The Delta widebody is making its final decent for LAX International Airport. The day is unseasonably clear we are told by the pilot, and down below the ninety-mile carpet of urban sprawl unrolls. It’s like a giant graveyard, each stone represented by a bright squarish dwelling. The Sierras make the wall to the north.
And then downtown, a gawkish outcrop of glass and oxydized steel. From our vantage point we could film the opening shots of LA Law or some other fast-moving, trendy television hit. As we land on the newish tarmac, refurbished for the 1986 Summer Olympic traffic, the line of outbound jets waiting for clearance from the understaffed morale-battered tower becomes evident. Before reaching the end of our runway a Continental 747 in from Newark and Paris is touching down behind us. This is like some massive dolphin show.
The terminal is cold with ozone-killing air conditioning but warm with chatter, and instantly the ethnic mix of this town is obvious. Spanish signs everywhere and airport employees with name tags Carlos, Jose, Juanita… Down the luggage shoot, bags of golf clubs and tennis bags come tumbling out. The air outside is warm, and the wind is picking the dust up. Cool for LA, a Chicano taxi dispatcher informs us. There is a lot of movement around us and I feel my heart beat and my baggage-burdened limbs clamoring to get going, feeling rushed, but no one is rushing us, no one is honking and I can’t spot even one freeway sniper. I got this LA thing in my head that won’t go away.
The one thing all Angelenos agree on is the need for a car. You’re lost without a car, they’ll tell you. My rental had been swiftly reserved thanks to an 800 number. I picked Alhamo because its number appeared on the back of my Delta ticket and the ad promised me extra Frequent Flyer mileage, so why not, even though it’s a company I haven’t heard of, despite its claim to be the biggest in the country with a ten thousand car fleet based out of the LA Airport office alone.
I walk in, spot a stable of computers, and the counter clerk, mid-thirties, dirty brown hair, tinted glasses, brown arms jutting from a yellow short sleeved shirt and bright Alhamo tie, welcomes me instantly. I hand over my major credit card and he hails, “Dave, we’ve been waiting for you!” I look around. Moi? On se connait? I don’t know the guy from a flagpole. What is this, friendliness? In a slow, emphatic, and well-trained voice he speaks: “We’re going to do everything possible to make your visit enjoyable,” and briskly imagining selected scenes from my favorite Italian films, I figure either they’ve screwed up on my reservations, confused little me for some wealthy Saudi or this chap owns the company. None of the above.
He pulls up my file on his Wang and glances at me as if I just won the Loto. “Dave, I see here you’re a Preferred Customer,” (I don’t know why but I suppose everyone who comes in on Delta gets this status) “so we’re going to upgrade you to a Buick Regal. Now how does that sound?” And he throws me a wink. “Just great,” I reply, wondering what on earth is a Regal. Why didn’t I have to wait in some line with my bags for a half hour or until some clerk came back from lunch. Next thought: this is going to set me back a month’s salary. Not true? Same $29 a day with unlimited mileage. “Just sign here and off you go. And this map and travel packet will get you from freeway to freeway in a snap.” “Excuse me,” I ask cautiously, conditioned by the pangs of fear and guilt I get when one inquires at nine out of ten guichets in Paris. “When I want to bring the car back….” He cuts me short, “Twenty four hours,” he says like a charm. “We never close,” he chimes in with a promethean smile. (He must be trying to sell me coke or something on the side.) I shake my head incredulously and zoom off into the anonymity of Taco Bells and car dealerships. I’ve been out of the US for too long. What’s the hitch?