Here's today's incredo-burger, boys and girls. It stars a Maryland motorist who slipped a real bad one past a Motor Vehicle Administration bureaucrat.
The evidence was there for all to see one day on the Baltimore Beltway. Dr. W.S. Furie of Frederick passed a car, looked at its vanity tags, then pinched himself and looked again.
But he wasn't hallucinating. The tags bore an insulting four-letter word that is used to describe Orientals. The term was frequently used by American military personnel in Vietnam to refer to the natives. I'll bet there's not an 8-year-old in America who hasn't heard the term and who doesn't know that it's derogatory.
But the same obviously can't be said for a clerk in the MVA's vanity tags office. For here was a motorist, displaying a racial insult about as publicly as one could. Dr. Furie called the tags "appalling," and he complained to the MVA.
The MVA says it hasn't had to yank these tags because the bearer has not reapplied for them. Thus, they will die a natural death, and thanks to Dr. Furie's protest, the same tags will never be issued to anyone else. Still, the MVA's carelessness in issuing the tags in the first place is remarkable.
It seems that the tags were issued to a man with a six-letter last name. The first four letters of his last name are the same four that appeared on his vanity plates.
The man told the MVA when he obtained the tags that those first four letters were his nickname. He said that people refer to him by that four-letter syllable in the same way that people named Walker are often called Walk, and people named Kelley are often called Kell.
And the MVA bought it.
That's as far into the question as they looked.
They said, hey, that's the man's nickname, give him the plates.
Incredibly, they apparently didn't even recognize the term as being derogatory.
Do I hear you saying, "Well, everybody makes mistakes"? Well, of course they do. But the MVA made exactly the same kind of mistake approximately five years earlier.
Back in the early 1980s, a motorist obtained a set of vanity plates that bore the equally familiar derogatory four-letter term applied to Jews. That motorist's argument was the same: ---- was the first syllable of his last name, and "everybody" called him that. The MVA finally yanked his tags -- but not until scads of complaints were filed, and not until the tags had ridden the roads for nearly a year.
According to Sarah M. Wiley, chief of public service for the MVA, complaints are the only reason the MVA ever takes a second look at vanity tags -- and therefore the only way an offensive plate gets yanked. "A lot of times, I am not able to review the applications myself, so somebody has to bring it to my attention," Wiley said.
A "no-no list" is kept at MVA headquarters, and is added to daily, Wiley said. But "the only way" any word or syllable ever gets added to the no-no list is when complaints such as Dr. Furie's are filed.
However, not every complaint leads to removal of a plate. Wiley pointed out that the MVA has bought the "nickname argument" in other cases, even when dozens of indignant letters have been written.
The best-known case of that sort concerned vanity tags that read: HORNY. Once again, they were obtained by a man with a last name like Horner or Hornabeck. He argued that he had been called Horny since he was knee-high to a license plate. The MVA said fine, and Brother Horner or Hornabeck has his HORNY tags to this day.
But a HORNY tag will at least bring a chuckle from the vast majority of motorists who might happen to see it. A four-letter, racially tinged epithet will make only bigots chuckle.
You're the guy who was driving a pickup truck a little too fast a few days ago on Rte. 236 in Fairfax, near Woodson High School. As a result, a box full of 45 rpm records and a microphone -- obviously the tools of the D.J.'s trade -- slid off the back of your truck and fell into the middle of the road.
You're lucky that Vincent Agnelli, 323-8012, saw the box fall and scooped it up. You'll be even luckier if you call that number and identify the make and color of your truck. In that case, and that case only, Vince will be glad to return your records and mike.
Here's a windfall profits tax I can get behind:
Now that we're saving $2 or $3 a week on gas, thanks to the recent price declines, Kathy Bell of Chevy Chase suggests that every motorist give that $2 or $3 to the Washington Area Fuel Fund.
We would have given the money to the oil companies, Kathy notes. Now that we don't have to, isn't it sensible to give the same dollars to help our shivering fellow citizens heat themselves?