Thursday, March 02, 2006

Paranoia at the Car Counter

A couple of days ago, I had to attend some off-site training and while I was there, I ran into an old boss that I worked for about ten years ago. While we were catching up, I was reminded of a little adventure we had together back then.

I was on vacation to redo my living room when I got a call from our director of quality. We had a warranty issue on a product we supplied to an automobile where the parts failed on vehicles operating in hot environments such as one can find in Arizona or the Gulf Coast. The quality director was asking me if I wouldn’t mind cutting my vacation short and accompanying my boss, Greg, to Florida to scour a few junk yards for parts that could be brought back for analysis. As the convertibles in question had only been on the market for a few months, I doubted that there would be anything to find down there and I tried to convince the director that this was sure to be a wasted effort. After a long discussion however, he assured me that he had some leads, and after an even longer discussion, persuaded me to go despite the fact that I was in the middle of a complicated home improvement and my living room was in tatters.

When I met Greg the following morning in the airport, I was in a pretty foul mood. Even though I had never been to Florida before, I had too much going on at home to be leaving. I went on a little rant about not having had an uninterrupted vacation since I had started working there and expressed fresh doubt about the value of taking this trip in the first place. Greg assured me that we would be able to accomplish our objective quickly and he would have me back home with some compensation time off in a couple of days. Though still somewhat less than enthused about getting on the plane, I went and a few hours later was at the rental vehicle counter in Orlando picking up a convertible sports car.

No sooner had I stepped away from the counter with my keys in hand when my pager went off. It was the quality director and I found my way to the nearest pay phone to return the call, with my immediate boss standing right behind me. The director confirmed the suspicions I had at the onset of the trip and informed me that there were no vehicles in Floridian junkyards of the vintage we needed to conduct our study. As I was being told this, I could feel my blood pressure rising to dangerous levels but managed to keep my phone voice calm, cool and collected. I was talking to my boss’s boss and an overt display of my frustration could have resulted in a career-limiting move being made on my part. After hanging up the phone however, I blew.

In addition to being my boss, Greg was a pretty good friend of mine. That did not save him from being the target of my fury however. I launched into an enthusiastic tirade replete with language I had not used since being discharged from the service and though he was not the target of my ire, he ended up being the one taking the brunt of it. I am not sure how long my rant lasted, but it was quite a while. As I was reaching my stride though, I caught him grinning out of the corner of his mouth which just infuriated me more. “You think this is #&%@!? funny?”

“Hilarious.” He answered. “Think about the situation we’re in right now, JEP and tell me you can’t find anything humorous about it. We’re in Florida in the middle of winter. Both of us just rented convertibles. We’re here compliments of our expense reports and we were just informed that we have absolutely nothing to do. What in the world are you so pissed about?”

He had a point. Inside of an hour, we had checked into our hotel, ditched one of the cars, filled the trunk of the other with a large cooler of beer, bought bathing suits and were beating feet to the beachside bars of Tampa Bay. With open beverages in the passenger compartment in direct violation of Floridian traffic regulations.

We hit several waterside venues. Held conference calls with management while holding melting margaritas in hand and ogling the bikini-clad local talent. By seven in the evening, we pulled into the driveway of one of Greg‘s cousins who happened to live in the area to crash on his couch. I was passed out on the edge of the cousin’s pool when Greg got a call from the director to inform him that they finally figured out what to do with us.

While we were winding down from a solid eight-hour-drinking marathon, the director put a French intern from our plant in Mexico on a plane to Orlando with brand new parts. The director wanted us to pick up the kid from the airport, rent him another convertible and switch the parts in the cars we had rented with ones the kid brought up with him.

It was a decent plan and could have worked, but we were a good two hours away from the airport and the kid’s plane was landing in an hour and a half. On top of that, neither Greg nor myself were in any condition to drive. Worse though, we were not in any condition to tell our boss that we were not in any condition to drive, so there was really no way to get out of the road trip.

So, at eight in the evening, we left Greg’s cousin’s house on a three point mission. First, we had to somehow make it back to Orlando without becoming guests of the Florida state police. Second, we had to find a young Frenchman disembarking off of a flight from Mexico City with three bulky automotive compartments. Third, we had to rent him a convertible sports car like ours and get him into a hotel room for the night.

Our first mission was achieved with unprecedented ease. Despite traveling far above the speed limit with a blood alcohol content that would have tied a highway patrolman down in paperwork for the next two days, we made it to Orlando on time and without incident. Even the second part of mission was relatively painless. Jeremy was easy to spot among the throng of tourists on his flight. He was the kid in proper business attire among a couple hundred t-shirt and shorts clad Mickey Mouse enthusiasts bent upon unleashing chaos at Orlando’s myriad of Disney theme parks. We spotted him right away though he initially regarded us with some suspicion. Dressed in Hawaiian printed short sleeved shirts, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, obviously intoxicated and reeking of stale Budweiser and expired sunscreen, we looked more like representatives from Daytona Beach’s homeless community than mid-level managers of a multi-national manufacturing conglomerate.

Regardless we made our introductions with some difficulty. We later discovered that though Jeremy was fluent in French, Spanish and German, he spoke English like a cotton-mouthed hippopotamus with a speech impediment. Eventually though, we convinced him that we really were legitimate company stooges and shuffled him out of the baggage claim area and to the rental car counters.

There was one middle aged woman working the desk of the company we needed to rent from and from the moment she caught sight us stumbling towards the labyrinth of velvet ropes leading to her station she was eyeing us with suspicion. There were few people in this part of the airport and no one in line to rent from the company we needed so there were few distractions around to tear her gaze away from us. As is normal when I am under the influence and about to do something I know I am not supposed to be doing, my paranoia began setting in. As I approached the entrance to the rope maze standing between us and the sales counter, I stopped Greg. “The crone’s on to us man. This isn’t going to work.”

“What do mean this isn’t going to work? All we’re doing is renting a car.”

“We’re drunk, dude. This could go bad.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve never had a person at the car counter give me a breathalyzer before handing over the keys. She’s not going to do anything.”

“She could call the…Hey!” I had caught Jeremy trying to sneak away from us and walk directly to the rental booth, bypassing the rope maze the companies use to keep the lines orderly. “Get back here!” I pointed to the empty rope maze beside us. “We queue up here, Jacques. It separates us from the savages. Now stay close. We’re formulating a strategy here.” It was obvious from the look on his face that Jeremy had not understood a single word I had said, but he must have gotten the drift of it from my tone. He stepped back towards Greg and myself.

“There’s no strategy to formulate here. We’re renting a car. Now, let’s go.”

Greg grabbed Jeremy by the arm and led him to the counter, bypassing the empty rope maze. Trying myself to be an upstanding, if heavily lubricated, contributor to a civilized society, did not and walked through the entire empty labyrinth, chastising my boss for setting such a poor example in front of his subordinates.

When I got to the counter, Greg was working on getting Jeremy his vehicle. They went through the reservation information, method of payment, insurance plans and all the various bureaucratic intricacies that went along with hiring a car. Greg managed to put up a good front of sobriety and worked the woman like a used car salesman. It looked like we were almost out of the woods when the clerk dropped the bomb and asked for Jeremy’s driver’s license. It took us a while to coax it out of our colleague, who seemed to think we were trying to steal his wallet, but we eventually got it turned over to the clerk. After a quick look at it, the clerk shook her head and placed the license back on the counter. “I’m sorry.” She said. “I can’t rent you the convertible sports car.”

Right then I knew our gig was up. Certain that she had already summoned officers from the alcohol enforcement task force and that sobriety goons would soon scoop us up to face attempted driving while intoxicated charges, I started inching away from the counter, trying to put some distance between myself and my soon to be arrested boss. Sensing that something was wrong, Jeremy followed my lead and cautiously stepped away with me. Oblivious to the danger we were facing, Greg protested. “What do you mean you can’t rent us a car?”

The clerk pointed at Jeremy, causing me to now step away from him and tell him that he was in for it. “I can not rent a convertible sports car to a person under twenty-five-years-old. He’s only twenty-one.”

I glared at my non-English speaking colleague and with a feigned look of stunned surprise said, “You bastard! You lied to me!”

Greg tried to focus the clerk’s attention back to him. “Look, we really need this car. Are you sure there’s nothing we can do?”

The clerk shook her head. “Our policy is pretty clear. I can not rent him a car unless there are special circumstances.”

“Well, there are special circumstances here.”

“Really? And what would those be?”

Certain that this was sure to be interesting, I took a couple of steps closer to Greg so that I could hear what he was going to say, praying to God that he did not mention the fact that the three of us, with no mechanical expertise at all, were going to attempt to swap out a major component swap on three of their vehicles. There was a brief pause before Greg answered the clerk’s question, mainly because he was trying to formulate a set of special circumstances. Finally he said, “My company’s hosting a parade in Tallahassee, for handicapped kids, and Jeremy is the main attraction.”

The clerk lifted her gaze to Jeremy before turning it back on to Greg. “Is he some kind of celebrity or something?”

“Yeah, he’s a famous soccer player on a team down in Mexico. Actually, the call it “football” down there.”

The clerk looked at Jeremy’s license and said his name out loud to herself. She then looked back at Greg and said, “My kids are soccer fanatics and I have never heard of this guy.”

Greg leaned in closer to the clerk and in a whisper loud enough for me and the clerk to hear, but not Jeremy said, “Well, he’s not very good but he talks kind of funny and the kids just love him. What can I say? Our company’s too cheap to spring for Pele.”

The clerk cracked a disbelieving smile and said, “OK.” She then started typing up the paperwork to rent Jeremy the sports car. While she did this, I strolled back over to our colleague and asked him for his autograph to lend just a little more credence to Greg’s story.

Ten minutes later, the clerk passed us the keys and we thought we were in the clear. As we were walking away however, the clerk cleared her throat and asked, “Oh, one more thing gentlemen. Have you guys been drinking?”

Greg froze dead in his tracks and turned towards the clerk. The color drained out of his face and he stammered profusely as he tried to formulate his denial. It was obvious that he was suddenly struck by The Fear and was of no further use to us in our mission. It was my turn to step up to the plate. “Yep. We’ve been drinking steadily since noon today. It’s a $&#%@! miracle that we can even walk.” I draped my arm around Jeremy’s shoulders and said, “It’s a damn good thing Jeremy here’s sober. We just hope he drives better than he plays soccer.”

We then all turned on our heels and headed towards the exit, stopping just once while still in eyeshot of the rental clerk so that we could enlist a passing baggage handler to snap a couple of pictures of me and Greg with our imaginary sports celebrity before going back to our hotel few more drinks.


Blogger jude said...

very much in ace gonzo style. i actually read the whole thing, and while not actually laughing, i did smile.
reminded me powerfully of fear & loathing, but i guess that was the idea

1:13 PM  
Blogger Diana said...

Heee. This story is very entertaining to me.

4:57 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

Thanks Jude and HI, Diana! I didn't know you read this! Could I get a hair flip?

6:40 AM  

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