Yesterday was a good day to get shredded in the corporate thresher that is contemporary America. Mmmm lightly shredded people.

It all started when I had this crazy idea that not only would I head to LA for DK’s wedding and see some friends while there, but that I would rent a car in LA to help shuttle Pandora to her summer home in Altadena, as well as seamlessly move myself and some friends between Santa Barbara, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and Marina del Rey. If you don’t know the LA area, just imagine a couple East Coast states and picture yourself driving from the corner of one to the far corner of the other and most everywhere in between. Got it? Good.

So night before last, I was staying in Philadelphia with my friends Ariel & Micheal who’d generously offered to put me up and drive me to the airport in the early morning for my flight to rent a car at LAX. And while an alarm didn’t go off, I was awoken by the sun in plenty of time to pack up, get bitten by Pandora, get her into the carrier all the same, and prepare to embark for strangely less sunny climes. I was offloaded at the airport gate with about 45 minutes to flight time – cutting it as close as I’d like to, but certainly shouldn’t be a problem for a domestic Sunday-morning flight on the world’s most easygoing airline (Southwest). So far so good.

Then I got in line for the Southwest counter. It seemed absurdly long for a Sunday morning, but I quickly realized that they had shut down half their check-in kiosks to compensate for it being Sunday morning. No matter, I thought, for surely the friendly SWA attendants will soon be coming down the line asking if anyone is about to leave on the next few flights and allow those people to skip ahead in the line lest they miss their flights and cause trouble for everyone. This is what happens in most SWA airports in my experience.

But no one came and the line dragged and people cooed at Pandora in her carrier as she mewled for release instead of moving up in the line. It was nice and social and while I was getting a little concerned, I realized that the security line would surely be a breeze and we still had time to make it. So I got up to the kiosk, took the requisite beratement from the guy behind the counter that I hadn’t left 372 hours to make my flight and stand in lines, was told to hurry to the gate and that my luggage might trail me by a flight or two. All fine, I thought, for I was renting a car! The power to return to airports for late baggage and such would be mine.

Then the security line was a monument to inefficiency. They had all of four of their fifteen scanners open, funneling people as slowly as possible through them, all while a propaganda video that attempted to explain arbitrary rules about liquids and shoes blared in the background. I wish George Orwell could have stood in that line with me. Except that if he’d been ahead of me, I would have been even later than I already was.

Needless to say, we didn’t make it. Not by half. I even had to fight with the security guards over my attempt to transfer Pandora from her carrier to one of those ubiquitous gray plastic buckets to walk her through the body scanner. I understand why they have to scan her carrier in case I’ve lined it with plastic explosives, but do they really think I’ve had time to line their own gray bucket with same?! No, they insisted on me carrying the cat by hand while her sensual perception of the world atrophied amidst the beeping, pinging, and clicking of the modern airport threshold experience.

So I made it to the departure boards at 8:48 for my 8:35 flight. Apparently, as Russ told me later when I (spoiler alert!) did in fact make it to LA alive and in one piece, the expectation was that someone in my situation would start elbowing people out of the way under the gruffly enunciated claim that my flight was leaving soon and I had a right to go before they did. I’m just not one of those people though, so Pandora and I moseyed up to the Southwest gate counter around 8:52.

“I take it I missed this one?”
“Oh yeah.”
“Well, what are my options?”
“Let me check that out for you.”
“Looks like we can do 3:20.”
“3:20. To Phoenix. Though you might not be able to make it out of there.”
“It’s 8:55.”
“Yeah. Sorry. That’s the best shot we have. It’s not looking good.”

So Pandora and I settled in for six and a half hours of unfettered bliss in the Philadelphia International Airport. We visited five of their six terminals, sampled many of the foods, spilled many attempts to put in a little water cup in her carrier so she didn’t dehydrate after hours of plaintive crying. I did get to watch almost all of Germany’s thrashing of England in the World Cup, plus a little bit of Argentina:Mexico before finally boarding the plane, well after sending e-mails to those who were expecting me soon to expect me much later. At least I’d traded a long layover in Chicago for a quick stop in Phoenix, a city that is unequivocally on the way from Philadelphia to LA.

Finally, LAX, with Pandora still breathing and even sipping a bit from the clear plastic Southwest cup I’d offered her. I kept waiting for her to be unable to hold it, desperately hoping it would be in the airplane or the rental car shuttle, not the rental car itself. But I finally got to the desk of the rental car company, looking to pick up what Priceline had promised me would be a Chevy Aveo or similar. You know, a car with four seats and a trunk.

“Are you planning on taking anyone else with you on your stay here?”
“Well I’ll be the only one driving.”
“That’s not what I’m asking. Are you planning on having anyone else in the car with you?”
“Well maybe. I was going to pick a couple friends up at the airport.”
“Not in this car.”
“I can’t let other people ride in my car?”
“Well I see you have some luggage. This is an economy car.”
“Yeah… so?”
“It’s very small.”
“Well it has four seats, right?”
“No. This is what I’m trying to tell you. Why I want to talk to you about it now before you get out there.”
“It doesn’t have four seats? I’ve rented economy cars before. They have four seats.”
“Not this car.”

At this point, my mind is racing to what could possibly be going on with my vehicle. I am entertaining the idea they have somehow classified a Corvette convertible as an “economy” car. I can’t even picture what could possibly be going on. I think back to my contract with Priceline and the diligent research to make sure that golf-carts or Hot Wheels could not be considered economy cars by mainstream rental companies (in this case, Hertz).

“It doesn’t have four seats?”
“No, honey, that’s what I’m trying to say. Now we can upgrade you to something with four seats.”
“For how much?”
“Just $10 a day.”

I was only paying $17 a day to begin with. This was not happening, the classic upsell. I was sure she was bluffing at this point, just trying to scare me like the dings and the dents and the insurance and the everything else that corporate America uses to try to bludgeon one sale into an all-expenses paid four-star cruise to luxury for their profit margin.

“No thanks, I’ll take my chances with this car.”
“Okay, but can I offer you insurance for only $12 a day?”
“No thanks, I’m good with the basic.”
“How about gas? We’ll refill your tank for $2.92 a gallon and it costs $3.07 a gallon out there.”
“Really? So however many gallons I’m short of a full tank, you’ll refill for $2.92?”
“Well, honey, not exactly.”

Here I immediately remembered Hertz’ old OJ Simpson slogan: There’s Hertz and there’s not exactly; make sure you choose the right one.

“You see, your tank holds $25.98 worth of gas at $2.92 a gallon. So if you don’t bring it back full, we can take care of that for $25.98.”
“Oh, I get it, so even if it’s a dot down from full, you charge me $25.98.”
“Well. Yeah.”
“Yeah, I’ll bring it back full.”
“Now if you change your mind when you bring it back, we can do the $2.92 a gallon thing.”
“I’ll bring it back full.”

Full proved to be a relative term for this car. I’m not entirely convinced it has a gas tank. As I approached the spot, 397, I was pretty sure there was no car actually parked there until I found the half-car actually crammed in the front third of the space.

It looked like this:

A Smart car. They had given me a Smart car. A car that looks like someone took my Prius and lopped it cleanly in half, then painted it red. A car that had two seats and a foot-wide bench in the back for anything else one might want to carry. A car that, upon getting in and driving it to the check-out gate, felt like someone had built a small car-like shell around my person.

Being the stubborn opponent of corporate America that I am, I refused to balk and return to the counter, but instead went on my merry way, trying to picture how I could get Fish and Madeleine, to whom I’d pledged an aiport pickup three days hence, to share the other seat in the car with minimum consternation and illegality. I quickly also became convinced that (A) the only reason corporate America had allowed such small efficient vehicles to come to market was so that rental car companies could redefine the economy class into something no one could possibly picture when signing up to rent a car and (B) Hertz kept exactly one Smart car on the lot as a bluff to customers who would all go traipsing back into the desk to get a reasonably sized vehicle for whatever upgrade price they wanted to extort. If nothing else, I was driving away their bluff and the next person like me would have to be given a Chevy Aveo or similar.

I soon, however, dispelled a myth I’d heard that Smart cars literally could not drive on freeways. My little personal red pod had no trouble getting up to 65, though every ten-mph jump felt like I was whipping a horse into gear or perhaps shifting a standard transmission with my foot. The car actually rocked back and forth every time it went from 15 to 25 or 45 to 55. The trouble soon proved that, as irate as I was about the whole scam, I actually really enjoyed driving the little glorified golf cart. Parking is a dream, as are lane changes, and the turning radius would make it possible to do a U-turn in a one-way half-lane Boston back alley. It’s really quite fun.

So I may keep my absurd little half-car, depending on how game Fish and friends are to share seats or maybe even grab a spot of bench in the tiny tiny back. The car feels like it would crumble in a strong rain storm, but is about three times harder to hit than the standard vehicle, given that it’s probably smaller all told than most motorcycles. So we’ll see. Much of last night’s rage has subsided into mild enjoyment of the novelty of being tailgated by cars that are literally a couple feet from my back.

The moral of the story, I think, is that the distinction between capitalism and extortion has completely evaporated. And yet, you may still enjoy the ride.