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Vanity plates in New Hampshire are ALAMODE

Pinkerton Academy had its fair share of vanity in the mid to late 1990s, according to Erica Pietrantonio, 22, a graduate of the Derry, N.H., private school.

Specifically, the vanity could be found in the school's parking lot, where those who were clever proved it on the backside of their vehicles.

"It was a big thing in high school," Pietrantonio said. "People would see who had the best vanity plate. People would try to get creative."

One of Pietrantonio's high school friends had an abbreviation of the word "princess." Another friend's said "La La," a nickname. Pietrantonio waited until she bought her first new car before jumping on the bandwagon. It was a rite of passage for the New Hampshire native.

"It's pretty common here," she said. "You just get a vanity plate. I don't know why."

Pietrantonio's red Grand Am can now be seen around her hometown of Seabrook with the license plate CURLYQ, which describes her hair. Her first choice was Red Hot, an idea that already had been snatched up by another driver. But CURLYQ fits, she said.

She gets asked about it frequently. She was even pulled over by a police officer who just wanted to know the meaning of the plate.

"Once I get out of the car, then it's obvious," she said.

When it comes to vanity, New Hampshire has Massachusetts beat. About 1 percent of Massachusetts car owners have vanity plates. In New Hampshire, it's more than 10 percent. As of Oct. 7, New Hampshire had 138,912 car owners with registered vanity plates, out of 1,366,783.

The number has increased, according to Norman St. Hilaire, a state public information officer, who keeps monthly records of who has specialized license plates.

Hilaire said he couldn't give an official reason for the statewide interest but guessed that it has to do with cost. In Massachusetts, the fee is $50 a year to have a special plate. In New Hampshire, it's $25. Since New Hampshire began allowing seven-digit plates this year as opposed to six, he added, the creative process has become easier.

This past summer, New Hampshire introduced a website for the public to find out what plates are available. For instance, according to the database, BOSTON is up for grabs but GLOBE is taken. The site is http://oit.nh.gov/platecheck/pass.asp .

Hilaire said that although the $25 fee beats Massachusetts, it was too much for him. He used to have vanity plates in the 1960s and 1970s, when the fee was $15.

He started out as D-JAY, when he worked in radio in 1965. "That was back in the old days when it was fun to be in radio," he said.

Hilaire, 60, moved to the Midwest, and when he returned to New Hampshire in the 1970s, he became ST-HLR. But when the fee increased, he returned to a regular plate. He also was ready to stop calling attention to himself.

"As you get older, you mellow," he said.

For Michelle Lozuaway, owner of Saucy Grace restaurant in Portsmouth, anonymity was always her first choice, especially in a community where she said people already know enough about one another. But her plate was a spiritual investment, one she couldn't refuse.

The plate on her white Volvo wagon is TGCM, for a few reasons. The T, C, and M stand for her children's names. The TGC is also for "The Global Cafe," a children's show she developed on learning about the world through international foods, an idea she has been pitching to public television.

The G also stands for Grace -- "Saucy Grace" -- who would be the main character on the show and is the fictional namesake of her restaurant.

Despite her objections to having a recognizable car, she was advised by a Native American spiritualist to get the plate. Lozuaway was told she should put a message about her show and her interests out into the world. The license plate seemed to be a good option.

For some, plates are personal. But for most, impressing the passersby is key. Susan Manfull of Portsmouth said she likes the clever plates best, the ones that take a few minutes to decode. She tried for one of those, but her idea backfired.

"I am a failure story," Manfull said.

Manfull's plate is FLDNAG. She went to the Division of Motor Vehicles hoping to snag some version of Gandalf, in homage to "The Lord of the Rings." The Manfulls already have a dog named Bilbo.

When she arrived at the Division of Motor Vehicles, she found out that all versions on Gandalf were taken, so she got creative.

"We were anxious. It was such a long line. I'm embarrassed to say that I thought Gandalf backwards would look like Gandalf if you looked in a rearview mirror," she said, shamefully. "It doesn't."

Most people who see the plate assume it's short for Field Nag, because she's a soccer mom.

"I hate it," she said.

Brad Standen of Greenland gets attention for his three vanity plates.

There is BRUIN, which he registered in support of the Boston hockey team. His wife has BEARLY and now there's BLUMOON.

BEARLY has two meanings -- Standen's wife collects antique bears and at the time the couple registered the plate, they were "barely getting by." In 2002, times were better and they registered BLUMOON, a new blue Saab.

"My wife said, someday will be able to get a new Saab," Standen said. "She said, Once in a blue moon, you get this car."

Standen said he enjoys the recognition he receives from the plates. Most passersby enjoy BLUMOON, an understandable choice for the blue car. There have been various interpretations of BEARLY -- one passerby assumed it stood for "be early."

"If you can put something on it that people relate to, that's neat. It's better than just being a number," Standen said, referring to the popularity of low-numbered plates. "I've never understood that."

Evan Thies, a Bedford native who relocated to New York, said outwitting your neighbor with a vanity plate is a New Hampshire thing. Growing up, he and his mother both had special plates. On the streets near his Brooklyn apartment, vanity isn't as prevalent.

"Car-owners drive everywhere in rural New Hampshire. They drive down the street to a friend's house, to parties, to school -- places city-dwellers would walk or ride a bike to," he said. "There were buses that went to my high school, but nobody used them. The school built a parking lot just for students and it was a fashion show every morning."

As a teenager, Thies, 24, named his first car, a Dodge Lancer, for the Hindu creator Brahma after developing an interest in world religion. BRAHMA was eventually totalled just a few months after it was "named," and was replaced by a Plymouth Laser named VISHNU, appropriately, for the Hindu god that succeeded Brahma.

"I could say that 16 was a period of spiritual discovery and religious questioning, but, really, I just thought that the name sounded cool," he said. "Nobody knew what it meant, but that was most of the appeal. If a girl asked me what it meant, it gave me an excuse to sound smart. They do call them vanity plates after all."

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