At Chipotle, a place where I have eaten roughly three times a month for the last ten years, I sometimes ask the cashier for “a little cup for water.” Then I walk over to the soda fountain and fill it up with Sprite. (I choose Sprite because it is clear and looks the most like water, so if a worker walks past, he or she won’t suspect it is a stolen drink.) At most Chipotles, the water and the lemonade come from the same tap at the soda fountain, and to get the water you have to pull on a little lever. Sometimes, to distract potential witnesses of my crime, I will even pretend to pull on the water lever as I am filling my cup up with Sprite. I am basically a monster.
So: I am owed some negative karma for my Chipotle sins, and for other small sins I’ve committed in the domain of commerce. My moral record in the marketplace is not without blemish. But I am not sure that the brutal treatment I received from the rental car industry a few weeks ago was commensurate with my misdeeds.
The background is this: One of my best friends was getting married in Wolfeboro, N.H., an old town on Lake Winnipesaukee, which is the lake where What About Bob is set. I was a groomsman. I live in Kansas City, but have long fantasized about rural New England—I believe it is where I am meant to live. So I decided to make a vacation out of it and take the whole week off work. The plan was for me and two other friends to fly into New York City on Tuesday and stay with a friend in Brooklyn for two nights. Then on Thursday morning, all four of us would take a rental car up to Wolfeboro. On Sunday, we would return the rental car at the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire (the closest airport to Wolfeboro) and fly home.
A month out from the trip, I did some research and booked a rental car with an Alamo Rent a Car in lower Manhattan. The price was $340. Not great for just three days, but we were dropping the car off in a different city than we picked it up in, and rental car companies charge “one-way fees” for that. When I asked my friends to guess the cost, they all put it at between $300 and $400, which made me feel like I had done OK in booking it.
Wolfeboro is about five hours from New York City, and we were due to be at a party at 6 p.m. on Thursday night, so we were aiming to be at the Alamo at 7th and Broadway around 9:30 a.m. on Thursday morning. We left Greenpoint on time, but the driver from Java Car Services took the Queensboro Bridge instead of the Williamsburg Bridge into the city. We voiced some hesitation, but he seemed sure of himself, so we backed off. It was another twenty minutes before we reached the island. Then he took a right off the bridge.
“We’re going to Seventh and Broadway,” I said.
“Yes, Seventh,” he said.
Well, maybe he knows some secret route where he can shoot downtown superfast, I thought. But he kept cutting further and further north. Finally I said, “Are you taking us to 70th?” And he said, “Yes, Seventy.”
“No, Seventh!” I said. “Seventh! What the fuck! Downtown! I said it like 10 times!”
Then he turned the car around and headed south down Broadway, the busiest street in the world. At Times Square, we threw up our hands, got out of the car, gave him a $20 and took the subway. We arrived at Alamo an hour behind schedule. I was medium-angry, but determined not to let the experience ruin my day. Stay positive, serenity now.
I had never rented a car before—or, at least, I’d never paid for one. When I booked the reservation at Alamo, the person on the phone told me that when we picked up the car, we would need to put down a credit card—a real credit card, not just a debit card that functions as a credit card. I do not own a credit card. I have a debit card from my bank, which I use like a credit card. I am aware that credit cards are a good tool for building credit, but they have always seemed like a dangerous, unnecessary thing to have around. And I knew that Matt, my New York friend, had a credit card. So I figured we were fine.
The two of us walked into the office at Alamo and I told the woman behind the counter that we were there to pick up our car. I gave her my driver’s license, and then she asked for a credit card, and Matt handed his over. Then the woman said, “Oh, the name on the driver’s license has to match the credit card.”
OK. So, the person on the phone never mentioned anything about the driver’s license and credit card needing to match. But no big deal: Matt could just rent the car.
Except Matt’s license was expired. He doesn’t have a car in New York, so he didn’t bother to renew his license when it ran out a few years ago.
As it turned out, none of the four of us fully grown, 31-year-old men had in our possession both a credit card and a valid driver’s license. Konnor had a credit card, but it was in Kansas City. Maybe he could call somebody in KC and get them to read us the card information over the phone? He placed a call and was able to get the information remarkably quickly. Buoyed, we reentered the Alamo office.
Nope. “We have to swipe it,” the woman said, without a trace of human empathy. She returned to whatever she was doing on her computer.
“Why? What’s the difference? He has an ID, he has a driver’s license, the name matches the card if you run it.”
“We just have to,” she said. It was starting to seem like Alamo Rent A Car did not want our business.
Concurrent to this, Al was making calls to other rental car companies in Manhattan. He had rented a car from Enterprise a few years back, and had an account of some sort with the company. He returned with promising news: Enterprise would let him rent with a debit card as long as he provided two utility bills with his name on them. Also, it would cost $530 to rent the car. We flinched.
“Whatever,” I said. “We have no choice. Let’s just do it.” We would each be out an additional $50, which was a bummer. But at least we could get on the road. We left the Alamo garage. Later, we regretted that one of us didn’t open the office door on our way out and say, really aggressively, “Alrighty then!” in the Ace Ventura voice.
The Alamo garage happened to be near a Kinko’s, so we walked over and Al printed out the bills. Then we hailed a cab and took it to the Enterprise office in Chelsea. “I called about renting the car to New Hampshire,” Al said. The guy nodded and asked for his ID.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you had an in-state license. We can only do debit cards on in-state licenses.”
Al just hung his head. “You have got to be kidding me,” I said.
We tried Konnor’s card-information thing.
“We have to have the physical card,” the guy said.
“We just have to.”
“But you don’t know why?”
“We need to be able to swipe it.”
“What’s the difference between swiping it and us telling you the numbers? It’s the exact same information. At the grocery store when the card reader isn’t working they just type in the numbers. What’s the difference?”
“It’s just our policy.”
We exited the office and stood staring at each other on 24th Street, clutching our luggage and garment bags like a bunch of Midwestern tourist bozos. Matt was looking up train schedules on his phone.
“But here’s the thing,” I said. “Even if we take a train or a flight to Manchester, we still have to rent a car to get from Manchester to Wolfeboro.”
“Do you know anybody who has a car here?”
“No,” he said. “Nobody I feel comfortable borrowing from.”
Then the Enterprise guy (to his credit, he was apologetic and nice) came out and said that he was pretty sure the Hertz in Times Square does out-of-state debit card rentals. Al called; they would. The price was $650—roughly $162 each, plus gas.
My instinct was to resist this. That is just an absurd figure for renting a car for three days. But ultimately we had no other play. We had to get to Wolfeboro that evening.
So we took another fucking cab to Midtown. Al went into the office. We stayed outside in the garage and watched him through a glass window. After a few minutes, he gave us a thumbs-up sign. We exhaled and started discussing whether we should eat in the neighborhood or get something on the road. Then Al opened the door with a grave look on his face and said, “Now they’re saying they have to run a credit check on me. And I’m pretty sure I have terrible credit.”
I wanted to open up my suitcase and curl up into a little ball inside it. But Al’s credit turned out to be fine. We got the keys, dumped our bags in the car and ate in silence at a Chipotle across the street. When we returned, we were blocked in by another car. It wasn’t a problem getting one of the garage guys to move it for us, but for a moment it seemed like anything could derail us, that everything in New York City was conspiring against us. I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.
We piled into the car. The sky had slowly been turning cloudy, and the moment we exited the garage, it started pouring down rain.
Our trauma passed more or less the moment we pulled into Wolfeboro. The town is historic and idyllic, and the house we rented had a huge wraparound porch that looked out onto the lake. New Hampshire was as beautiful as I imagined it to be. And I felt almost sappily honored to be a part of a wedding between two people I really love and respect (shout-out to Edgevale apparel!). The reception was in a converted barn, and there was a moment when I was eating a gourmet donut and dancing to “Oogum Boogum,” and I thought, “This is about as good as it gets.” I would have liquidated my entire bank account to be there.
On Sunday morning, we dragged our asses out of town and made it to Manchester a solid two hours before our flight. We found the Hertz drop-off and parked the car. The Hertz guy came up and scanned some bar code on the car and asked who was paying. Al pulled out his card. Then the guy looked at his little electronic device, and said, “OK, that’s $850.”
On the phone, on our initial call to Hertz, we had been quoted $650. At the Hertz counter in midtown New York, the clerk had given Al paperwork that also estimated the cost would be $650. But even though nobody from Hertz at any point mentioned it, that figure was apparently based on us returning the car by noon on Sunday. It was 2:30 p.m. when we arrived at the Hertz in Manchester. So they were charging us for another full day. Obviously, if we would have known it would cost an extra $200, we would have gotten there earlier. But nobody told us that. They just snuck it into the rental agreement.
Al took the matter up with a woman in the Hertz office and got her to knock $100 off. But she wouldn’t budge any further than that. What could we do? Track down the Hertz guy in New York and get him to admit that he’d misled us? We actually tried that, but the number just sends you to a general Hertz call center. Fuck Hertz. We could have bought a fucking car for $850.
We slunk into our gate and settled in at an airport bar. Another friend from the wedding was on the same flight back to KC. He had flown into Manchester on Thursday, rented a car from Dollar at the airport, and returned it on Sunday.
His bill was $78.
David Hudnall is a writer living in Kansas City.