One of the games that Toph and I sometimes play in the car is the “Alphabet Game”: You try to spot the letter ‘A’, then ‘B’, and so on, and get through to ‘Z’ before you reach your destination. For a while we were playing this every Saturday on the way to karate class.
The odd thing about this game is that the letter ‘Q’ is so much more difficult to find than any other letter. On any trip, ‘Q’ is the sticking point, and on trips we take regularly, such as to karate, we know ahead of time where the Qs are and watch for them. There is a sign at 32nd and Chestnut that says CHESTNUT SQUARE that we often watch for, because if we miss it there is a good chance we will not get another. There used to be a UNIQUE SHOE REPAIR a couple of doors down from the karate studio, and as a last resort we could sometimes get the rest of the alphabet in a rush just after spotting the shoe repair. But the karate studio has moved, so CHESTNUT SQUARE is the last reliable chance. Sometimes there are other Qs. For example construction sites sometimes have EQUIPMENT RENTAL. But they are not common enough and you never know when you are going to see them.
None of the other letters are nearly as difficult, even among the usual suspects. J and K might have been tricky, but Pennsylvania license plates are issued in alphabetical order and we just finished a four-year run of Js and are now well into a four-year run of Ks, so those are easy. V might be tricky, except that in Pennsylvania every license plate says PENNSYLVANIA, and even aside from this there are many VOLKSWAGENs and VOLVOs. Also many cars that would not otherwise have a V are labeled V4 or V6.
X is much easier than you would expect. On the highway there are EXIT signs, and off the highway there are TAXIs. And always there are a lot of cars displaying model names like RX7, or trim names like LX or DX; also quite a few FORD EXPLORERs and the like, and some 4X4s. Y is no trouble at all. It is a common letter to begin with, appears in PENNSYLVANIA, and there are ONE WAY and YIELD signs everywhere. If that weren't already an embarrassment of riches, Y was the first letter on every Pennsylvania truck license plate for many years. Even Z is not as hard as you might think. There are a lot of places that sell PIZZA. So many PIZZAs. A few years ago they ran out of Y plates for the trucks and since then all the new truck plates have begun with Z. Our car is a MAZDA with a PENNSYLVANIA plate and sometimes this has rescued us, just when we were about to lose hope, and arrived at our destination two letters short. But then we got out and walked around the back of the car. Victory!
The license plates do not help with Q, which is one of the letters that Pennsylvania plates never have. Sometimes we see a car with a Colorado or California plate that has a Q, and this is occasion for great rejoicing.
The rules say we are allowed to use any letter as long as it is outside the car, but that it only counts if you actually see it. You can't say “Well, we passed a WAWA a little while back so that gets us W” or even “I was looking the other way but I know we just passed the WAWA on the other side of the street.” You have to see the W after you see the V. When we are stuck on some letter I sometimes mutter that I wish a typewriter would drop out of the sky and land on the hood of the car. I suppose if this really happened I might not be too pleased, but it would make an awesome story. If we survived.
CHESTNUT SQUARE takes care of not only Q but also R S T U, which feels a little wasteful, because shortly afterward there is a DREXEL UNIVERSITY overpass that would also have taken care of R S T U V. I had the computer check the dictionary for other multiple-use words like UNIVERSITY. The best one is GOLDFINCHES (CDEFGHI) but you do not see that on too many overpasses. (If you expand the word list to include all of Webster's Second International, you can get all the way up to EQUITEMPORANEOUS (MNOPQRSTU) but I have never yet seen Webster's Second painted on an overpass.)
The Q is such a pain that once when I was driving the kids home from somewhere and we were totally stuck, I had a brainwave. “Okay, watch this!” I said, and then drove home by a slightly out-of-the-way route so that we could pass by the QUEEN OF SHEBA bar. This bar used to be called the Wagon Wheel, and had wagon wheels embedded in the pavement outside, but then it was taken over by Ethiopians.
Once Toph and I were on a grocery errand and were playing the game on foot. We were concerned about the Q. All the other letters can be trusted to take care of themselves, but Q often requires some planning. We were not going to be near CHESTNUT SQUARE or QUEEN OF SHEBA, but I had an idea. “Let's go get meat at the halal grocery. There must be a ton of Qs in there.” But we could not find a single one! I don't know what could have gone wrong. And the signs on the masjid down the street did not say anything outside about Quranic study or anything like that. The West Philadelphia Muslims need to up their Q game! According to Islamic tradition, the Queen of Sheba's name was BILQĪS so perhaps they could look to the Ethiopians for inspiration.