Some raised flags, some bought bumper stickers. Californians ordered vanity plates.
Among the hundreds of homespun homages to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the custom license plate has emerged as a micro-trend. More than two dozen of the limited ways to combine 911 with SEPT, WTC, NYFD and NYPD have been claimed in California, Department of Motor Vehicles records show.
Someone managed to squeeze Remember the World Trade Center into the maximum seven spaces: RMBRWTC. Others claimed 11SEPT1, SEP11TH, 911O1NY, 9FDNY11 and at least 22 similar permutations, along with hundreds of clear 911 allusions to Porsches and emergency hotlines.
Robert Yellen, a Los Angeles County firefighter, got a plate with 11SEPT on it for his Toyota truck a few days after the attacks. The 39-year-old Alta Loma resident said that once he heard people toot their horns or saw them flash a thumbs-up, he knew he'd done the right thing.
"Every once in a while I'll have people, if I'm stopped at a light, who'll say, 'I like your plate,' " Yellen said. "At first, I thought people would think I'm a terrorist."
The DMV does not track how many references to the terrorist attacks have wound up on plates or how many drivers tried and failed to get them, said spokesman Steve Haskins. Anybody with $41 who wants a personalized plate that isn't obscene and doesn't already exist can have it (the price varies when the custom message is ordered on one of the state's nine theme plates).
"If they come in and are not offensive, we go ahead and approve them," Haskins said. "But in terms of making note of them, we don't."
California doesn't have a monopoly on the phenomenon. It took about a New York minute for someone to request WTC911 in the Empire State, according to New York DMV spokesman Matt Burns. That particular request arrived "before noon" on Sept. 11, Burns said, and was followed in subsequent days by hundreds more.
But New York is not issuing plates with Sept. 11 connotations--at least not now--out of sensitivity to families of the victims, according to Burns.
"We haven't processed any of those because of deference to the families," Burns said. "We're holding on to the information from people who requested them" until a decision is made on whether the plates will be issued.
Washington, D.C., across the Potomac River from the still-scarred Pentagon, has had no requests for commemorative references in license plates there, said DMV spokeswoman Regina Williams.
But New Jersey and Virginia have granted plates with terror attack references and, like New York and California, are even considering issuing a Sept. 11-themed plate.
In California, Assemblymen Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) and Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) have said they will introduce legislation next month to create a theme tag, with a design to be culled from submissions by high school students statewide.
Proceeds from the $50 plates would be split between a scholarship fund for California children whose parents died in the attacks and law enforcement agencies with new anti-terror responsibilities and costs.
Other states, including Tennessee, Florida and Connecticut, have approved a "United We Stand" flag design. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa have decided on theme plates with other Sept. 11-related designs.
For Jim Prete, hanging an American flag off the chrome sissy bar of his Harley-Davidson Softail was not enough. So, a day or two after the attacks, the 37-year-old Encinitas man reserved SPT11O1 for his Hog.
"I knew if I didn't act on it soon, someone else would get it," Prete said. "This was a little something to remember what can happen when we get too comfortable."
Ken Leasure, a 31-year-old firefighter stationed in Monterey Park, wanted 911FDNY, but by the time the Anaheim Hills resident looked online that combination was gone. He ended up with 9FDNY11 for the used 1999 Ford pickup he bought two months ago.
"Why not?" Leasure said. "You have to have something on there."
At the firehouse, "most of the guys think it's pretty cool," Leasure said. "The rest don't believe it's real."
Michael Lever, a 39-year-old television syndication worker, bought a "patriot blue" PT Cruiser about five weeks after the attacks, unable to resist the pitch of auto makers' zero-interest financing. When it came time to tag it, Lever thought about a custom plate.
"I wanted to do something special and I was in a reflective mood," the Valley Village resident said. "I started putting in a lot of combinations, a lot of 'love' and 'peace,' but they were taken."
Lever tried RMBR911, which was taken, before landing on SEP11TH, a combination he could not believe was available. He reserved it. There have been a lot of honks, waves and parking lot conversations since.
"The reaction I want is years from now, that people still remember," Lever said. "It's easy now. Everyone is going around with flags."
But for some people, the last thing they want on a plate is a reference to the date that now has such terrible significance.
One New Jersey motorist who held a SEPT11 tag, which had personal meaning before the attacks, surrendered it to the state on Sept. 14. "I guess he just didn't want it anymore," said Dana Sullivan, spokesman for the Garden State's DMV.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times