Full plate of Detroit 

Finding the spirit of the city — in vanity tags

Mulenga Harangua was so excited, he was practically dancing in his seat as we drove across town. I was helping him move some furniture that one of his relatives gave him. We were eastbound on West Grand Boulevard with a couch, a table and a couple of chairs in the back of a borrowed pickup truck. I had a cold ice tea perched between my thighs as I maneuvered through rush hour traffic. I felt the condensation moistening my pants and thought about years back when my dad would have had a beer warming between his thighs as we cruised around the neighborhood. 

"I got some good furniture now," Mulenga said as he gazed smiling at some of the gigantic houses that line the boulevard. "That sofa folds out into a bed. It's probably better than that piece of foam rubber I've been sleeping on. No sense pretending I need living room furniture for the guests. We can just take that straight into the bedroom."

"That's simple enough," I said as I eased onto the brake at a red light. 

"Hey look at that license plate," Mulenga pointed at a SUV turning the corner. Its license plate read BLAKISBU.

"Hey, that's slick," I said. "Black is beautiful. They get the message out in just eight letters. It's more economical than Twitter or even a haiku."

"That's what I like about you," Mulenga said. "One minute we're sweating getting furniture onto a truck, the next minute you're talking about Japanese poetry. Hmmm ... what could I say on a license plate? How about BAD MF?"

"So you think you're Shaft? They wouldn't let you do that. I checked it out one time when I was thinking about putting my name on a plate. One of the rules is that selections 'cannot be offensive to good taste or decency' as judged by the state. I don't think the folks in Lansing will go for the MF."

"I don't think BAD MF is offensive."

"What you think isn't even close to the way most people see things," I said as I maneuvered one of the boulevard's big, sweeping curves.

"Hey, sometimes I agree with others," Mulenga demurred. "Like with Krystal Crittendon — I agreed with her suit against the state about the consent agreement. She ain't taking that laying down, not like some folks around here."

"Well, I knew that wasn't going anywhere, especially when we didn't even have a united front right here with our city government. A divided city has little hope in this atmosphere."

"Hey, look at that license plate," Mulenga said, pointing at one that read 4EVR313. "Forever 313. See, Crittendon has the 313 in her heart. Mayor Bing doesn't. He was living in Franklin before he moved downtown because the business guys around here wanted him to be mayor."

"Business people got behind Kwame Kilpatrick. They got behind Dennis Archer too. Looks like they might be getting behind Mike Duggan now."

"He's another carpetbagger, moving into Palmer Woods from Livonia so he can run for mayor."

Another car passed us as we trundled slowly along. The license plate ALLBLAK seemed to wave at us as the car sped away.

"That's what I mean," Mulenga said. "We need an all-black government here. Duggan is white, there's no way Detroit is going to elect him mayor."

"I don't know. I used to think Maryann Mahaffey could have run for mayor and won. She used to get more votes than anyone on city council."

"Well, she was all right. I think that, deep inside, Mahaffey was a soul sister."

"Oh, now you gonna decide who is black and who is not based on whether you like them or not?"

"I like that," Mulenga said, pointing to a license plate that read BLUENILE. "We ought to follow that and get some of that Ethiopian food. I love that stuff."

"Maybe we should follow that one if you're hungry." I pointed to a little coupe with 1HOTDOG on its plate. Advertising on the side of the vehicle showed it to be from some kind of hot dog shop. Then I spotted another plate that read MHTYGOD. "That's the one you need Mulenga. You need the power of the man upstairs."

"The whole city could use that. But I don't think God is taking sides here. We got free will and we've got to use it."

"Speaking of your free will, who do you like for mayor next year? We got Duggan out there making inquiries. Charles Pugh and Gary Brown have been mentioned as possible candidates. Benny Napoleon wants the hot seat too. And Bing is talking about making another run."

"I think I'm gonna support Tom Barrow," Mulenga said with a grin.

"You're just trying to start something. Barrow isn't even on the list."

"Barrow has run so many times he doesn't even have to plan ahead. He can just push a button and the whole thing goes on automatic." We were almost cut off by a car with the GO GET license plate. Mulenga pointed it out. "See that should be Barrow's slogan. He's gonna go get something for Detroit."

"Maybe he should use that one," I pointed to a plate that read GOOD2ME. "He wants Detroiters to be good to him. Maybe that should have been Crittendon's plea to the court. It may yet be her plea to Bing in order to keep her job."

"Maybe she should run for mayor and take his job."

There was another plate with IMGRTFL on it. "Maybe 'I'm grateful' should be her mantra if she manages to keep her job in the long run."

Mulenga was scanning license plates with an eagle eye. If this was going to be a battle of license plate slogans, he wanted to win. "There you go," he squealed. "Whoever wins will have to be HVNSENT. That's what we need around here."

Not to be outdone I spotted a plate that read ILUVMTH. "Whoever wins needs to be able to count. He'll have to be able to count votes and where they come from. And please, can somebody get a handle on the money?"

Both of us were scanning for license plates at that point. We both wanted to find the one that would shut the other one up. It didn't help my driving. I almost hit a man who wandered into the street and seemed to be talking to the air. Then we both spotted the one plate that seemed to sum up the mood of the city. We looked at each other with big, round eyes, and pointed at the same moment. There was the plate that said it all.


It was indeed an Elmer Fudd moment.


Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and  former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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