The Unpleasantness of Travel Now

Photo by John Griswold



Start with small seats on the aircraft, smaller all the time, it seems, and the expectation that flights will be full, and no room in the overhead bins, so your bag goes under the seat in front of you, and your feet get pinned in place, knees bent tighter than 90 degrees for blood clot risk, and no way to lean left or right if you need to take pressure off your spine.

Then there is the fact that the airlines do precisely nothing to reassure about Covid and travel under their watches. I flew from St. Louis to Dallas to San Francisco to Chicago to St. Louis recently, and there were no questions or temperature checks, as I saw being done by remote sensors in Japan, and no proof of vaccination required, and no thinning of the crowds on planes, and but for one jet, no statements that the air onboard was filtered or replaced responsibly. The pilots and flight attendants did read messages about keeping masks on, but one pilot on American had developed a little overwrought patter in which he listed all the government and corporate bodies insisting we wear masks, and his tone sounded very sympathetic to the 3,000 peckerwoods who have caused disputes on commercial aircraft over mask-wearing, like this guy.

I hit the rental car agency in San Francisco. It had been a while since I rented a car, but I did just rent the largest moving truck available to regular drivers and had no delays, hassles, or problems. The price for the truck was nearly what it had been for the last few years. In San Francisco, rental car agencies are charging $75 or more per day for a small sedan, and putting additional $200 holds on credit cards, and up to $500 holds if you use a debit card. The debit card use also requires proof that you have a flight out of the city, and a soft credit check. I asked what would happen if someone did not have all those and was told there was another place three minutes from the airport, unaffiliated with any corporate chain.

There was a hand-lettered sign in the scrawl of a half-mad manager taped to the sneeze shield at the counter. It said that if you took one of their cars to Burning Man, there would be an automatic $450 surcharge for cleaning, no exceptions. I asked the Hertz clerk if this was why the holds and other inconveniences were in place, but she would not answer.

Out of curiosity I visited the “other” car rental place the Hertz agent told me about. The man who ran it was very nice and had a tiny courtyard setup with a dozen older cars packed in tight, and an office in what looked like the office of motor hotel from the ‘50s. He said they had been in business 35 years. He was renting an early model Toyota Corolla, as one example–still wet from being washed, which had some dents, 115,000 miles, and only one lock (a manual lock on the driver’s door, with no electronic entry)–for about $100 a day, with a $100 per day hold. A sign on his counter said, “Under 25? No problem? Want to use a debit card? No problem!”

I asked if San Francisco or even California agencies had had a terrible time with customers damaging or abandoning their cars. Why did they act so paranoid?

“You want to know why they charge as they do?” the man said. He had a light accent and spoke with the precision of someone who has had to work harder to be accepted.

Because they can!” he shouted. “Those people have all the power! They….!”

But he saw another car coming in, and that was the end of his protest, and I hit the road for the Bay Bridge. It was rush hour.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.