Clueless in America. Chapter 4

4. California and The Rental Car

Oh California! This was my third visit and somehow my perceptions of it have not changed. I love her out-going and extravagantly friendly people, her highways, her diversity in scenery, her fanaticism over cars and her autumn, winter and spring weather. But for some reason, I just cannot bring myself to actually like California and am usually somewhat relieved to leave.

So Southwest rather ceremoniously dumped us down in Sacramento airport. Coming from October in Eastern Europe the first thing that hit us about California was that it is light and hot, in fact almost too hot. Sacramento airport luggage claim is pretty cool, and I am not talking about the temperature, make sure you check it out if you travel through. They have three pillars of old suitcases stacked from floor to ceiling, a truly awesome art installation.

One thing I love about America is how clearly everything is instructed. We had rented a car over the internet, and our first challenge was to be how do we find that car.

But not in America. In this nation there is truly no need to think, because someone has been out and done it all for you. Normally to find a rental car, you would follow signs, ask at a help desk or aimlessly wander about until you stumbled upon it. But no, when the rental car company sent me my confirmation, they also sent the following excellent instructions.

All customers are to board the rental car shuttle to the rental car building.
Shuttle frequency – every 5 minutes.
Shuttle hours – 0500-0000
Shuttle fee – no charge.
Distance to vehicle – approx 1 mile
Shuttle time to vehicle — 5 minutes

Amazingly clear. Two things were not mentioned. First, I had to waste at least thirty seconds trying to work out exactly where the shuttle bus stop was. And second, after arriving at the rental car office that I had to wait about an hour from joining the queue before I was served. But other than that the instructions were great.

Whilst reading my paper waiting in line, jet lagged and sweating I struck up a conversation with two Joe Plumber average Americans. One was born in Russia and the other was born in the Ukraine. We had a brief but interesting chat about the elections. Only one of them had managed to become a US citizen, they were both under twenty, very arrogant and very loud, neither of them seemed to have much of an idea of anything to do with elections and neither of them wanted to talk about where they worked. However they were lovely chaps and a delightful way to pass an hour.

I love aspects of capitalism. Your average American has not experienced queuing in Lithuania. Consequently there were some rather perturbed and angry people in our line. They clearly had places to be, things to do and little tolerance for waiting. In the middle of the sighs, groaning and verbal complaints, a voice rose above the rest. It was a male voice, early forties, white skin, dark hair,  a businessman in a sport suit. He was yelling to a rival rental car company. The poetry dribbling from his lips was “Hey Avis, I have a quoted price from Dollar will you equal it?” And Avis said “We most definitely will sir.” Sport suited Sir said “Hey everybody Avis will equal your prices, why wait?” And at that he and a few other capitalists left our line and went to the empty Avis desk.

I was totally and utterly awestruck and miffed. I so so wanted to flaunt my capitalist spirit, strut my Kiwi butt over there and say to the world “May the best sport suited man win”. But the system had sucked me in and made me believe that I needed to buy insurance before I booked my rental car. Cyberspace had already sucked thirty six dollars out of me for this car. And excuse me thirty six dollars is thirty six dollars. My wallet has never ever needed Weight Watchers and I am happy to sit out another few hours just to save that thirty six bucks.

Well, I made the front of the queue just after my two loud new found buddies. Oh America! It always amazes me how supposedly we speak the same language and yet seem totally unable to communicate. I understood the words that this woman was saying. I appreciated her warm lovely smile and I was totally and utterly mystified as to what I had done to deserve to be called sir, but I had absolutely no idea what in the world she was trying to say to me. Questions, questions and stinkin’ more questions. “Look woman or is it mam? I don’t want cream and sugar with my car.” I darn near bought a second lot of insurance, I still don’t have a copy of the insurance policy that I bought on-line, I signed a couple of sheets of literarated paper, lost control of my credit for an extraordinary length of frustrating time and finally succumbed to a nervous and sweaty ‘uhuh’ when asked if a PT something-a-rather, what ever that is, was okay. Then she said “thanks Sir, have a good day.”

Oh yeah did I mention the look of utter confusion when I gave her a Lithuanian(14) address, New Zealand(15) passport and a United Kingdom(16) driver’s licence?

But, oh shoot! I had a much more urgent problem than that. Where was the stinkin’ car? In fear of another terrifying monologue of Californian, from deep inside of me I summoned the courage and asked where the car was. The lassie behind the counter was clearly delighted to be asked for instructions. Her already huge smile broadened to a totally disproportionate arc across her face and she replied, “Walk past the toilets to the end of this building, turn left and walk until you are in the Dollar lot and then look for the number of your park.” Americans love to give directions. When giving directions their service industry garbled English suddenly becomes crystal clear. For me it is totally and utterly amazing to have the privilege to witness such a linguistic transformation.

We filled our water bottles up, topped up our bodies with water, went to the toilet to let out the excess, dragged our sparse supply of luggage to the end of the building, turned left, walked to the Dollar lot, found our numbered park and there was our PT something-a-rather. Hallelujah!

I put the keys in the door and walla, bam thank you mam the door opened! I have problems with blood circulation, I was wearing nasty tights to keep it flowing, but of course by now my legs were sweating like the Niagara Falls. I was in the process of cowering behind the car trying to get the sticky things off when suddenly the car horn starts obnoxiously going off. Great. Just what I need.  An arrogant alarm going of it’s nut in a car that I have never seen before but am supposed to have control of. It wouldn’t stop. I opened doors. I closed doors. I held my tongue on the left of my mouth and on the right, nothing seemed to work. Honk, honk and honk. We were jet lagged, tired cranky and stinkin’ hot. I sent Sharon scuttling away to the office to ask the inevitably stupid question of how do we shut the thing up. Just after she left and just when I was tempted to give the car some foot-in-the-side-of-the-door-therapy, a clearly lovely person pulled up and motioned to push the button on the key chain. Oh God Bless America and why didn’t I think of that? I reached in the car, where the keys sat triumphantly in the ignition and pushed the kill button.

Well, blissful silence followed. I hollered for Sharon to return and set my mind at the next task of relieving myself of my other sweat soaked tight. Closed the door to navigate myself to the boot when suddenly the car locked itself. Not only did the car lock itself but the keys were in the ignition. Suck, bum and weasel’s bottoms, I was hot, tired and sweating, surely this must be hell. Alas, it was my turn to trot over to the Dollar office and reveal my total inadequacy at Californian rental car culture. However it couldn’t be that bad, we had not left the parking lot. I rather ashamedly fumbled my way into the office, told my story and asked for the spare key. They didn’t have a spare key!!! Apparently they were worried about losing spare keys so attached both identical car keys to their key chains, both of which where locked in our PT something a rather. It was to do with leasing and insurance, frankly I didn’t care, I was beginning to hate Sacramento. So the guy behind the counter rung up a garage quoted the car number and apparently some dude was going to make a master or skeleton key and break into the car for us. This is California, the land of Fast and Furious, everyone here can break into a car in under thirty seconds, right? I sauntered back to the car, told Sharon the story and mentioned how the Dollar dude suggested that we wait in the office air conditioning. Suddenly a person appeared out of no where with a funny looking key, stuck it in our door, turned the lock a couple of times and we were in. Yeah, right on! Fast and Furious rocks!!!

Sharon loves navigating the same way sheep love the slaughter house. In my over enthusiasm for road trips I had prepared well, we were equipped with three sets of instructions on how to find all of our American friends who we were planning on visiting this trip. I had written to them all and asked  them to send us directions. I had MapQuested directions to their homes and we had picked up a Mc Nellies (17)equivalent in Chicago. This had taken me painstaking hours of work, but still if it was in America we were going to find it. However there was still just one problem, no matter how hard I try to organise I just cannot organise out the clown behind the wheel.

Our conversations go something like this. “Okay Sharon quickly what is the next direction?” Of which she answers something “like turn left on the 299 West in ninety miles, it will be obvious.” I drive for about a mile, totally forget the instructions and then ask again. Once or twice is fine for Sharon, but for some reason her somewhat patient demeanor gets somewhat frayed after about the fiftieth time of asking. Next thing we know we are both hungry and desperate for a pee. I ask Sharon to keep an eye out for a rest area. I couldn’t possibly do this because I am still repeating 299 West over and over again in my head in an effort to remember it and not frustrate my wife any more. Next thing I see a rest area in my rear vision mirror. I say to Sharon “Why didn’t you say?” She says she forgot. So we make quite a pair. I can never remember where we are going and Sharon can never remember where we are stopping. But this works fine for us, because we both love driving and listening to NPR(18) or our podcasts. Who cares where we go or where we stop. WE DO!!!

Seriously, if you are thinking of marrying someone or working in a close relational pressure situation, test your relationship first. Go on a two week road journey through foreign countries and cities and see how you survive. And to throw in a little excitement, try a country where the road signs are in a foreign language, pick busy cities and do it in bad weather in the dark in a cheap old rental car, with an old map and incorrect directions. If you can survive this, then you will probably survive in anything, with the notable exception of dealing with the American service industry.

To be continued. Don’t miss next week as we encounter navigation and the echoing Olive Pitt.

For past chapters click here. Or look on the side panel.

You may have noticed some bracketed numbers in this chapter. These numbers correspond with explanations and definitions that are in an accompanying glossary. To read the glossary you will need to by the yet to be released book. Sorry 🙁

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3 thoughts on “Clueless in America. Chapter 4

  1. I must admit, NPR makes any drive much more bearable, depending on the program at hand of course. What shocked me about the latter half of our past 4 months in the U.S. was the ease to which driving could become when owning a GPS!!! You’ve got to give these Garmins a try! If only they worked all over the globe, but alas.

  2. Oh we did try a GPS, I loved it, but Sharon not so much. It did get us in a lot of trouble though, will write about that when we get to Wisconsin.


  3. My, haven´t I seen this before, in one of those awkward movies in which everything that can goes wrong, that seem to make everbody laugh but drive me insane instead? Arrch!

    Reminds me also of last christmas, losing the carkeys right before disembarking the boat from England. Imagine; everbody left, an empty boat, us still looking for those effin’ keys. Talking about tests!

    Fav lines: “For me it is totally and utterly amazing to have the privilege of witness[ing?] such a linguistic transformation.”

    “So we make quite a pair, I can never remember where we are going and Sharon can never remember where we are stopping.”

    Oh- btw, thanks for preparing me – going to NY this June. “I’m afraid of Americans” -Bowie

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