(or Car Rental For Dummies)
Ever want to know what it’s like to be part of a huge, spectacular, live TV awards show? Me too! This correspondence is coming to you from the backstage production office at The Forum, a huge arena in Inglewood, California (aka Los Angeles) where Nickelodeon’s 2015 Kids’ Choice Awards will be held on Saturday, March 28. For all I know, all the action takes place in a dismally plain room lit by strips of florescent bars, long tables pushed and pulled together to create work stations, computers and wires strangling out any sense of order, and a herd of tired people working 12-hour days.
The old adage is true: nothing is ever as it seems. But then, that’s the beauty of the finished product. All you see is the shine, you never see the sweat.
Speaking of sweat, please note that I haven’t produced perspiration in months; I come from the land of Brooklyn, New York where denizens are just now getting excited over the prospect of a 50-degree forecast in the middle of March. Here, however, I watch the temperature rise in my rental car from 81 degrees in Santa Monica to 87 degrees in Inglewood in the span of 25 minutes while sitting on a bumper-to-bumper, smog-filled 405 freeway. Not cute, L.A., not cute.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
You know what else isn’t cute? Waking up last Thursday morning at the butt-crack of dawn, i.e. 4:30am (that’s the butt-crack, right?) to make my 7:00am flight out of JFK but, all in all, all went well. Well, except for the man snoring next to me for five hours straight and the three kids behind me who scream non-stop and kick my chair every 20 seconds or so. I don’t want to bring religious persecution up—I encourage everyone to believe what they want—but the Hasidic Jewish parents of these snot-nosed brats certainly didn’t seem to believe in disciplining their children. Never once do I hear a forceful “Shh!” or a gentle “Quiet, please, my darling.” My mind spit out so many vitriolic curses that I might have even charmed the pants off of Satan. Let’s just say I crank up some airline-supplied classical music in my headphones and continue to read Shirley MacLaine’s 1986 New Age opus Out On A Limb like a madman. Sleeping is out of the question.
When I finally arrive at LAX at 10:25 in the morning, I’m greeted with sunshine, palm trees, and the Budget car rental bus. I hop on with all of my baggage, including a Nickelodeon hoodie under an Army camouflage jacket, a suitcase on creaky wheels, and a 25-pound messenger bag filled with books, binders, and a very heavy and expensive Macbook Pro loaned from work.
NOW I began sweating. My literal and figurative baggage is both hot and heavy.
The bus drops its passengers off at the rental location and off we toddle to stand in line in the office. Less than five minutes later, I’m already being helped. I hand my folded-up itinerary to the helpful agent behind the counter and adjust the bag on my shoulder with an internal groan; already my shoulders feel like the lopsided ones of Quasimodo. Sweaty and pained, I’m just thankful to be waited on so quickly. After all, I should be at my hotel in Santa Monica in less than an hour, so we need to hurry this shit up.
Wanna know the agent’s comment when he unwraps my perfectly folded itinerary?
“Uh oh” is never a good response, especially not when renting a car. Hell, not ever.
Turns out my reservation had been changed at the last minute from Budget to Hertz, and I’ve completely forgotten about that one little detail. In my frazzled and exhausted mind, that important tidbit of information grew wings and flew right out the window.
So to the dusty road I take in order to walk the three long blocks to Hertz, dragging my baggage and my dumb, forgetful ass. When I reach the designated entrance and wipe my brow, I notice there is no way to enter as a pedestrian. Luckily for me (up till then, Lady Luck hasn’t bothered to show her face), a Hertz shuttle bus is just pulling in and stops to let me in. We drive through the gate and then get dropped off mere moments later. I mean, we probably cruised in like 20 feet. Yep, at this point I’m a bit embarrassed. Oh well.
Relieved to have finally arrived at the proper destination though, I stroll into the blessedly cool office to find a monstrous, surging throng of angry and frustrated tourists. This is no minimal Budget queue, this is a full-on car rental frenzy. I sigh with resignation murmuring, “Uh oh” aloud, mimicking the Budget agent’s one-liner. I also blurt out, “What the fuck?” without caring if anyone hears. It truly is a “What the fuck?” moment. I need to take myself far, far away from this madness, so once again turn to music to drown out the din. So far, this is the best decision I’ve made in California.
After almost an hour wait, I finally reach an agent. Guess what? Quin, with only one “n” on his name tag, takes one look at my Viacom P-card (production credit card) and quips, “Your name’s not Nick Development, now, is it?” with a conspiratorial wink as though we’re both in on my apparent scam. I explain with a rising sense of hysteria that chokes my throat as my heart crawls up into my esophagus, that I was given the P-card from work to use for my car rental. “But your name isn’t Nick Development,” he insists flatly, the twinkle in his eyes fading. Suddenly, he’s not the Idris Elba clone that I imagined him to be. “It’s not our policy to accept a credit card that doesn’t match your driver’s license,” he explains as though I’m a dumb-fuck or just plain hard of hearing. Sure, I’m a dummy sometimes and yes, I am hard of hearing, but that’s all beside the point.
“Okay,” I start, my trembling voice betraying my fear, “may I please see that policy in writing?”
Quin laughs at me. He possesses a sultry sort of chuckle, one that Idris probably shares as well. But that doesn’t sway my steely resolve, especially when he shakes his head, the universal sign for “no.” “It’s not in writing,” he replies.
“Wait, let me get this straight,” I begin, trying my hardest to act straight, to keep cool, and to not freak the fuck out in a crowded car rental office at LAX. “You’re telling me you don’t have this policy in writing, and yet you won’t let me rent a car with my work credit card? That doesn’t make sense. Am I supposed to believe this policy on blind faith alone?” Quin shrugs. I demand to see the manager. Quin points across the crowded room to a large, menacing bloke with dark skin and a lazy slouch. “That’s him,” Quin points. “His name’s Alison.”
“Alison?” I repeat. I must have heard wrong. I am hard of hearing, you know.
“Yes, Alison. You can come back to me when you’ve finished speaking with him.”
“Ugh, fine!” I whine, tears threatening to spill at any moment. When I stomp over to Alison, I notice he’s helping another customer. For once, I don’t stand there and wait like a meek lamb, trembling and mewling on its way to the slaughterhouse. I interrupt his customer and state my case as though my legal training has finally paid off after 25 years. The penultimate moment comes when I query, “Where is it written in your policy, Alison?” I can’t stop myself from emphasizing his girly name.
“It’s not,” he answers. Somewhat smugly, I might add. “That’s it, that’s our policy, and that’s final.” Case closed. Looks like I’m the defeated party in this skirmish.
“How can that be your policy if it’s not in writing?” I yelp.
“Sorry,” he says nonchalantly.
Suddenly I despise this guy with a girl’s name. “Fuck!” I exclaim. Like a tea kettle, I am ready to blow. The lady customer renting the car through Alison raises her painted eyebrows in surprise. At least I get through to one person at Hertz.
Thoughts like these are ping-ponging around my brain, that’s how wigged out I am.
Storming back to Quin, I relay the same old story: Apparently that’s your policy regarding credit cards even though it’s not written anywhere, and I guess that means I’m screwed. Then he comes back with, “Don’t worry, you can pay with a different card upon your return.” I breathe a massive sigh of relief and peel my shirt away from my sticky torso, which is now fully covered in flop sweat. Then he promptly charges $409 on my personal credit card.
Hertz hurts, indeed.
To add insult to injury, when I finally find my brand new rental car in parking spot 582, I cannot figure out for the life of me how to even start the damn car. There’s no key, just a thick black plastic doohickey that must be for the alarm and trunk and such.
Enter full panic mode.
The brand-new model car boasts one of those push button ignitions, but I have the worst time trying to find out how to turn it on. Close to tears, I flag down an employee who is strolling through the lot. She demonstrates how to turn the stupid thing on (you have to place your foot on the brake and keep the plastic doohickey close by—who knew?). Alas, when I ask her where the radio is and how to turn it on, she only shakes her head. All I want out of a rental car is a goddamn ignition key and a radio, not some computer-run, high-tech moving vehicle with newfangled gadgets and doodads that make me feel all of my 50 years! Unable to help me any further, she apologizes and skedaddles out of there. I’m alone again with a car I can barely start that has a blank computer screen for a radio. Hysterical, I flag down yet another worker, an older black gentleman at least 20 years beyond my 50. With a shaking head, he cackles at my fearful state and advises me that he himself wouldn’t touch “any of them strange buttons.”
Finally, with no other help in sight, I grab all my stuff and trek back inside the packed rental office and return to all the mayhem. This time I march up to the Customer Service desk and spill my story in fits and starts to an elderly woman with spectacles perched on the end of her nose and a shock of white hair swooping through her coarse dark bob. Immediately upon the end of my diatribe, she turns to her co-worker and states, “I’ll be right back,” while motioning for me to follow. Turning around, I count at least eight people behind me in line, with only one person now remaining behind the counter. As we walk out, she confides to me over her glasses, “I just really needed an excuse to get outside.” I bark out a laugh and already feel better. We slowly make our way to the car (she’s straight up in no kinda hurry, waiting customers be damned), plunk ourselves down inside the boiling hot interior and, once she flips the air conditioning on full blast, we retrieve the manual from the glove compartment in a valiant attempt to navigate the intricate details on how to turn on the stupid fucking satellite radio thingamajig. Even with both of us poring over the instructions and pouring sweat, we still can’t figure it out.
By this point, I have been at Hertz for almost two hours. I was supposed to have checked into my hotel and located my boss, and yet here I sit, back at square one. Having no luck with the manual and being beyond frustrated, we both give up and begin heading back to the office, when all of a sudden she flags down a dripping wet vehicle, fresh from a car wash. In no uncertain terms, she instructs me, “This is your car. Get in.” I best do what she says. The driver of the newly clean auto gets a scared look on his face before he jumps out and we jump in. I ride shotgun and let her take the wheel. Again, she turns on the air conditioning and says soothingly, “Look. See? This one here’s got a radio.” She’s right, there is an actual, honest-to-goodness radio like the kind from the golden olden days when I used to drive. So what does she do next, you may wonder? She hits the brake, pushes the ignition button, and a classic rock song by Foghat blasts through the speakers. When she turns the volume up louder, I think I love her.
“Uh huh, I think you’ll like this station,” she surmises with a foxy grin, her eyes holding mine above her granny glasses. She’s right. Like a kid on Christmas morning, my knees knock with excitement and adrenaline as she drives up to the sliding glass doors of the office at an alarming clip. “Come on!” she orders, so I follow her sauntering gait back to the Customer Service counter, where she attends to my needs before everyone else’s and then sends me on my merry way.
That lady really defines the meaning of “customer service.”
Oh, and it’s a good thing she explained that the car comes with a free Navigation system, because my directions in this City of Angels are beyond rusty. I end up using that trusty device every step of the way to my fancy new digs at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica. I check in, swig down a complimentary glass of champagne, indulge myself in a much-needed shower, and then call the valet service to retrieve my rental car. When I’m in, I turn the air conditioning on, get the stereo to a radio station that’s pumping some good tunes, roll the windows down all the way, and drive like a boss to my destination in Inglewood.
Wish I knew my way around the back streets like I used to though, because the Navigation system leads me onto the 10 Freeway en route to the massive 405. As a result, I’m driving almost a full hour to cover like 10 miles. It’s all good though because it makes me realize, yet again, that I do not miss the heat, smog, and clogged freeways of the L.A. lifestyle.
Oh well—at least I have a radio.