A man with a sign picked us up in New Jersey. A sign, a black suit, a little phone stuck in his ear, and a terrible mood. He didn’t chat in the car, but panted, perturbed, despite the frozen air pouring from the car’s vents, by the heat. We couldn’t believe our ears when the pilot had announced that it was 97 degrees in Newark, New Jersey. When we left Germany it had been three-sweatshirt weather.
The man with the sign took us to a church-turned-house in idyllic, small-town New Jersey, where we gorged ourselves on gourmet vegan fare and contemplated ghosts. We took a trip to the Jersey shore where we played skee ball and whack-a-mole and traded in our tickets for 50 plastic spider rings. We took walks through soy bean fields and took pictures of squirrels. Being a tourist in places I have visited for most of my life, I experience each place in layers: the nostalgia of retold memories and the tourist’s way of perceiving everything as exotic and new, experienced simultaneously. It’s a good excuse to take a picture every three meters.
The Beard and I had been torn between taking a rental car or a Greyhound bus to Memphis. One was cheaper; the other would offer more freedom and exponentially less misery. Finally, we pried our cold fingers from around our dollar bills and decided to rent a car. We would pick it up at the Philadelphia Airport, and we would take two days driving to Memphis where Elvis would receive us personally, and we would ride off to Graceland on the back of a pink sequined broomstick.
But there was a problem with my credit card. Though I often use my credit card to make internet purchases, I only have an expired copy in my wallet. The up-to-date copy (oh woe-befall me!) is in a filing cabinet in upstate New York. Would the rental company accept my handwritten number and expiration date?
I didn’t think so, so I called the credit card company. They cheerfully told me (oh American customer service, I had forgotten how sweet you are) that they could authorize the charge over the phone with the rental company, that it would be no problem at all. Ha! Hahahahahaha! If only we had been more cynical, stayed where we were, and had a new card overnighted to us on the spot! But alas.
But alas the rental company refused to accept authorization over the phone. But alas every rental company refused to accept authorization over the phone. Even when, after spending several hours on the phone with the credit card company, we called the rental company together and the customer service lady explained the urgency of the situation, explained that they did this all the time, all we got was a stern this-is-company-policy-and-I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-it-means-you-are-screwed. But alas they wouldn’t even let us pay in cash. And we found ourselves stranded in Filthydelphia, mourning our trip to Memphis, and wondering if we were doomed to haunt the streets of Philly like a plastic bag on a piss-scented wind.
Like every stranded tourist without a cell phone before us, we headed to the pay phone, and after a few calls we found ourselves on the couch of an old high school friend. The situation didn’t look so bad from the little alley garden over the top of a cold beer. But it didn’t look great. And instead of riding our economy rental car to deep-fried southern glory, we walked around the historical district and bought groceries in Chinatown.
And now, Memphis amputated from our itinerary, we find ourselves waiting, jumping at every sound outside the door, praying that the fed ex truck arrives with the key to our escape before our new car rental reservation turns into a pumpkin, at which point we will fade into the rustling plastic debris and flattened cups that line these dreary streets, never to be seen again.