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Sweating the Small Stuff

An Avis rental car agent quotes me four different prices in a 15-minute telephone call, ranging from to for a week. I know Avis’ prices go up and down, but once I’ve started the booking process shouldn’t I be able to finish without the cost jumping while I’m declining the additional insurance? No, the agent tells me, apparently clueless why this might annoy me.

I’m reminded of a parking ticket for several hundred dollars I’d received long ago, a ticket written while I was in the car with the key in the ignition. My offense, the meter maid told me, was that I’d yet to turn the key.

I ask to be connected with the agent’s supervisor, and am cut off (giving him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he hung up on me). Now I wasn’t merely angry. I was enraged, and prepared to take it out on some powerless person, an unattractive impulse but one I frequently indulge, despite knowing in my gut that this is a losing battle, and that it would waste time and energy and nudge my blood pressure up a few points.

Calling back the customer service number, I intend to make clear that I am a customer who is getting lousy service and could easily rent my car from Hertz. Instead, I’m put on hold, listening to Muzak and periodic announcements that someone would be with me in a minute. A minute turned into 93 minutes (yes, I timed it) before I gave up and hung up, still without a car rental and with no idea what the price would be when I called again.

Either customer service isn’t what it used to be or age has made me cranky. But these frustrating encounters seem more and more frequent. In between, I lecture myself for being uppity to people with awful jobs who are just trying to eke out a living. I mindfully slow down my breathing and wish I had the temperament of my fellow columnist, Sharon Salzberg, someone who has spent her life studying meditation. I resolve to find my better self.

Instead, within days of the Avis hoo-hah, a cash machine rejects my Citibank card, forcing me into a long line to inquire why. A bank representative tells me that the company has replaced all its cards, because new technology required the installation of a chip. Reasonable, we both agree, but for the fact that Citibank hadn’t warned customers in advance and had mailed out new cards in unmarked envelopes. I, along with many others, she said, must have thrown the mailing in the trash.

She kindly issues a temporary card on the spot, useable for a month, while a permanent replacement is sent to me, this time in a well-marked Citibank envelope. Even snail-mail, at its worst, would get the card to me within the week, and I would leave the bank happy.

But a week passes, then another, and eventually a third. The temporary card would soon expire. As with Avis, I’d been a loyal Citibank customer for four decades. As with Avis, I call, get put on hold, listen to more Muzak, get disconnected, and call again. This recorded announcement is almost endearing in its shifting specificity.

“Thank you for holding. Someone on our staff will be with you momentarily.”

“Thank you for holding. You won’t be on the phone much longer.”

“Hello. This is customer service. Heather speaking. Please hold.”

(Surely they jest.)

Then, oh my God, it’s Heather!

She says she’ll send me another new card, this time via FedEx. In the meantime, the temporary card will be deactivated, for reasons unknown and inadequately explained. The new card, she says, will have a different number, which means dozens of additional calls await me to give that new number to Con Edison, RCN, AT&T Mobile, and the list goes on.

Only a masochist would ask Heather for a supervisor to inquire why I should believe that this time a card would actually be delivered and to beg that the number not be changed, since none of this, after all, was my fault. But I do, and am relieved when the Muzak is blessedly brief and I find myself speaking to Monica.

She tells me the card number must be changed, whether I like it or not. I threaten to move my account to Chase and she counters with a few goodies. How about 5,000 airline miles if my card is connected to a frequent flier account? (It isn’t.) How about a gift card at Home Depot? (There’s none in my neighborhood.)

All the fight drains out of me, and when she asks for my social security number and my mother’s maiden name, I docilely comply. She says, “I give you my word.” This time the delivery will arrive within 48 hours. If it doesn’t, she says, I should call back, although my head pounds at the prospect.

At the 48-hour mark, the card has not arrived, so I prepare for the next phone call by putting up a fresh pot of coffee. Before the coffee is done, the doorbell rings. FedEx! A new card! The delivery man gets an extravagant tip, which is nice for him, but hardly makes up for my previous rounds of unseemly behavior. I resolve, yet again, to find my better self.

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