Oh, so this is why I tucked that California license plate from almost 20 years ago in a box and carried it with me through countless moves! Also, 7 other things worth your time.

It’s funny when you move somewhere and the very little things stick out.

The small linguistic differences, for example—maybe they call soda, “pop,” or they refer to a “bubblah” as a “water fountain.”

(Kind of kidding about that last one. I grew up in Rhode Island, which is probably the only place in the world where they call a water fountain a “bubbler,” although it sounds more like “bubblah” with the accent.)

Anyway, when I lived in Los Angeles for a year, basically 2001-2002, one of the little things that I couldn’t get over was the fact that you’d see cars on the highway (sorry, “the freeway”) without license plates.

As of 2019, apparently, this is no longer the case. But it’s the explanation for two enduring stories about how Steve Jobs.

Actually, second story explains the first.

Story 1

There are three characters. I’m going to refer to them like this:

  • Steve Jobs as “Steve Jobs” or “Jobs,”

  • his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs as “Lisa,” and

  • Lisa’s mother, “Chrisann Brennan,” as Chrisann.

Otherwise there will be about 20 “Jobs” and Brennans” in the next couple paragraphs, and it will get confusing.

Chrisann and Steve Jobs met in high school, and they had an on-again, off-again relationship for years. Apparently they were together at least briefly during the summer of 1977, because Lisa was born in May 1978.

Jobs denied he was Lisa’s father for years, until a paternity test eventually told the tale. He provided some financial support, and by 1984, Jobs was involved in her life to the point that Lisa occasionally spent the night at his house.

Around that time, Lisa overheard her mother telling a boyfriend that Jobs was a fastidious prima donna.

He always drives black Porsche convertibles, Chrisann supposedly said, adding: "I heard when it gets a scratch, he buys a new one."

Lisa internalized this little vignette story as a 6-year-old might. Then, when Jobs picked her up for the next sleepover, she asked if she could have his Porsche when it got a scratch and he was done with it.

Jobs snapped at her "in a sour, biting way," she recalled a few years ago, in her memoir, Small Fry: "Absolutely not. You're not getting anything. You understand? Nothing. You're getting nothing." 

Wow. What kind of father talks like that to his 6-year-old daughter?

I guess if we want context, it seems like this happened just months before Jobs would be fired as Apple's CEO, so I can imagine he was under intense pressure at that point. Nobody’s perfect.

Still, it's sad that it's one of the lasting memories Brennan-Jobs has of him.

Story 2

OK, so now: onto the second story, which might explain part of the first. It turns out there was a grain of truth in the story Lisa overheard about Jobs replacing new cars. 

It wasn't about being unable to stand driving a car that had a scratch, however. Instead, it was about the “little thing” I couldn’t stop noticing when I lived in LA: how cars could be driven legally without license plates.

California law said that after buying a new car, you had six months before you had to put license plates on it. So, Jobs apparently worked out an arrangement to lease a brand new car every six months.

In the 1980s he drove Porsches; by the 2000s he was favored Mercedes SL55 AMGs. Replacing each car with a nearly identical one twice a year meant he never had to have a license plate.

This explanation has been floating around the internet for years, since David Heath published an interview he'd done with Jon Callas, who worked twice in security at Apple. 

I reached out to Callas to confirm the story, and he did—but with the caveat that it's something he heard from other people at the time, not something he was involved with handling himself.

Callas also didn't know exactly when Jobs started this habit, but he agreed it was plausible he’d been doing it by the early 1980s. Then, the habit sparked the rumor that Chrisann Brennan heard, and apparently passed along unwittingly to Lisa.

"Not a lot of money for a billionaire to have no plate," Callas wrote to me. "He's paying less than a thou per month—let's call it ten grand a year.”

Why was Jobs so into driving cars without license plates? Maybe it was aesthetics. Maybe it was for privacy. Maybe he just liked the idea of getting away with something. 

Alas, as of 2019, the law is different. News reports at the time referred to it as closing the Steve Jobs Loophole.

So I guess newcomers to California won’t be struck by this oddity anymore.

But, can we talk about how obsessed they are with In-N-Out?

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7 other things worth your time

  • You’ve likely heard already that distribution of the Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose Covid-19 vaccine was halted Tuesday. It’s due to six reported cases of blood clots in women between ages 18 and 48, including one fatality, and one patient who is still in critical condition, out of 7 million doses. Is it an overreaction? Is it vindication for people who think the vaccines have been pushed too quickly? Who knows? It’s confusing for certain. (Vox)

  • We knew this would happen. With some countries requiring negative Covid tests for incoming travelers, the International Air Transport Association industry body says fake testing certificates are now becoming a big problem. (WSJ, $)

  • Newest crisis in Iraq: a “hidden epidemic” of crystal meth. “In a country where young people who have grown up in conflict face mass unemployment and no support, drugs gangs have swept into the vacuum.” (The Independent)

  • A group of top Democratic Party pollsters say they messed up in 2020, acknowledging “major errors” in their methodology, which “left party officials stunned by election results that failed to come close to expectations in November.” (Daily Beast)

  • Ha ha ha. Last month I discussed how I once wrote about a Canadian company that ranked all the U.S. states by how polite they are. Now, U.S. News & World Report (remember them?) is out with a report that purports to rank all the countries in the world, and Canada came out number 1. (The USA was number 6). (US News)

  • For a lot of people, the last year has been tough. But, historians have concluded that between 536 and 537 A.D., there wasn’t a single day of sunshine across much of eastern Europe and Asia, as the result of a perfect storm of volcanic eruptions and climate change. "Failed harvests, famines, … migrations and turbulence. … It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive" says Harvard historian Michael McCormick. (AccuWeather)

  • Facebook took down the official page for the town of Bitche, France. You can guess why. (Politico Europe)

Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Me. It’s funny: I’ve got a handful of old license plates from living all over the place. What are you supposed to do with them if the DMV didn’t ask for them? Anyway, I’m glad one finally came in handy. I’ve written about the Jobs loophole study before at Inc.com.

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