The third in a three-part series. Part one is here and part two is here.
Even the most agreeable of Canadians has his breaking point, and the lack of tail lights and subsequently discovered absence of seat belts in the back of the car has pushed me past mine. I call David on Friday morning.
"David, it's Hart, how's it goin'?"
"Good Hart, how are you?"
"I'm not happy, man. The car has no tail lights."
"What do you mean? The tail lights are out?"
"Yeah, both of them."
"Alright, give me a half hour, let me call you back."
"No. Let's just be done with this. How about you come get the car, give me my deposit back and a refund for this final week and we can just go our separate ways." I have zero interest in rolling the dice on a fifth vehicle in three weeks from CA Car Rental's fleet of joy.
"Alright, let me talk to my boss."
A couple of hours later, he texts me (texts are reproduced verbatim):
"Hi boss says you can return car and monies will be refunded as per lease agreement."
I have no intention of driving the car to Cape Town, which is what he is suggesting here. Furthermore, I am not interested in conducting things "as per lease agreement," as it is skewed heavily in their favour in circumstances like these, and is so porous, legally speaking, that I could use it to strain my mac and cheese. I decide to high-road it with my response, being polite while playing a little bit dumb.
"Good to hear, thanks David. I know this is not your fault. Let me know when you can meet me with 3950 in cash for my deposit and final week's rental fee."
"The deposit only gets returned 7 days after the car gets returned. Let me know when you can return the car."
"No, I will need the deposit as soon as I return the car. I have had this one for four days and barely driven it. I know what the lease agreement says, but given the condition of the cars you have given me, I will not hand the car over until I have my full deposit back and refund for the final week." David has a snowball's chance in hell of getting the car from me before I have all of my money back in my hand. Things are on the verge of getting testy, but at this point I feel entitled to draw a line in the sand, so to speak.
"I will talk to my boss. You will have to return car and pay us for delivery as we only do free deliveries on monthly rentals."
"This was a monthly rental until you gave me four shitty, unsafe cars."
In response to this, David claims that all of the cars I have given back to him were immediately rented out to other customers without complaint. Given the front control arm situation of the last one, among other things, I find this hard to believe. I tell him as much.
A few more texts go back and forth. My initial request was for R3,950 for them to come get the car. After some more negotiating, I suggest R3,500, with me therefore paying for both delivery and collection of the car. I am willing to budge somewhat in order to get my money back in my pocket and CA Car Rental out of my life.
"He said you can bring car tomo and get R3500 refund in cash."
I tell David that I won't bring the car to Cape Town, as we have been dealing in Stellenbosch all along, and my offer of R3,500 factors in their standard delivery costs. We go back and forth a few more times during the rest of the afternoon - with David insisting that they are being altruistic and never acknowledging that they have been giving me horrible cars - and arrangements get finalized. I will meet the driver in the usual gas station/fast food parking lot in Stellenbosch at eleven o'clock the next morning. I make a point of confirming that the driver will have R3,500 in cash for me. David says that yes, he will.
Sarah and I awake early on Saturday to take a scenic drive along the coast and try to drain as much gas as we can before handing back the car (we even consider trying our hand at siphoning at one point). We make a scheduled stop so that I can buy a bike - something that I would be doing whether or not we were keeping the car. At twenty after eleven, I pull into the parking lot. Amid the frenetic weekend morning buzz of people and cars, I spot Rasta over by the gas pumps. We greet each other like old friends.
"Hey Rasta, howzit?" I ask, having adopted the local slang.
"Good. Do you have a South African account?"
"Oh, well Boss [David] gave me his bank card, but there's a limit of two thousand. We can't give you thirty five hundred."
"Well, that's a problem. I'm going to need thirty five hundred to give you the car back. That was what David and I agreed on." And we had. Explicitly and unambiguously.
"OK. I'll call him."
Rasta gets David on the phone, and quickly passes the phone over to me.
"Yes Hart, do you have a South African account number you can give us?"
"No I don't."
"Do you have a friend's account number you can give us?"
"No, I don't David. I'm not from here and haven't been here long."
"Well, Rasta can only give you two thousand now."
"Well, that's a problem. I need thirty five hundred, like we agreed on."
"Hart, you will LISTEN TO ME," David is clearly within an inch of his boiling point. "I am sick of this and I AM NOT WORKING FOR YOU. You will give him the car, take the two thousand and we will get the rest to you."
"David, we made a deal here. Thirty five hundred or I don't give you the car."
Boiling point reached.
"HART I AM SICK OF YOU JERKING ME AROUND!" He is now yelling every word. "YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME AND MY BOSS'S TIME! WE DO NOT OPERATE LIKE THIS! YOU WILL GIVE THE CAR TO RASTA AND COME TO TABLE VIEW [Cape Town] TO GET THE REST OF THE MONEY!"
"Listen man, we made a deal. We said thirty fi-" David cuts me off.
"DID YOU READ THE CONTRACT? IT SAYS SEVEN DAYS TO RETURN THE MONEY AND YOU GIVE ME A BANK ACCOUNT NUMBER! DID YOU READ THE CONTRACT?"
"David, we made a deal yesterday. You agreed to thirty five hund-"
"DID YOU READ THE CONTRACT?! YES OR NO?!"
"Yeah, I read the contract. But I also know that we made a deal yesterday for thirty five hundred today. You agreed to that, and that is why I came here. I need thirty five hundred bucks before you get the car."
"HART I WILL NOT NEGOTIATE WITH YOU! YOU CANNOT ACT LIKE THIS! WE DO NOT OPERATE LIKE THIS AND I DO NOT WORK FOR YOU! WHY DID YOU GIVE ME CASH WHEN IT SAYS NOT TO IN THE CONTRACT?!"
"Well you were OK with taking the cash from me, weren't you? I am not giving you this car without thirty five hundred in my hand. I don't know what else to tell you. You agr-"
"THAT'S NOT WHAT IT SAYS IN THE CONTRACT! WHY DID YOU SIGN THE CONTRACT IF YOU WERE NOT GOING TO OBEY IT?!"
We go around in circles like this, with David acting like a child whose toy has been taken away while I firmly maintain my broken record stance. He refuses to acknowledge that he is trying to back out of yesterday's deal, and at one point threatens to call the police and report the car stolen. My scoffing response of "Fine, but the f***ing car isn't stolen, is it?" put that to bed immediately. People coming out of the convenience store start to stare as I become increasingly emphatic, and I feel just a little bit shady.
Around and around we go. Rasta hangs out, unfazed, while Sarah watches intently from a few cars over.
I feel emboldened, but am being careful not to get dragged down to David's level of discourse despite raising my voice every so often, and employing increasingly colourful language. Had they not given me four dysfunctional cars and been conveniently unreachable at various times, I might be a little more open to negotiating and trusting of them. As it stands, though, they haven't given me any reason to believe that I will get a dime from them once the car is out of my sight. I am sticking to my guns.
David chastises me for dealing in cash with them, even though he was only too happy to take it on the front end. He is insistent that I take the two thousand and give Rasta the car, after which point I can either give him a South African bank account number (he does not seem to understand that I did not have one when we started this charming little back-and-forth, and have not signed up for one in the interim), or drive with Rasta to Cape Town to collect the balance owed, thus leaving me without wheels to get back from Cape Town to Stellenbosch. Not interested.
"I WILL NOT SEND ANOTHER DRIVER OUT THERE JUST FOR FIFTEEN HUNDRED, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?! I DO NOT WORK FOR YOU, AND I WILL NOT NEGOTIATE WITH YOU! I'M SICK OF THIS!"
I'm not keen to negotiate either, as it is clear that it will get me nowhere. My time in front of judges in both the formal and makeshift courtrooms of the Northwest Territories during the preceding year sharpened my skills of argument and persuasion, but clearly I am dealing with an irrational character with little regard for civility. He insists that I put Rasta back on the phone ("YOU ARE WASTING OUR AIR TIME!"), and when I don't, he hangs up, only to call back ten seconds later in an attempt to circumvent me.
Rasta answers, talks to him briefly, and hangs up.
"So, what's the problem?" he asks, as if he is a curious passerby only just now arriving.
I tell him what the issue is. I say that I am sorry he is caught in the middle of a dispute that has turned somewhat nasty, as I know that he just works here, so to speak. Despite the fact that I'm not the one signing his paychecks, there is an air of impartiality in his understated demeanor that I find reassuring. He pauses and gives me a conspiratorial nod as the sun reaches its midday apex.
"Let me see if I can find some money. I'll call you when I have it."
Seeing no other glimmers of hope, and steadfastly refusing to hand over the car, I agree. We part ways and Sarah and I head out of town for a bit of a drive. We head due north, driving parallel to the mountains as we exchange the stunted, early season wine fields of Stellenbosch for golden brown pastures speckled with grazing cattle. I don't say much, reflecting on the scene that just unfolded and trying to figure who has the upper hand. I have their car and some stubbornness, they have my money and irrationality. The contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on, so that's a wash, and David doesn't seem to think that the fact that they have given me such brutal and broken cars is relevant. We seem to be deadlocked, leverage-wise. I wonder whether Rasta is actually trying to rustle up some cash or if he has just high-tailed it back to Cape Town.
After driving for a half hour without much change in scenery, we turn around, opting to visit the friends who staff the hostel where we stayed when we first arrived in town. Draining another hour's worth of fuel from the car gives me a small sense of control.
We have been at the hostel for half a beer when Rasta calls me.
"I am there."
"At the gas station? And you have the money?"
"Come meet me."
Back we go. I have no idea whether I am going to be greeted by a handful of money or a fist full of rage - though I am doubtful that Rasta himself would resort to violence - so I suggest that Sarah wait in the car. I approach Rasta's ride for the day: a dented, aging blue Camry with a Haile Selaissie t-shirt neatly splayed in the back window. He pops out of the passenger seat and immediately hands me a gangster-sized wad of mixed bills: 200s, 100s, 50s and 20s. My hands shake slightly as he watches me count it. Sure enough, 3,500 on the nose. I don't dare ask where or how he rustled it up so quickly, apparently without a working bank card. We exchange smiles and hand shakes and he mumbles something that I don't quite hear as we begin to part ways.
"Sorry, what was that?"
"I said don't forget us when you go back home."
Rasta, my friend, I don't think that's possible.