I'm not fond of sitting in crowded car-rental joints.
It's a bad enough experience in an air-conditioned airport, but in downtown San Francisco on a scorching August day, it's pretty unbearable.
The large rental office is hot and busy. There must be fifteen sets of unhappy customers in here, some sitting bored in the dozen-or-so chairs, others standing impatiently. Many of them rant at anyone within earshot, outraged at the slow service. Six uniformed employees sit behind the high counter, each armed against the angry hordes with nothing more than a slow PC and a gunboatful of attitude.
I've been here an hour waiting for the booked vehicle to be ready, and my charming English resolve is being taxed. But there's a lot of tension in the room already, and I see no reason to join the mob and get angry with anyone.
It's not going to make any difference.
But there's good news. My fabulous friend Eolist is with me - we're taking a short holiday together - and she's brighter, cheerier, and way more patient than me. Better-looking, too. I'm delighted we'll be hanging out for the next four days, but embarrassed that it has to include this sweltering office.
This isn't how I wanted your holiday to start, I say, a little deflated. My friend gives me a hug.
It's not a problem. We'll be out of here in no time.
I hug her back appreciatively. We talk quietly and sip our water from the cooler, trying not to notice as the clock sweeps past noon.
When we arrived an hour earlier to pick up our Ford Focus, it was quiet. The smiling woman behind the counter introduced herself as Sharon, and after taking a few details she told us apologetically that there'd be a short delay, Sir. I like a touch of deference when I'm a customer; it's an English thing. No problem, I said. Thirty minutes later, a half-started enquiry to a passing random employee was snapped short, and hung in the air unasked and unanswered as she stomped off.
So we sit and chat some more. And wait. I reflect that however tired I am of waiting, Eolist must have it worse. My tiny, redheaded, American mate flew in from her corner of the United States the day before, and the journey was not an easy one. Delays on both flights, and a very long pause at some purgatorial airport in the middle. We'd both expressed some nerves, as we'd not seen each other in a couple of years. But when we finally met at San Francisco International Airport, both of us quickly realised it was going to be a good week.
Sightseeing in California! Quite an adventure for both of us.
I sigh for the hundredth time.
All we need is a car.
A few minutes later, we give up our seats for an elderly gentleman and his granddaughter. The girl can only be six or seven, and looks a little unnerved by the busy room; she sticks close to grandpa. The old gent is grateful and gracious; he tells me that they're from New England. Calling him Sir, I smile and tell him that I'm from Old England, and note that we're both a long way from home. This receives a welcome laugh and a handshake.
I notice us being watched by Sharon, who has just dispatched her latest charge with a mouthful of words that my mother didn't teach me. The look she gives me is odd, and I can't get a handle on it. But she clearly has no more customers to deal with, so I wander closer and give her a grin. Her expression changes to a more defensive one, and she eyes me levelly.
Busy in here today, I observe pleasantly, standing a couple of steps away from the counter. I hope my tone sounds natural, and that I'm exuding Patience; my people skills are not great.
Out of my hands, Sir, she says pointedly, almost terminally. The Sir is now forced, unlike my deference to the New England gent; what a difference an hour makes. May I ask that you direct any complaint to The Manager?
Whenever I can, I smile in the face of adversity. I'm told it's disarming, or at the very least unexpected. I give Sharon my best.
I'm not here to complain, I shrug easily, it looks like you've enough on your plate. I just wondered how the vehicle's coming along?
She gives me a very long, cool appraisal. What's the name again?
Eolist comes over to join me as I step up to the desk. She gives me an enquiring look and I nod confidently, but then give Sharon my undivided attention.
The name's Roth. Indigo Roth. It's a Ford Focus.
Sharon flips quickly through some paperwork, and then glances at a screen. She pauses and looks my way, as if she's sizing me up. There's a wonderful zero-G moment of decision, and then gravity takes hold again in a flurry of keys-presses. She removes a piece of paper from her pile, crosses something out and scribbles something in its place. A stamp, a signature, and the deed is done.
Your Ford is in Bay Thirteen, Mr. Roth. Upstairs.
Oh, that's great! I say with enthusiasm. Fantastic. Thank you.
She pushes a set of keys my way.
That was nice of you to give your seats up for the old man and the little girl.
I don't know what to say, so I smile and shrug.
Thanks for your help, Sharon. We really appreciate it.
We find our way up to the parking level. It's dark, but the bays are clearly marked. We walk along, reading the numbers.
Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.
Wait, this can't be right. I check the paperwork for the first time in the half light. No, there's no mistake.
Well, I'll be damned.
Staying calm and being polite did make a difference.
In Bay Thirteen sits a sleek, black predator of a car. We stand there, both of us struck dumb. Eolist finally breaks the silence.
That's not a Ford Focus. Is that a Ford Mustang?!
Yep. I jingle the keys enticingly. Wanna go for a drive?
We hurriedly toss our luggage in the trunk and slip guiltily into the car, like it's not ours. There's plastic covers on all the seats and the steering wheel. It's brand new. Then, as ever, Eolist notices something before I do.
Hey, have you ever driven an automatic before?
What? There's no stick shift?! I ordered a manual transmission! But somewhere at the back of my head, a mischievous cousin of Jiminy Cricket whispers seductively about how cool it will be, and how much fun we'll have.
Nope. I shrug and grin lopsidedly. But it'll be fine.
Driving an automatic for the first time? On the wrong side of the road? In an unfamiliar major city?
Piece of cake.
Come on, let's go have an adventure.
And we did.
This blog entry is protected by copyright © Indigo Roth, 2010