One of my quirks is the pride I take in getting the cheapest price for a car rental. $12, $10, even $8 per day is my kind of car. Somehow I can always find one. Of course, that means no extras. Just a car, please. So you can understand my consternation whenever a rental agent tries to change my plans, and they almost always do. The first time this happened, I was caught unawares.
It was a few years ago and I had landed in San Jose, California, where I was planning to embark on a road trip south along the coast, then back north again. The friend with whom I had planned this trip had cancelled at the last minute because her mother was ill. All right then, I conceded. I’ll go it alone.
I was proud of myself for booking a no-frills, one–person car for a song.
When I arrived at the counter, the agent was quivering with excitement. “I have good news,” he said. “I’m going to upgrade your car. No charge to you.” With those last words, I started quivering, too. But it got even better. “I have a van for you. Loads of room. You can fit five or six of your friends in it, too.” I was so caught up in his enthusiasm that I completely missed the obvious: those words were the sound of someone whose inventory was long on vans.
I smiled, nodding more fervently with his every word. A huge car for a rock-bottom price. Filled with glee, I rolled out of the lot. I daresay I even felt a little smug, as if I had duped the car rental agent.
And then, oh, say, two hundred miles down Pacific Coast Highway, I got to thinking. Wait a minute. What am I doing all by myself traveling hundreds of miles in this gas-guzzling, behemoth of a car?
I felt so foolish.
But I learn from my mistakes, and one benefit of being in the strands of silver stage of life is that I have decades of mistakes from which to learn.
So when I find myself in Philadelphia several years later, I’m ready. The friendly agent is ready to pounce, I just know it.
“So, what’re you doing in Philly?” says he.
“I’m visiting my son,” say I.
“He lives in Center City,” I add, heading off any suggestion on his part that a van would be ideal—in downtown Philadelphia, where there’s very little parking available.
Before I go any further, I must tell you this guy has quite a quirk of his own. He has a habit of responding to everything I say with a sound that I’m going to teach you right now. First, say “Sh.” Now say it with your jaws clenched. Great. Now, instead of exhaling, say it while inhaling. And elongate it. I spell it like this: hs—that’s “sh” in reverse. Hshshshshshshshshshs. Oh, and shake your head while you say it. Got it?
The guy looks at my paperwork.
“Hshshshshshshshshshs, he says, shaking his head. “You know, we have nicer cars than the one you signed up for. How ‘bout I find you a luxury car? I have several, so you can get one if we snag it right away.”
“Hshshshshshshshshshs.” He shakes his head again. “O-kaaay. It’s your loss. But have you thought about this: You have suitcases, right? Where are you going to put them?”
“One suitcase. It will fit just fine, thanks.”
He can’t stop shaking his head. “Hshshshshshshshshshs. Wait a minute. Didn’t you say you’re visiting your son? You, your suitcases, and a grown man? You’re going to need more room,” he argues.
“One suitcase,” I repeat. “And if my son doesn’t fit, I’ll just tie him to the roof.”
“Hshshshshshshshshshs. Well, if that’s what you want.” He doesn’t get my quip. “So, how much insurance can I get you?”
“No insurance, thanks. I’ve got my own.“
That’s right. Say it with me: “Hshshshshshshshshshs.” This time he adds a grimace to his shaking head. “Now you’re really scaring me. What kind of coverage do you have? Some of those insurance companies don’t cover much of anything.”
“I have enough.”
“Hshshshshshshshshshs. You’re playing with fire, if you don’t mind my saying so. I’ll rent you this car, but I think you’re making a bad decision.”
My decision on gas elicits the same familiar sound. Wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
Finally, he lets me have my car. I head to the lot to retrieve my rental, ushered out the door by one last “Hshshshshshshshshshs.”
The sound of someone who didn’t get his commission.