me one day.

I have not yet found that boyfriend. I have, however, become that boyfriend.

It started innocently enough. A friend and I started texting each other pictures of strange custom license plates. In Chicago, walking home from the El, I spied a black Lexus in a Potbelly’s parking lot proclaiming I ORGNZ U and sent her the picture, chuckling to myself. She responded with a plate from a church-front parking lot reading THEREV.

I’ve always had an eye for strange signage, but after I ORGNIZ U, I found myself looking not for strange café offerings or weird celebrity street names (abundant in that proud city), but plates, instead. Did the MY on that battered gold Corolla up the block end in GURL or just a string of random digits? Would I see I ORGNZ U cruising up to the corner of Diversey and Sheffield?

When I moved back to California and started driving more, the habit got worse. I started scanning license plates for patterns with distracting intensity. Most of the time, the combinations I puzzled over weren’t anything: a kernel of a word buried in a jumble of numbers. But at least once a day I found a custom job, and recognized them triggered a glowing feeling of satisfaction: obviously, only my “trained” eye could suss out these small marvels. It felt like the time I was on Market Street in San Francisco and saw a bright green parrot sitting among a flock of battered pigeons on the sidewalk. A group of seemingly German birdwatching tourists passed below on their way to the street cars and Telegraph Hill, unaware they’d just missed what they traveled so many miles to see.

Just as Carrie’s boyfriend warned, once I started seeing them, they were everywhere. There in front of me on the Bay Bridge was NEXTGOD. I followed SNUPFAN up Piedmont, and spotted ONAWHIM gracing a white Porshe Camero at a stoplight in Berkeley. On the curvy back roads of Marin County was a bright orange PT Cruiser sporting WEIRDOS. On vacation in the Colorado desert was the genius Alaska ORBUST. My neighbor’s car, parked in our grim and gray cavern of a parking garage reads NAZGOOL. Parked at the grocery story was a plate reading IMAWII, with the county, Bowler, underneath.

And it’s hard not to read into them. As I stumbled through a deserted parking lot early one morning in Emeryville, a hulking truck had one that read UPNATEM. Tutting over Lindsay Lohan’s money woes, I glanced over and spied LILO1 outside the appropriately named Pawn 90210. Cut off a by a red SUV in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I muttered, “bitch!” under my breath. YESIAM.

Half a dozen times a day I find myself wondering who these people are. Is CCHAPLIN a fan of silent film or just some guy named Chris Chaplin? Who is the mysterious SLIMGIM? Why is MSBUTCH always in the same strip mall parking lot? Unlike the boyfriend, who can collect his full deck if he just looks hard enough, the stream of plates is neverending. Who knows which ones I miss when I take 880 instead of surface streets, or if I catch BART into San Francisco instead of going over the bridge?

But I love that they’re neverending and weird, and that I’ll never have the full deck. They’re like a pat on the back from the universe. ZPTE2DA.

Emily Gadek is a freelance writer and radio producer living in Los Angeles. She’s the creator and producer of Footnote, a podcast of quirky and overlooked history, available on the web and on iTunes.