I had occasion to reflect on this the other week when I went to pick up a hire car at the airport in Boston, and the clerk, after logging every number that has ever been associated with me and taking imprints from several credit cards, said: "Do you want Third Party Liability Waiver Damage Exclusion Cover?"
"I don't know," I said uncertainly. "What is it?"
"It provides cover in the event of a Second Party Waiver Indemnification Claim being made against you, or a First or Second Party Exclusion Claim being made by you on behalf of a fourth party twice removed."
"Unless you're claiming a First Party Residual Cross-Over Exemption," added a man in the queue behind me, causing me to spin my head.
"No, that's only in New York," corrected the hire car man. "In Massachusetts you can't claim cross-over exemption unless you have only one leg and are not normally resident in North America for tax purposes."
"You're thinking of Second Party Disallowance Invalidity Cover," said a second man in the queue to the first. "Are you from Rhode Island?"
"Why, yes I am," said the first man.
"Then that explains it. You have Variable Double-Negative Split-Weighting down there."
"I don't understand any of this," I cried, wretchedly.
"Look," said the hire car man a little impatiently, "suppose you crash into a person who has Second Party Disallowance Invalidity Cover but not First and Third Party Accident Indemnification. If you've got Third Party Accident Indemnification. If you've got Third Party Waiver Damage Exclusion Cover you don't have to claim on your own policy under the Single Digit Reverse Liability Waiver. How much Personal Loss Rollover do you carry?"
"I don't know," I said.
He stared at me. "You don't know?" he said in a tone of level incredulity. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the other people in the queue exchanging amused glances.
"Mrs Bryson deals with these things," I explained a trifle inadequately.
"Well, what's your Baseline Double Footfault Level?"
I gave a small, helpless, please-don't-hit-me look. "I don't know."
He drew in breath in a way that suggested that perhaps I should consider walking. "It sounds to me like you need the Universal Full-Cover Double Top-Loaded Comprehensive Switchback Plan."
"With Graduated Death Benefit," suggested the second man in the queue.
"What's all that?" I asked unhappily.
"It's all here in the leaflet," said the clerk. "Basically, it gives you $100m of coverage for theft, fire, accident, earthquake, nuclear war, swamp gas explosions, meteor impact, derailment leading to hair loss and intentional death - so long as they occur simultaneously and providing you give 24 hours' notice in writing and file an Incident Intention Report."
"How much is it?"
"One hundred and seventy-two dollars a day. But it comes with a set of steak knives."
I looked to the other men in the queue. They nodded.
"OK, I'll take it," I said in exhausted resignation.
"Now do you want the Worry-Free Fuel Top-Up Option," the clerk went on, "or the Fill-It-Yourself Cheap Person's Option?"
"What's that?" I asked, dismayed to realise that this hell wasn't yet over.
"Well, with the Worry-Free Fuel Top-Up Option you can bring the car back on empty and we will refill the tank for a one-time charge of $32.95 Under the other plan, you fill the tank yourself before returning the car and we put the $32.95 elsewhere on the bill under `Miscellaneous Unexplained Charges'."
I consulted with my advisers and took the Worry-Free plan.
The clerk ticked the appropriate box. "And do you want the Car Locator Option Arrangements?"
"We tell you where the car is."
"Take it," urged the man nearest me with feeling. "I didn't take it once in Chicago, and spent two and a half days wandering around the airport looking for the damned thing. Turned out it was under a tarpaulin in a cornfield near Peoria."
And so it went. Eventually, when we had worked our way through 200 or so pages of complexly tiered options, the clerk passed the contract to me. "Just sign here, here and here," he said. "And initial here, here, here and here - and over here. And here, here and here."
"What am I initialling?" I asked warily.
"Well, this one gives us the right to come to your home and seize one of your children or a nice piece of electronic equipment if you don't bring the car back on time. This one is your agreement to take a truth serum in the event of a dispute. This one waives your right to sue. This one avows that any damage to the car now or at any time in the future is your responsibility. And this one is a $25 donation to Bernice Kowalski's leaving do."
Before I could respond, he whipped away the contract and replaced it on the counter with a map of the airport.
"Now to get to the car," he continued, drawing on the map as if doing one of those maze puzzles that you find in children's colouring books, "you follow the red signs through Terminal A to Terminal D2, then you follow the yellow signs - including the green ones - through the parking garage to the Sector R escalators. Take the down escalator up to Passenger Assembly Point Q, get on the shuttle marked `Satellite Parking/Mississippi Valley' and take it to Parking Lot A427-West. Get off there, follow the white arrows under the harbour tunnel, through the quarantine exclusion zone and past the water filtration plant. Cross runway 22-Left, climb the fence at the far side, go down the embankment, and you'll find your car parked in bay number 12,604. It's a red Flymo. You can't miss it."
He passed me my keys and a large box filled with documents, insurance policies and other related items.
"And good luck to you," he called after me.
I never did find the car, of course, and I was hours late for my appointment, but in fairness I have to say that we have had a lot of pleasure from the steak knives.
`Notes from a Big Country' is published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99Reuse content