16 April 2010

the rental car adventures, part 1

I am standing in line waiting to claim the economy rental car I have reserved online. I have been awake since 4am and have been flying for five hours, and the perky, overly-gelled clerk has a voice that carries throughout office, which I do not at this particular moment happen to find charming. I try not to groan every time I hear him shout out “Hey there, sir! Welcome to Enterprise!” to the next customer in line, none of whom look to be hearing-impaired. I have never had such little fun acquiring the symptoms of a hangover.

When it’s my turn in line, I try to match his perkiness and fail miserably. I mean, it’s not his fault I am totally wasted from the day’s travel, and being serious never seems to go over well with the service folk. They just get cold and defensive. So I’m trying to seem like more fun than I actually am, and after an awkward beginning, he gets back to his salesman script. “Oh, you’re in luck, ma’am, I’ve been authorized to give you a free upgrade to an SUV today!!!!!” Dear Enterprise: Do you think I want to drive a vehicle the size of a city bus in an unfamiliar place when I requested the smallest car on the lot? I mean, really, why would you assume that everyone would drive a small houseboat on wheels if only they could afford it? My eyes bulge as he offers it--the gas prices! The damage to the planet!

The secret’s out–I am decidedly not fun. I try not to sound too desperate as I beg for the tiny, tiny car I requested. And the final verdict is in: I will be receiving a Chevy Cobalt, which is also, supposedly, a “free upgrade”. It’s small enough, so I decide not to belabor the point, but . . . has anyone out there ever requested the subcompact and actually received it? I have not. What I get is a family-sized sedan that reminds me of my Grandpa’s car. The Cobalt is a bit better–about one size bigger than I had wanted. But I just don’t get this game they have to play. Do they even own the Chevy Aveo they teased me with on their website? And does anyone really buy this “free upgrade” schtick? If so, they must be the same people who actually believe that Kohl’s department store is having an amazing this-weekend-only sale RIGHT NOW. And also last weekend. And, come to think of it . . . oh.

Perky Clerk takes me around to look for damage to the car–is this really my job? I just want to sit down, really. So I walk around the car with him, feeling stupid and wondering if I should make a show of looking for things, you know, just so he knows he can’t mess with me. Too tired. Don’t bother. He gives me the key after I confirm that there are four tires and doors on the thing, but I realize after he’s gone that he hasn’t bothered to show me anything useful, like how to open the trunk so I can put my luggage inside. The latch is apparently hidden behind a little plastic door low on the dashboard. Clever. Too clever for me for about four minutes of feeling up the molding and randomly pulling on things. I’m like a creepy prom date with this car and we haven’t even left the parking lot yet.

Did I mention how red this car is? Because it’s not just red. It’s burn-holes-in-your-retinas red. I am accustomed to driving a sedate, very small dark green car at home, so I may be paranoid, but I’m pretty sure everyone is staring at me with their mouths open as I slowly putter past them. I slowly putter because I am in an unfamiliar city driving an unfamiliar car, and also because it is a Chevy Cobalt, not exactly made to go from 0-60 in three seconds. The color is racey, but the ride is decidedly clunky and labored. It’s OK little car friend, I feel that way right now, too.

It’s good to test all the important stuff right away on a car and get it out of the way, and as I drive out of the Port Capital (Port? Where, in Ohio, is there need for a port?) Airport, I get to do exactly that as the gray sky turns dark and sprinkles turn to a “where’s-my-ark” deluge. The windshield wipers only work at warp speed, which is fine as long as you can ignore that loud scraping sound every time the rain lets up, and it and the turn signal levers are reversed from my car at home, so I am signaling a lot for no reason and occasionally squinting through the rain-soaked windshield.

The other bit of excitement is that apparently the headlights don’t turn off immediately when you think you have turned them off and stopped the car–they fade out gradually over the course of a minute or so. This is not uncommon, but because I do not have this feature–and because I do not want to have any pricey disasters on my tight schedule and budget–I worry that I have not properly turned off the headlights and that I will deplete the car’s battery when I stop for a coffee. So I get back into the car to stare at the dashboard and feel it up a little more. Satisfied that I have, indeed, turned off the lights, I get back out and stand in front of the car, staring at the lights like I have never seen such a beautiful Christmas show before. When the lights finally go off, I walk with purpose, head held high, past the gaggle of middle-aged women watching me from the front window of the coffee shop I have come to patronize.