Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Rental Car

with 10 comments

So, here it is–one of those things that just sort of happens when you’re on the subject.  If you know what I mean. 

This morning I was at the office of the place where I sometimes rent a car–long story; if you think I’m cheap about clothes, you should see me about cars–and while I was waiting a woman showed up wanting to rent a vehicle.

And I knew, as soon as she walked in, that this was not going to end well.

She was an older woman, and some of what made me sit up and take notice was the clothes, all of which were far too young for her–Latex slacks that hugged her calves, backlass wedgie heels.

And some of it was the make-up and the hair, which was not so much too young for her as it was too too, period, if that makes sense.

But most of it was the manner–in the beginning rushed and belligerent, talking through people and then arguing at the top of her voice, trying to get everything done in a rush or not at all, insisting on things that couldn’t possibly true–this is a small company, run by a father and daughter, there are no other employees to get the information tangled up–and generally being in constant  motion.

It’s more, I think, than dressing up or down, formally or informally.  And it’s more than clothes. 

There’s accent to consider, and body language, and mannerisms, and it seems to me that all those things impact what other people see in us and the ways in which they evaluate us.

And I knew exactly what this woman was going to do before she did it.  I knew that she would either not understand the difference between a Visa debit card and a regular Visa card, or claim not to.  I knew that she would insist that she had not been told that she would need a deposit if she didn’t have a regular credit card.  I knew she would try to pay in cash, which for some reason rental car companies really hate.

And I felt sorry for her–she needed a car because her own car had been repossessed.  She didn’t have a regular credit card to her name, and her car insurance had been cancelled because of the repossession.  She was old and alone and was dropped off by somebody who was obviously doing it on sufferance.  He didn’t way to see how she was and was gone when she found out she wouldn’t be getting a car after all.  She had to sit there in the little waiting room waiting for a taxi, and I know taxis in that part of the state–it was going to cost her almost as much as a full day’s car rental just to get home. 

And she still wouldn’t have a car.

But all this started because I was thinking that, in the real world, money and position (by which I mean a job/title/resume/whatever), do indeed make a great deal of difference in the way we live our lives. 

All the things that we believe so strongly shouldn’t matter, turn out to matter far too much.

But I think I’ll stick with my original instinct.

I don’t know about that thing where a man who is not a socialist in youth has no heart and a man who is not a conservative in old age has no head, but I think there’s something wrong with the internal sentiments of the kind of people who come to this realization at the age of twelve, when the rest of us are fighting mad that the world isn’t “fair.”

The world isn’t “fair,” but we should be angry about it.

If that makes sense.

Written by janeh

September 29th, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'Rental Car'

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  1. Latex? Really? Sure you don’t mean Spandex?

    I guess that just means you’ve never worn either. I’m so glad, because the mental picture would make me gibber.

    The world isn’t fair, and no amount of anger will make it so. I *do* think, though, that I and other people have an obligation to be as fair as we can be in our dealings with others, in an effort to compensate, and perhaps to acknowledge our common cause against the inherent randomness of the universe.

    Wow. Overuse of commas, ho!! The universe doesn’t care, and so it appears unfair, when really it is just random. We tend to gloss over those happenings that favor us and focus on those that don’t.

    It’s people and society that are unfair. Unfair only arises when one could be even-handed and is not. And of course, people are not even-handed when being so benefits them in some way. Watch a 3 year old told to cut a sandwich in half to share with her sibling. Fair doesn’t even occur to her. Unfair is a survival instinct, and it takes a lot of maturity to get anywhere near fair.

    Watch a petty bureaucrat exercise their unwarranted power. They get some satisfaction or justification for existence out of being unfair. For some, it may be in their job description! That’s where anger might be useful, if the application of anger leads to change in processes, procedures, or personnel, to eliminate reasonless unfairness. I’m all for that.


    29 Sep 09 at 1:59 pm

  2. I’ve never understood why the US has gone with the debit card instead of the debit card. Maybe it has something to do with all those local banks. It seems really confusing.

    But that’s a side-issue.

    I once infuriated some teens by saying in response to their anger that things hadn’t worked out their way that ‘Life isn’t fair’. I don’t see much point in getting angry about that fact. Oh, if the unfairness is due not so much to life as to human neglect or cruelty, yes, we should, as human beings and members of a society, try to avoid being cruel and neglectful and to reduce the effects of others’ cruelty and neglect. I don’t think you can ever eliminate human cruelty and neglect; they come with the package. But we can do a lot to cut back on their expression in the way we structure our societies and cultures.

    Life is unfair in ways that we can’t control, though, and there’s no point in being angry about that, either. We can’t control the fact that people are born with different skills and ability to acquire them, or suffer different levels of disability at different points in their lives, or have different levels of support from their families. We can argue over at what point an unfairness is due to something outside our control – which is related in a couple of ways to how we decide at what point we should try to do something about it.


    29 Sep 09 at 2:03 pm

  3. Debit card comments are even more confusing when the comment comes out as ‘with the debit card instead of the debit card’.

    What I really meant was ‘debit card with the name of a credit card company’ instead of ‘debit card with the name of a bank’, and I had all than expressed with those little pointy brackets even though I know this site deletes them and everything inside them.

    It was only a side comment anyway, but I didn’t want to sound even sillier than I am.

    Voice is important in how people see others – including accent, word choice, intonation, expression. Even when I dress like – or, sometimes, worse than – someone on social assistance, and arrive at my destination on foot or by bus, as soon as I open my mouth, I’m tagged as middle class. Usually, that helps a lot if I’m trying to get something done like that woman with no money and no public transportation and no car. Once in a very long time, I’ll run into someone who I think doesn’t treat me politely when I’m using all my most serious and calm middle-class speech strategies, and then I REALLY get annoyed.

    But for the most part, even people who tend to be a bit rude to those they think are vulnerable can be polite to someone who speaks like someone with an education, who might KNOW someone in the chain of command.


    29 Sep 09 at 4:11 pm

  4. Bill Goldman was right. Life isn’t fair–but consider the alternative.
    And let’s consider this case. Yes, she was old and alone, and has financial trouble. But none of that is what kept her from getting the car. By your description, she lied to and tried to rush the clerk. Presumably she didn’t much care how much trouble she left the clerk in. Picture the same woman–just as old, just as broke and just as inapropriately dressed. (By the way: how old does she have to be before she’s expected to notice that how she dresses is part of the trouble? Accents can be hard to fix, but Goodwill does nicely with wardrobes.)
    Back to main point: The woman talked to the rental company first, or claimed she had. Suppose she had said “I need this sort of car for X days, but I don’t have a credit card. Is there a way to do this?” Nine times in ten, the rental people will either tell her how to work this, or explain that they can’t–and possibly recommend someone who can. At the least, she’d have been spared cadging the ride and cab fare.

    And yes, I’ve been that clerk behind the counter–not at a car rental, but enough other places in my youth, and sometimes since. I don’t like people who lie to me and try to rush me. Some of them are fools. Some of them are thieves. Most of them are people who don’t think the rules which apply to everyone else apply to them, and don’t care about the consequences for everyone else so long as they get what they want. On balance, I prefer the thieves.

    People should be treated fairly: they shouldn’t be lied to or about. They shouldn’t be bullied or robbed–or worse things.
    But be very careful in complaining about the unfairness of life that you are not really saying “behavior shouldn’t have consequences.”


    29 Sep 09 at 4:12 pm

  5. The woman was most likely angry, embarrassed and unhappy, deeply unhappy, with her circumstances. As a librarian, I’ve worked directly with the general public for most of my adult years. Many people, particularly the unhappy ones, do tend to vent their spleen on employees in public service positions. I’ve learned, finally, not to take it personally. There are any number of reasons for rudeness. Now, particularly now, in this year of a recession that’s not too likely to disappear any time soon, is a time for those of us with a job at least, if not exceptional wealth, to exhibit empathy for those in the Bessie Smith/nobody-loves-you-when-you’re-down and-out situation. Fairness is illusive. In the end, only kindness matters


    29 Sep 09 at 7:14 pm

  6. I read this post several times and didn’t quite understand: did the woman not get it, or did she get it but pretend not to, or was she just so fed up with her problems that she lost it and hoped she could bully the company into giving her the car?

    I’ve been thinking about appearances, and it’s true: I can usually glance at someone and “know” who they are. Sometimes when they open their mouths, I have to readjust. And sometimes I’m really wrong, but not often. One of the difficulties of being in another culture is that you can’t do that. I’ve goofed with Russians, and I know a Russian who got robbed in the New York City subway because she saw a kid with fancy sneakers and thought that meant he was rich and therefore not dangerous. She smiled at him and he mugged her.

    I think our ability and our propensity to automatically categorize someone is innate and almost unavoidable. Either it’s part of that ability to categorize or generalize that allows us to learn language (and make mistakes at first, like saying I win, I winned), and/or it’s part our self-preservation mechanism — you know, that ability to glance at a situation and before “registering” it, knowing it’s dangerous. We have a lifetime of human images in our brain, and when we see a new human being, the mind sorts it into a category. Ah, the aging hippie. Trailer trash. Ivy League snob. New money. Academic. Middle management with a bunch of kids and a mortgage he can’t afford. Recent divorcee trying to look younger. Whatever.

    I think the right thing to do is to treat everyone, regardless of what mental category you put them into, with respect and dignity and kindness, as jem says. The only problem is that you sometimes get hurt. I once kindly told someone how to get to a road while his cohort robbed me. On the other hand, I remember some occassions when I hadn’t been as helpful as I could have been and my conscience still bothers me.


    30 Sep 09 at 6:56 am

  7. I interpreted the post as being about a woman who attempted but failed to rent a car (nearly impossible to do unless you have both a credit card with lots of credit on it and a drivers’ license in the same name), and whose appearance and manner and problems in getting to and from the rental office indicated to the observer that she almost certainly was not in a financial position to rent a car and did not have any real alternatives or help. She also almost certainly did not have or at least did not use the social skills that would have avoided what could be considered to middle-class eyes and ears, a bit of a scene. In fact, a calmer approach by someone who appeared to be less desperate, might have resulted in a different outcome. Or it might not; car rental companies are usually pretty rigid as regards their requirements.


    30 Sep 09 at 8:09 am

  8. Like Jem, I’ve been yelled at fairly frequently over the years at the reference desk. Some of the culprits are just having a bad day, or a bad week, and sometimes apologize the next time they come in. Some of them are spoiled brats (not necessarily young), who do realize, however vaguely, that the person they’re yelling at is another person with interests of their own. Even if the only use the brat makes of it is to use the knowledge in attempting to bully or manipulate their victim. But I think a fair number of them are borderline mentally ill. They seem to be no more capable of recognizing that the person they’re yelling at *is* another person than a screaming baby is.

    We had a bad example of one of them at one library I worked at. She was aggressive and obnoxious, and apparently unable to have any interaction with anyone without quarreling. As a result of her behavior, she was usually jobless, her elderly parents had gotten a restraining order against her because they were afraid of her (I think with reason), and she was usually homeless.

    Despite her behavior, we were sorry for her, so one quiet afternoon, two librarians spent hours calling around looking for help for her. It turned out that every agency in the county was familiar with her, and had tried to help her in the past. And it had been useless. They would find her a job, and she was quarreling with her supervisor & coworkers within a week. They would find her a place to live, and she’d abuse everybody else there, or quarrel with the sponsor who was providing the space, and march out in a huff. Not a single agency was willing to try yet again, knowing what the outcome would be in advance. She was absolutely incapable of getting along with others, no matter how desperately she needed help.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the woman Jane encountered had problems along these lines. And it also wouldn’t surprise me to find that a lot of people had tried to help, and had been stomped on for their pains.

    You can be sad for a situation which really has no good solution, but I can’t see anything to be angry about.

    Lee B

    30 Sep 09 at 10:55 am

  9. I’ve read that personality disorders, as opposed to mental illness, can cause behaviour problems, and unlike mental illness which can (sometimes) be treated and controlled, a personality disorder is part of the individual’s actual personality and therefore not subject to change.

    Although who knows, and anyway a lot of people with a long history of inability to conform to that extent have a real laundry list of ‘diagnoses’, which to my mine means either no one’s figured out why they do the things they do, and they’re all guessing or that there really are two or more simultaneous mental health/personality problems in the one individual. Probably compounded by self-treatment with alcohol and illegal drugs.

    Anyway, with people like that, I do tend to think that they’re more than pitied than blamed since it’s a really major achievement for some of them to find a place to live.

    The ones who I disliked when I worked as a bank teller were the ones who were in a rotten mood and didn’t know how to deal with it other than to lash out at someone else. The spouse would give as good as she got, if not better; the boss would fire him; the co-worker won’t cooperate at work (‘sulk’)…but that bank teller is slow and stupid and didn’t count my money back fast enough, and has to smile and be polite whatever I say, so I can really let go and tell her where to get off.

    Some of these people probably target librarians, too. They don’t *think* of it as targeting, probably. They feel bad, they’re spoiling for a fight, and can’t resist jumping in at some real or imagined inadequacy of another person – and they’re still in control enough to pick someone who can’t fight back.


    30 Sep 09 at 12:32 pm

  10. What I didn’t understand from Jane’s description was what the problem was. The woman truly didn’t get it? Or the woman understood and thought she could browbeat them into renting her a car? Or this was just the last straw and she lost it?

    What is true — manner, accent, dress etc make a huge difference. I know lawyers who act just like that woman, but since they bring in millions of dollars of business, the firm puts up with their acting out and bad behavior. And I’ve seen women dressed to the nines, wearing huge rings, carrying purses that cost more than my entire wardrobe act like that over bills at hotels. If they are unpleasant enough, they usually get their way even if they are wrong. It’s partially because it isn’t worth the fight. And it’s partially because their bill — even after they take out the film they supposedly didn’t watch — is in the thousands and the hotel wants to keep their business. But it’s also because truly rich people are allowed to throw hissy fits, and truly poor people are not. (Okay, that’s a wild generalization, but I think it’s more or less true.)


    30 Sep 09 at 12:51 pm

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