When my husband and I lived in Michigan, we periodically trekked to Detroit to see Broadway touring companies and shop at bigger, more upscale malls than the one in our town.
We were on our way there one afternoon when – after we passed the giant Uniroyal Tire on I-94 (a Detroit landmark) – I spotted a car with a miniature gold crown in the rear window. I didn’t think much of it. It was probably a doll accessory, left by a child. But moments later, I spotted another, and it caught my attention.
“I wonder what those gold crowns are in the back of those cars,” I said, thinking aloud. “We’ve passed two cars that have them … those fancy crowns with the red velvet underneath, like in the old Imperial Margarine commercials.”
“That’s strange,” my husband agreed.
We continued on our way and eventually pulled off the highway at the exit leading downtown. That’s when I spotted a third car with the same royal symbol in the back window.
“There’s another one,” I pointed. “What do you think it means?”
“I have no idea,” Jim said.
The wheels in my head began spinning.
“They must be some sort of symbol,” I said. “Like a Mary Kay decal or a bumper sticker that lets other drivers know you’re a gun-toting member of the NRA.”
“Oh, I know,” my husband said. “Maybe it means you’re a member of one of those Grand Poobah organizations. I’ll bet that’s what it is.”
“Like the Royal Order of Water Buffalo?” I pondered.
“Uh, that’s The Flintstone version,” he said. “I’m talking about a real club or society, like the Masons or the Kiwanis or the Shriners.
“I thought they embrace the fez,” I noted. “These are crowns. On the other hand, every car we’ve seen with a crown has been driven by a man.”
We conjectured a little more, arrived at our destination, and never gave it another thought.
Until a few weeks later.
Finding ourselves in Detroit again, I spotted another driver with a miniature gold crown his back window.
“There it is again,” I said. “I’ve only see those in Detroit. Clearly they’re some sort of symbol. Is there a Greek Orthodox church around here? Maybe these people are all Greek Orthodox. I think crowns are part of their marriage ceremony.”
“So after tying the knot, you think couples are presented with these tiny gold crowns to display in their Buicks?” Jim pondered.
“Yeah. You know. Religious symbols,” I said. “Like those magnetic fish people stick on the back of their cars … so they can be easily identified by their Christian comrades.”
“Why would people need to know who else is Greek Orthodox?” my husband asked. “That doesn’t sound right.”
“Why do people with fish want to announce they’re Christian?” I asked. “Same thing. I don’t get it. I don’t put a dreidel on the back of my car, but to each his own.”
We drove on, spotting another crown on the highway, trying to guess what on earth this meant.
“Okay, it’s a crown,” I said. “Think royalty. Kings … queens … Do you think it’s a gay symbol?”
“You know, queens,” I said.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve said so far,” Jim said. “Besides, gays have the rainbow. I don’t think there’s a special symbol for queens.”
“What about Dairy Queen,” I asked? “Are they rebranding?”
Again, we got off the highway and got on with our day, and the crowns slipped from our minds.
But the next time we drove to Detroit, we started seeing the tiny crowns again.
“Do you think it’s some sort of symbol of the Detroit Renaissance?” I asked. “You know … the movement to revitalize and reinvent Detroit?”
“Maybe it’s a souvenir from the Renaissance festival in Holly, Michigan,” my husband chimed in.
“Nah,” I said. “Why would everyone put it in exactly the same place … the back window? It’s clearly sending a message. “Do Uniroyal Tires have a symbol? Maybe these people are all heirs to the tire thrown.”
“Maybe they’re Elvis fans,” he said. “You know … the king of pop.”
“You think Elvis fans need to spot each other on the highway?” I asked?
“You never know,” he said. “That could be the big gift item at Graceland.”
“And all of these Elvis fans just happen to be driving through Motown today?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “They were here last week, too.”
“I know,” I said, a lightbulb going off. “Maybe it’s a symbol for Royal Oak, Michigan. It’s a suburb of Detroit.”
“I don’t think towns have symbols,” Jim said. “Sometimes they identify with a flower or a bird, but I’ve never heard of a town symbol.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Maybe Royal Oak started the movement.”
I was quiet while I pondered this.
“I’ve got it,” I said. “Drugs! The crowns let you know who the kingpins are.”
“How many drug kingpins do you think are driving around town?” Jim asked. “And why would they want to be identified? Don’t you think they’d be looking to slip under the radar?”
“What about Martin Luther King?” I blurted. “Maybe it’s a way of paying tribute to THE king ― Martin Luther King. Maybe it’s a symbol of black power.”
We got off the highway and started taking the streets to the restaurant, where we were having dinner. As we pulled up at a red light, an old dented Dodge pulled alongside us, and I spotted one of the now infamous crowns on the dashboard.
“That guy has one,” I said. “But it’s on his dashboard. Let’s ask him.”
“What? NO!” Jim said. “You don’t just roll down your windows in Detroit and ask random people about their dashboard decorations.”
“This is making me crazy,” I said. “I have to know.”
And before he could stop me, I was rolling down my window and waving down the guy in the next lane.
“Excuse me,” I said. “That crown in your windshield … what does it mean?”
The man looked at me like he didn’t understand my English … or like I had a thumb growing out of my forehead.
“The crown,” I repeated, pointing to his regal decoration. “We’re seeing them all over Detroit. What is it a symbol of? Are you a member of some organization?”
He stared at me with deranged eyes of disbelief. And then he smiled. And I was about to start rolling up my window, thinking Jim was right: this dude probably has a gun.
And the guy started to laugh … a deep, hearty, possibly demented laugh.
“Floor the gas pedal!” I whispered through my teeth, smacking my husband as the light changed.
We were about to screech the heck out of dodge, when the guy opened his mouth to speak.
“Lady,” he said, still cackling …
“It’s an air freshener.”