The Elderly Patrol Car

My car rental needs are rather simple, really.

  • I need four wheels attached to the outside of the car and a fifth to control the direction of the others.
  • I don’t want anything too big. I’ve learned there are few things worse than trying to park a boat in a tight spot in a strange part of a new town with pedestrian traffic gaping at you as though you’ve pulled down your pants and tried to park with your ass hanging out the passenger side window.
  • Music is important, but not that XM satellite radio bullshit. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song I’ve like over hundreds of stations. It seems to be the straight-to-DVD world of music. All I need is an input jack for an auxiliary cable so I can cruise with Pandora.
  • Good gas mileage is a plus. I drive a guzzler back home, so when I’m on the road I like to be able to slowly emit greenhouse gasses in order to feel a little more environmentally conscious.

As I’m waiting in that painfully slow line at the rental counter, I’m hoping to have at least three of these conditions met. I know that nobody is going to screw up condition one, so that’s a freebie for them. Making a reservation should guarantee at least two of the other three–I can never really know what the audio setup is going to be, but I’m willing to trust that outcome to a hope.

I wait and I visualize myself stepping up to the counter: Place license and credit card on counter immediately. Declare that you’ve made a reservation. Engage in smalltalk about the weather. Laugh when the woman standing next to you says there’s a “heat advisory” in place today. Remark that it’s August in Phoenix–of course there’s a fucking heat advisory. Decline all coverages. Insist that no, you don’t need even that additional $14.99/day option that covers collision. Feign interest at XM radio and GPS devices–a courtesy–before passing on the option. I’m prepared. It’s my turn. I step forward when I’m called.

The woman behind the counter doesn’t immediately move to help me, instead typing away at her keyboard. Interesting strategy, I think to myself. Declaring readiness and then making me wait. I take note of the surroundings, and the woman I’ll be dealing with. Her name is Shirley (you can’t be serious!), and she’s got the look of a conservative of moderate means–but then, so do most white Arizonans–with short blonde hair and wire-framed spectacles firmly trained on the screen. She pays me no mind, and I begin to regret shaving this morning, which makes me look like a first-time renter. The ball’s in your court, Shirley.

After a minute or so, she collects my information and enters it into the system. The man who stepped to the counter after I did is now leaving with his rental agreement. Shirley reports to me that she can get me a small SUV at only $110 a day, a discount of $20 off the typical price, and a modest $30 more than the cost of my reservation. “It’s a Hyundai Santa Fe. They’re a lot of fun.” I insist that I’d prefer a car at the price that I reserved, and she scrunches her nose and narrows her eyes, staring directly at the screen. “We’re running short on cars today, but… you know, I’ll see what I can do.” Great, now she’s doing me a favor.

The concept of having a reservation vanish into thin air is not lost on anyone. Imagine for a moment how laughable it would be for a restaurant to tell you that, despite your reservation, they’ve run out of tables. They’d never stay in business! And yet, rental companies perpetrate this injustice every single day. Seinfeld did a great treatment of this back before I even knew how to drive, and I won’t presume to add any new insight here. Moving on.

After some time talking to a colleague, Shirley (you still can’t be serious) returns to me to say that she’ll just “have to give me a free upgrade,” and I agree that this seems the sensible thing to do. Now the work begins. I’m declining additional coverages with my left and fighting off the GPS with my right. She’s persistent, and I’ve given up even listening to her spiel, for fear that she’ll gain momentum and steamroll me. I initial boxes and circles, declining here, refusing there. I boldly assure her that I can find a gas station and fill up a tank with fuel, and so I won’t be needing to pay $7.98/gallon for them to fill it for me.

(A quick aside: How do they come up with that number? Do they just figure $8 is the largest figure they can possibly extort from people without raising an alarm, and then drop it $.02 to make it seem reasonable? The price wasn’t some factor of the gas price in town ($3.39), nor was it explicated in the directions, which read “While you will have to pay more for us to refuel the vehicle, it can be a smart option if you won’t have time to fill up on your way to the return site.” Leave it to a rental car company to spin $7.98/gallon as the “smart option.”)

Standing firm on my last legs, I peer down at the rental car agreement and find that

I’ve been saddled with the flagship of the piece of shit rental car fleet: The Ford Crown Victoria. I had one of these back in New Mexico for a single-day rental, and it was awful. I felt like I entered some alternate universe of time dilation that caused me to age three years as the leather bench seats and digital speedometer oozed elderly onto me. And now I was going to have one for four days. I protested harshly, and Shirley assured me that it was “a nice big car with a very smooth ride.” Of course, you can’t be serious. “You’ll be really comfortable,” she said. “It’s a great car, very luxurious.”

“Yeah, if you’re a police officer.” I don’t think she got it.

On the freeway minutes later, I would find that the Crown Vic is as ubiquitous in Phoenix as the Outback in Portland, just one more indication of the cultural chasm between the two cities. For Shirley, an upgrade to the Crown Vic is a dream–she’ll rue the day when she arrives in PDX and we’ve got a surplus of Priuses to replace her full-size reservation. I can imagine her panicking again and again as that damn engine keeps shutting off whenever she comes to a stop. I find it no small coincidence that you’ve got to fly over the Grand Canyon to get from Portland to Phoenix.

So now I’m cruising the mean streets of Tempe on a sweltering 109 degree day (“Heat advisory!”). Looks like it’s going to be a week of aviators and straw hats, badges and Hawaiian print shirts. The car has two speeds: ten miles an hour under the speed limit, or twenty-five over–with a siren firing in the background. I’m headed down to Van Buren this afternoon to make some arrests, but only after I stop off to pick the grandkids up from daycare. This car has a mission, and I am to live it.

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