I love to travel. And in my position, I travel a great deal. My most recent trip was to Pennsylvania. Due to an unforeseen change, I had to rent a car at the airport in Harrisburg, PA. No problem, I thought, I’ve rented scores of times. (See where this is going?)
So my drive to Atlanta’s airport early in the morning had been uneventful, the way one wants it. And I had the friendliest shuttle driver in ATL, who dropped me and the other travelers at the South Terminal. I knew early on this was going to be a good trip. I mean, if you can get through ATL traffic, and (even though I had to park in the Park ATL PARK-RIDE, I was okay with that, because the shuttles seemed to be running smoothly. So again, I thought, no problem. This was going to be a good trip.
The flight was on time, too. So as I sat in the terminal and sipped my coffee and texted my wife that all was going well, I ate a snack she had packed me, and read more of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and glanced up occasionally to people-watch others in the airport. (If you ever want to see more of human variety than nearly any other place, an airport is your place.)
Anyway, the plane pulled up, and I watched the crews through the window do their routine checks and services. I’d only read twenty pages or so before it was time to board. Again, no issues. We boarded on time, took off on time, and the morning was clear, and I had a window seat. So I looked out to see the mountains of north GA come into view just a few minutes after we were airborne.
I read some more of the novel on the flight, and in less than two hours we were safely on the ground in Pennsylvania. I grabbed my gear and walked across the way to the rental car kiosks. And then things changed.
I walked up to the Budget counter.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. I would like to rent a compact car.”
I told her my name.
“I don’t see your reservation,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am, I know. I don’t have one. I need to rent one, please, a vehicle.”
“We don’t have any vehicles,” she said, about as concerned as a jar of mayonnaise.
“Um … okay.”
She never looked up from her keyboard; she acted like she wanted me to burst into flames and burn in front of her.
I looked down at the Avis counter. No one was in line, so I thought maybe I’d have better luck there.
A young woman was smacking gum and sitting alone scrolling on her smartphone behind the counter.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’d like to rent a vehicle, please. I don’t have a reservation, though.”
“We are out of vehicles,” she said, and popped a bubble inside her gums. “There’s a conference in town.”
A man in front of me in the Hertz line, only separated by a red rope chain like one sees in movie theaters, overheard our conversation. He looked at me and said, “They told me the same thing and I went online and made a reservation just now. I have a car,” he said. He rolled his eyes and smiled, as if he understood my exasperation.
So I walked over to the chairs alongside the wall, pulled out my phone, logged onto the Budget site, reserved the cheapest vehicle I could find, received a confirmation number by email with my pickup time (about three minutes later).
I walked back over to Luciferette, I mean, the girl at the Budget counter, and said, “I’d like to pick up my reserved vehicle, please.”
I gave her my name.
“I don’t see your name.”
“Would you like this confirmation number? Would that help?” I asked.
“Yes,” she returned, not looking up.
I read it to her.
“License and credit card,” she said.
It took all of about two minutes. I initialed and signed and she, mumbling while looking down at her keyboard, said, “A 19. Out the door to your left. Bring it back full or you are charged $11.39 a gallon.”
I walked out and had never been so glad to see a rental vehicle.
The morning had begun so well. The flight had been good. The views of my beloved mountains were perfect. But Luciferette had told me that Budget had no vehicles. Then I reserved one online and had one within three minutes.
I could feel my heart racing under my black Columbia wind parka. And the girl smacking the bubble gum at Avis had given me the same spiel. But here I was, walking out to get in the rental car.
So I placed my bag in the truck’s bed, and put my hotel coordinates in my iPhone and drove the hour or so to the hotel where I was staying for this trip. When I pulled into the hotel parking lot, I was still mad about the Budget minion. I almost dreaded seeing what experience awaited me at the desk when I checked in at the hotel. But it had to be done.
I walked up to the counter. “Good afternoon,” I said, and gave the young man my name and military identification card and my credit card.
“Here you go, sir. Here’s your ID back, and your credit card and room keys. Here’s the WiFi code. The easiest way to access your room is by walking just down this hall, and the elevators will be on the right. Once you exit the elevator, your room will be down the hall to your right. What else may I help you with, sir?”
I almost collapsed on the floor in front of him. For a second, I was speechless. Was I on the same planet as I was when at the Budget desk in Harrisburg, PA?
I looked at the young man’s nametag. Cole, it said.
(Cole, you’ve no idea how you have encouraged me today. No idea.)
Somehow I did not collapse in front of Cole at the hotel’s front desk. “Thanks, brother. Much appreciated.”
I walked up to my room, pulled out my uniform to change and get prepared to go see soldiers soon.
The story is probably an old and familiar one. Folks are a mixed bag. Some lie to you and never bat an eye. They might even tell you they’ve no vehicles available to rent. Still others might smack bubble gum behind the counter and pop bubbles inside their mouths and tell you they’ve no vehicles available to rent.
But then you might also meet a nice man who tells you how he went online a moment before, and PRESTO!, vehicles appeared like manna from heaven, ready to be rented.
Or you might walk into your hotel, and meet a nice young man with the name of Cole, who seems to care, who does his job well, who is, well, just kind. And you might feel your pulse slow, and your breathing slow, and you might think, and say silently to yourself, It’s okay, old boy. Remember: a mixed bag. Pick the good ones.