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The Pack Mule: SFO, January 1999 August 28, 2009

Posted by vsap in Blogroll, Uncategorized.
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San Francisco’s airport parking and rental car facilities are undergoing a major facelift. I’m certain it will be a marvel to behold when completed. However, in January 1999, it is a living, breathing Y2K bug waiting to devour unsuspecting visitors.

As it happens, I’m in town for an extended stay. I have left what Libby so aptly called the “blizzardous hell” of Chicago for a more temperate climate. Thus, I have with me the most luggage I’ve taken on any trip to date. My three companions include a full suitcase (so big, it’s the kind you only use as a last resort); a garment bag (for suits and shoes); and, a bulging carry-on containing my laptop and other implements of my chosen profession (not to mention a CD player, 6 CDs, and 4 novels). I fancy myself as being reasonably fit, but lugging We Three Kings from the baggage claim and up an escalator seemed like the maximum challenge I desired to endure after a long flight on a Saturday evening. Unfortunately, I was just beginning my exercise.

Delta Airline’s position at SFO is inconveniently distant from the rental car shuttle bus stop. It looked more like a mile away and running further every second. I figured about 500 yards times 100 pounds of extra weight equaled too much. I did not walk briskly. I was barely dragging My Three Sons when I noticed there was a bus waiting. I counted my blessing and picked up the pace as best I could. I was within 10 yards of the bus when it abruptly closed its doors and sped off like it was a fugitive from the cast of “Speed”. I slowed again, despondent, and resumed dragging The Three Amigos to the bus stop.

My trip having originated in Chicago, I have my parka, good to –150 degrees Fahrenheit. As I’m standing now at this bus stop at SFO, its 58 degrees and I’ve been wearing the parka just so I don’t have to carry it. Given all that has transpired since I left the baggage carousel, I’ve begun to smell like the pack mule I’ve actually been describing from the outset.

Luckily, the next bus is empty. After all, it’s a Saturday in January. The heat of battle has abated at the security gates and customer service desks. There is a calm and quiet on this usually bustling platform. I clumsily board the bus only to meet an odd driver: Rudolf Hiss (or a cousin of his). I will say up front that some of the best people I know and some of my least acquaintances are of German extraction. I believe I can say with some authority that there’s little worse than an edgy German who doesn’t like his job and has to work it on Saturday night. Generally, I like to exchange some pleasantries to judge the attitude of the driver. And, generally, they are a friendly and helpful sort.

“Hi, I’m going to National,” I say, of course referring to my rental company, in a bouncing way that even surprised me.

He nodded and frowned and said, half under his breath in a heavy accent, “All the same.” He then waves me in to sit as if I wasn’t moving fast enough, and I might be blocking others behind me. I stowed my bags and tumbled to my seat only to discover there was no one behind me. I was it. The door shut and at this point I’m convinced he forgot he had any passengers on board. Because he proceeded to drive more like Jeff Gordon than Captain Kangaroo, whom he closely resembles. I know Jeff Gordon wouldn’t have recommended this type of vehicle for the NASCAR circuit. However, he might have been proud of how it responded so well to tight curves, speed bumps and, finally, a monster U-turn to finish the course. After a bone-jarring stop, I loosened the grip of my sweaty hands from the nearest chrome bar. The inside of my parka was like a rain forest with my heartbeat visible as I looked down to check to see if all my parts were intact. It’s been forty-five minutes since I walked off the plane and still no rental car in sight.

“Have a nice stay,” he muttered. “All cars, that way,” he directed, pointing at a sign.

“Rat bastard,” I muttered.

“Sir?” he replied.

“Bad caster,” I piped up clearly, pointing to my largest suitcase as I attempted to wheel it off.

“Have a nice stay,” he said again in that barely discernible accent, as if he was stuck to a script and couldn’t ad lib.

It was about a half-mile or so to make it into the rental check-in area. The last thing I wanted was a chatty counter clerk. I dragged myself and Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod to the reservation desk. I was the only customer standing in front of a young slender man who was examining some papers on the opposite side. I set my stuff down with a thud and seized the moment to remove my parka. That must have been a signal. From my right, out popped another clerk, a stout female, with frizzy red hair, and bright blue eyes. The slender man disappeared, never to be seen again. She is extremely pleasant and after I give my name she asks for my driver’s license, because she must.

“In from Chicago?” she asked with more than the usual excitement warranted for this type of discovery. “Aren’t you glad to be here? I’m from Minneapolis and we had more than ten feet of snow when I left.” Ah, an upper Midwest kinship. How delightful, I thought. She was waiting for a response so I came up with the most trite one in my head in hopes of moving the process along.

“So, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” I inquired. She took me seriously, “Oh, I’m part of a team that’s here to install a new computer system. Isn’t this a great facility?” I nodded skeptically as I looked around in mock admiration. To her credit she did keep things moving and finally she asked where I was staying. Again, this is a question frequently asked of someone renting a car for an extended period. So I had no problem replying, “The Clarion, down the road.”

“That’s where we’re staying!” she exclaimed. Does it get any better than this? I’m thinking, I can’t seem to say anything wrong to this clerk. “Let me give you a hint,” she draws closer to me as if to pass on a state secret in a crowded room, “Ask for a remodeled room.”

“Ya?” I reply in a half whisper as if I was in that crowded room and about to get some bonus information.

“Yes, they’re doing a major renovation. Some of us got stuck with the old rooms and they’re, you know, kind of yucky.”

Oh my! I tried to well up some compassionate understanding as I kept eye contact.

“But the remodeled rooms are great, but don’t get one on the first floor, you know,” and with that she straightened herself and moved her right hand in a wavy motion, smiled and nodded in rhythm with her hand.

Some things are better left unspoken. This, of course, was the Midwesterner’s way of saying, “You don’t want to be on the first floor in case there’s an unbelievably powerful and totally unexpected shifting of the subterranean mantels that San Francisco is known for.” Those gestures, in this context, made sense to two strangers in a strange land. I nodded, in rhythm with her hand, and thanked her for the tip.

“Now, you’re all set. All you have to do is go down to that escalator, go to Level 3, and you’re car is waiting. Pick out any mid-size you like and have a nice stay,” she smiled warmly and I turned in the direction she pointed and to my horror I realized I would have to nearly retrace my steps from the previous half-mile or so to reach the escalator. I have been in San Francisco one hour and fifteen minutes and no rental car in sight, just another escalator. And, I still had the presence of mind to know when she said “Level 3”, it would not just be the escalator barely in view, but at least two others. Dutifully, I put my parka on and gathered up the Three Stooges and trudged toward the escalator, went up, turned, and went up the final time.

I made the turn into the hallway marked “National” and a young man was seated there, anticipating my arrival. He probably heard me puffing and cussing all the way up.

“Hello!” he said with glee, as if I was the first human he had seen on his shift. “This is a new facility so I’m here to help you!” I’m thinking, Buddy, if you ain’t got a cold Old Style and a hot steak dinner in your back pocket, you’re no damn help at all. But, I wanted the car so I was willing to be helped. He looked at my receipt and said, “Okay, let me take you out here and show you where you can find your car.” I walked behind him tentatively, stopped in the middle of the lane next to him, dropping my pair of Queens and a Jack in a heap around me.

“See that blue car down there?” he asked.

“What blue car down where?” I squinted.

“Under the sign that says Intermediate? Those are mid-size cars. Choose any one you like and have a nice stay.” He handed the receipt back to me.

The only thing merciful about his directions was that I was absolutely certain that this would be the last time I would have to walk the distance of this building, the same half-mile or so only this time on Level 3, again tonight.

I nodded and just stood there as he departed to my left, back to the comfort of his chair. A moment later, to my right, came the tapping of a horn. Someone else, eager to get out of this place, met with objects in his way: the Kingston Trio and me. I waved him off, picked everything up and made my final march. I took the first car I saw, stripped off the parka and threw it and the triplets in the trunk.

One hour and a half from disembarking the flight to finally placing key into ignition.

I got to the hotel and asked for a remodeled room, which I got, on the first floor. What else could I do when I fell in but sprawl out on the bed and ask God for an earthquake?

Based on incidents that occurred on January 9, 1999.

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