“Drop off or pick up?” the rental car salesman asks me.
“Pick up,” I reply.
“Are you going through insurance?”
“Yes. I already made a reservation.”
“Just have a seat sir,” the clerk says. “I’ll be with you in a sec.”
I sit in a plastic chair and sift though the car magazines and nightclub circulars that constitute the lobby’s reading material. A few weeks ago gravity convinced a thirty pound tree limb to plummet fifty feet and smash into the roof of my brand new car. The auto body shop told me it would take two weeks and $5000 to fix. With the exception of my deductible, my car insurance will cover most of the tab and provide a rental. Still, it was a brand new car.
I look at the people in the waiting room. A goateed young man wearing a blue blazer and a white Gilligan hat sits cross-legged across from me, his right foot twisting anxious half circles in the air. Sitting next to him is the Middle Eastern version of The Skipper, a fat swarthy man wearing a crocheted Kufi skull cap and cheap rope sandals. Both men are reading the nightclub circular with the half naked woman on the cover. I feel like whispering, “Psssst! Hey guys. Ginger or Maryanne?” but think the better of it.
A blonde trophy wife wearing white yoga pants and platform flip flops paces anxiously in front of the sales desk, an unlit cigarette hanging from her collagen pouted lips. As she walks by I notice her thong’s visible through the sheer fabric of her pants. Gilligan and The Skipper notice this fact about the same time I do. When the woman turns to walk towards us our eyes shift back to our magazines simultaneously. We’re such simple creatures.
“How long till the Jag’s ready?” the blonde snaps at the sales clerk.
“They’re prepping it right now,” the clerk replies.
“You guys understaffed or something?” the blonde asks. “This is taking forever.”
“No ma’am,” the clerk says. “Five more minutes I promise.”
“Whatever,” the blonde says. “I’ll be outside having a cigarette.”
“I’ll come and get you,” the clerk says, his friendliness undaunted.
After a few minutes the blonde gets her Jag and leaves. Gilligan and The Skipper drive off in SUV’s. Finally it’s my turn.
“OK sir,” the sales clerk says, his glad handing smile increasing in intensity. “I’ve got a nice sedan all ready for you. It’s $30 a day.”
“I was quoted $20 a day for an economy car,” I reply, surprised. “That’s what I reserved.”
“Yeah,” the clerk says. “That’s if I had an economy car.”
“But they told me on the phone you had one.”
“Someone made a mistake sir,” he says, half laughing. “There’s no way I have an economy car at $20 a day.”
“I took a cab down here because I was quoted a car at a certain price,” I reply. “Now you’re telling me it’s not here?”
“I’m afraid the sedan’s all I’ve got sir.”
“What about calling another office?”
“They’re gonna tell you the same thing.”
My surprise transforms into anger.
“Call me a cab,” I snap.
“Why you do you need a cab?” the clerk asks.
“I need a cab because I’m leaving.”
“C’mon sir,” the clerk says, his happy smile still in place, “You’ll like the sedan. Your insurance company’s paying $20 a day. You’re only out ten. What’s the big deal?”
Ten dollars a day will translate into $140 over two weeks. My deductible’s already $500. I don’t need anymore expenses. My anger boils over.
“What kind of bait and switch are you pulling?” I say, my voice rising a few octaves. “Get on that phone and find me a car at the price I was quoted or I’m leaving.”
“Can you understand why I’m so angry?”
“Yes sir, “ the clerk stammers. “But there’s a problem with…..”
“Then fix the problem.”
“Make it happen,” I growl.
The sales clerk’s smile vanishes. He tells me to take a seat. Several minutes later, he calls me back to the front desk.
“I forgot I have an economy model in the back,” he says sheepishly. “It’s $21 a day. Can you live with that?”
“That will be fine,” I say. Now that I have what I want my anger dissipates. “Thank you.”
The clerk prints up the sales document. Now he’s angry. There’s an awkward silence as I sign and initial the places indicated. The clerk doesn’t try pushing supplemental insurance down my throat. Probably afraid to.
“I’ll be right back with your car sir,” the clerk says unenthusiastically. “Please wait out front.”
I exit the front door and wait for the clerk to pull the car around. I’m fairly certain the clerk thinks I’m a first class prick – and a cheap prick at that. I feel bad. As a waiter I’ve been on the receiving end of similar treatment myself. I try rationalizing my anger. This clerk was trying to rip me off. Wait a minute, he works for a car rental agency – that’s his job. For a second I wonder if I’m slowly morphing into a cranky middle aged Yuppie. Maybe I’m becoming what I most despise. Talk about irony.
The clerk pulls the car up. It’s a Korean version of the YUGO. Compared to the Jag and SUV’s the other customers drove away in, it’s embarrassing. Beep Beep.
The clerk and I kick the tires, inspect the car for damage, and record the mileage and gas. I sign one last document and we’re finished.
“You’re all set sir,” the clerk says.
I extend my hand. “Thank you,” I say. “I’m sorry I was a little rough back there. I’m already out the deductible and I didn’t want to pay anymore.”
The clerk takes my hand. “I understand sir,” he says. “Money’s money.”
“Have a nice day sir.”
I get into my car and drive away. The little car’s ugly but handles well. I zip over to the video store to rent a movie. I’m enrolled in a promotion that entitles you to a free movie after X amount of rentals. I’m due for my free movie.
“Welcome to Ballbuster Video,” the sales clerk, a teenage girl, asks. “Did you find everything you wanted?”
“Yes,” I say sliding my rental towards her. “Thank you.”
“Heat,” the girl says, looking at the jacket cover. “Good movie?”
“One of the best cops and robbers films ever made,” I reply.
“When was it made?”
Oh,” the girl says. “It’s an old film.”
I bite my tongue. The French Connection or The Seven-Up’s is an old film. 1995? That was yesterday.
“That’ll be $3.99 sir,” the clerk says.
“Actually this one’s on you guys,” I say. “I signed up for that promotion.”
“Do you have your coupon?”
“The one that printed with your receipt the last time you came here.”
“No,” I reply. “I didn’t know I needed to save it.”
“I need the coupon sir.”
The anger I experienced in the car rental agency returns. I intellectually know there’s no truth in advertising, everything has a catch, nothing’s ever free, and modern society is designed to separate you from your money. I’ve always managed to remain polite in spite of this but, as I approach forty, I have to admit the nonsense is finally starting to wear me down. I’m beginning to grasp why so many of my middle aged customers turn into demanding pricks — they got sick and tired of putting up with the bullshit. Sometimes it’s not worth the energy to fake being polite. Life is short. I remember getting aggravated with patrons who were all smiles until they heard the word “no.” Now I understand where some of them were coming from. Man, there is something to this Karma thing.
The sales girl’s staring at me, bracing herself for an explosion. I rein in my emotions and take a deep breath. The girl’s only doing her job.
“Miss,” I say. “I didn’t know I needed the coupon. I don’t have one. Could you ask the manager to put it though anyway?”
The girl smiles at me. “I don’t need a manager to do that.” She hits a few buttons and hands me my free movie.
“Thank you,” I say. You always catch more flies with honey.
“Have a nice day sir.”
I walk back to my embarrassing little car with a smile on my face. I haven’t turned into a miserable Yuppie prick.
At least not yet.