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Shattered! When Rental Cars Go (Sort Of) Wild

I closed the driver’s door and the back window of the 2017 Hyundai Sonata simply fell into the passenger compartment, a thousand little pieces sprinkled over my luggage, my spare pair of shoes, my son’s child seat. It was about 10:45 on a Saturday night. Danger Girl, my son, and I were nearly 400 miles away from home. It was 26 degrees outside. And we were about 40 miles from the nearest town with more than one stoplight.

Did I mention that the car in question was a rental ?

Twenty-three years ago, I went on an interview with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. It’d put an ad in the paper saying they wanted recent college graduates to staff their locations. As a recent college graduate myself, one without any particular direction in life, or what they call “career velocity” nowadays, I thought perhaps I’d be a good fit for the company.

Boy, was I wrong. The ad had specified “entrepreneurial nature a MUST!” so I’d arrived chock-full of tales from the mail-order bike shop I’d opened at the age of 19 and run for more than a year before being torpedoed by a poor choice of business partners on my part. I envisioned myself managing the hell out of an Enterprise car location the same way I’d run my bike shop race team with the proverbial iron fist.

After waiting in a hotel lobby with a bunch of dudes who looked just like every Sigma Chi at my school but who lacked the happy-go-lucky cheer of those fellows, I was ushered into a dingy little conference-room-slash-interview-chamber. A rather sour-looking fellow with cheap shoes asked me, “Did you play any sports in college?” I was perhaps 90 seconds into a recapitulation of my pro BMX career that, in my opinion, was both forthright about my lack of success while also providing adequate context for the difficulties of trying to get a degree and travel to races at the same time when he waved his hand, cut me off, asked three or four questions that were clearly answered by the résumé in front of him, then brought the interview to a firm and unfriendly halt. So much for my rental-car dreams.

In the years since, I’ve rented more than a hundred cars from various Enterprise outlets and I’ve come to realize it hires a very specific sort of male “manager.” They’re all flat-faced, profoundly incurious young men with backgrounds in junior-college football, considerable ability to cast a shadow, Chinese “wingtips,” and a manner of speaking that’s alternately cocky and feckless. They read from a script that’s been drilled into them.

Part of that script: “How did you want to handle the coverage on the automobile?” I can imagine that phrase being focus-grouped to death. I find it infuriating, because I always gave them the same response and I always get the same answer.

Flat-Faced Linebacker for Kent State: How did you want to handle the coverage on the automobile?

Me, in a hurry to get on the road: I reserved the car on my Amex Platinum. I expect them to cover it.

FFLfKS: What’s going to happen is that we’ll have to make a claim against your insurance and then you can go to the credit card company afterwards and make a secondary claim and …

… at which point I’ve either zoned out or the dude has stopped talking, or maybe both. Every once in a while I will have a particularly bright bulb, who says, “Your credit card won’t cover the damage,” to which I respond, “For $450 a year, they had better.” But since I’ve never damaged a rental car in any particularly noticeable fashion, I’ve never put much more thought into it than that.

Which is why you could have knocked me down with a feather this past Saturday night when my back window imploded. The scenario was this: We’d taken this rental Sonata to Camp Woodward, deep in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country, so my son could ride his new BMX bike at the Lot 8 skatepark. I’d just run into the nearest town to get Danger Girl some lasagna.

“Where’s the fork?” she inquired, upon seeing the lasagna.

“Uh, I guess I’d better get one,” I replied, and I went back out to the Sonata. The windows had fogged over and I was worried about backing over one of the children on bikes and scooters who were zipping all over the place, so I clicked on the rear defroster. Instead of clearing, the back window appeared to fog more. So I rolled down my window, looked behind me, backed up, and went to get a fork from the on-premises lodge/hotel. When I got there, I opened my driver’s door, got out, and closed it again, at which point the spider-webbed window fell into the back seat.

At this point, I had some non-trivial concerns. I wasn’t all that worried about “how I was going to handle the coverage”; a back window can only cost so much, and I’d refer the bill to Amex anyway. I was more concerned about how I was going to get my son back home in sub-freezing conditions. Even if I covered the back window with a trash bag and drove with the side mirrors like a Lamborghini Countach owner, how could I be certain that every single bit of shattered glass was out of the car? What if the bag ripped out and a little tornado full of glass pieces blew up into my son’s face?

So I called Enterprise. It was a surprisingly painless process. The lackey on the other end said Enterprise had a car at the National office in State College, about 40 miles from Woodward. They said I could send my wife in the morning to get it. Which is what I did. By the time Danger Girl brought us back our new car — a Chrysler 200 — the skatepark was closed for the weekend and it was time to go.

To my surprise and delight, there was no drama about “one way rentals” or “substitution fees” or any of the other drama I’ve heard over the years from fellow travelers (as opposed to fellow-travelers, which means something else entirely) about problems they’ve had with rental cars. Back home, the flat-faced six-foot-four fellow in the cheap wingtips did a condition report on the Chrysler, noted that I’d filled the tank, and brought the rental to a satisfactory close.

Speaking honestly, I don’t think I could have done any better of a job were I managing an Enterprise location, so maybe the fellow who sent my résumé to the circular file way back in ’93 knew what he was doing after all. I will say that I’m slightly freaked-out about the potential durability of Hyundai’s heated glass after this episode. But these things happen, I suppose. In the end, I have no complaints.

Not that I can say the same for Danger Girl. “I hated this car the moment I saw it,” she griped as we loaded up the trunk with bags and helmets. “How is a Chrysler a replacement for a Hyundai?”

“You know,” I replied, “people were asking that same question 30 years ago, with a different emphasis.”

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