It was 40 degrees and raining when my plane touched down at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport around 1 a.m. A series of delays in Chicago pushed my flight from late night to red eye, and my eyes were very red. After a full day of work and a seemingly interminable layover in a strange airport, I wanted nothing more than to retire to a warm bed at the cheap hotel I found nearby. But first I had to get my rental car.

I was in Ohio to do Honda’s Mid-Ohio School, to bone up on my driving skills before we took on Road & Track in an American Endurance Racing event the following weekend. (We crashed. It was Raphael’s fault that time.)

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Contrary to what you might think, automotive journalists do not spend all of our time cruising around in press-loaner Audis and the like. Sometimes, lacking a better option—as I did here—we deign to lower ourselves to the level of the common man and spring for rental cars.

I picked up the Nissan Sentra from an unsettlingly cheerful Midwestern night shift clerk. It was Rental Car Gray on the outside with flat cloth Rental Car Beige seats inside. Plastic wheel covers, continuously variable transmission, some amount of horsepower I couldn’t bring myself to care about. It would suffice.

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The hotel was in a bleak part of Cleveland reasonably close to the airport but closer to a nondescript industrial park. Airport hotels are seldom hopeful places.

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But after I unloaded my bags and zipped my coat, the misty Ohio fall air chilling me to the bone, I realized I could not lock the Sentra. I didn’t have the key fob.

Damn these new-fangled modern cars. They don’t have keys anymore, not in the traditional sense. This Sentra had a fob that served to lock and unlock the doors; when inside, it allowed the driver to start the engine by pushing a button. The car started and drove fine, but I couldn’t find the key fob. And with the fob somewhere inside—as it must have been, or else the car wouldn’t start—I couldn’t lock it either. This is to prevent a driver from locking his or her keys in the car.

I looked in the door pockets. I looked between the seats. I looked under the seats. I looked in the glove compartment. I looked in the back seats. I looked under the floor mats. I looked in the cupholders. I looked in the glove compartment again. I looked in the center console. I looked under the visors. I looked in the trunk and even under the hood, in the engine bay. I looked where the spare tire goes. Like a madman, I ripped out the floor mats and threw them on the wet hotel parking asphalt to look under them again.

You will read this and surely leave a comment to the effect of “WELL DID YOU LOOK...” and the answer is yes, I looked there.

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I could not find the key fob. Anyone could enter the car and drive away. This was, to put it lightly, worrisome. I prayed no one witnessed my desperate search and realized the Sentra was now easy prey.

I called the Rent-A-Sentra place. The unsettlingly cheerful Midwestern night shift clerk picked up the phone. “Did you want to come back to the airport and trade it for something else?”

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No, I don’t want to come back to the airport, it’s 2 a.m. and I’m fucking exhausted and I have a track day tomorrow, I’d rather get some sleep before then, I thought.

“No ma’am, I’ll figure it out,” I told her instead, certain that I would. So I looked again. And was again unsuccessful. Instead I parked the Sentra between two nicer, more expensive-looking cars, in a well-lit area, and walked away after manually locking all but one door. I sure hope no one steals that rental car, because they totally could, I said to myself.

I got what little sleep I could that night, fraught with fear-dreams of the poor Sentra being stolen and used for nefarious deeds. Perhaps a local gang of youths would abscond with it, using the car to sell “Molly” to area elementary school kids; worse yet, it could end up retrofitted to be an anti-aircraft weapon in Syria.

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Did Jalopnik’s budget have room to pick up the tab for a stolen rental-grade Sentra? I did not know.

I woke up the next day early, setting aside time to look for the key fob, this time with the aid of daylight and a functioning, rested brain.

Once again, no luck.

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I shrugged and then drove from Cleveland to Lexington, about an hour away, enjoying the Sentra’s sole amenity: a USB cable that allowed me to listen to a Chvrches album I had on my phone.

Arriving at the race track I parked the little gray Sentra in a grassy lot next to a Subaru WRX, an older Cadillac CTS-V, and a Dodge Challenger. You know, the typical cars you find at a track day. I made one last attempt to find the key fob and was again unsuccessful.

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God damn it, PG, I said to myself, you may have gone to jail in Virginia and crashed that one car, but you’re not an idiot. You’re a highly-trained, highly-skilled professional. The key fob must be somewhere.

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But I couldn’t find it. My frustration grew, as did my sense of self-loathing, perhaps the one thing I do best in life. I walked away from the Sentra.

I sure hope no one steals that rental car, because they totally could, I said to myself.

Hours later the driving school was done and my Sentra was still there. No one had stolen it yet, for which I was grateful. I ate a pancake dinner alone at the a Cracker Barrel, the most appealing restaurant I could find in Lexington, and drove to a nearby hotel.

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Once again it was dark and cold and I was in a lonely, unfamiliar part of the country. I looked at the unlocked, unsecured Sentra in the parking lot.

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I felt bad for it. I felt like I had let it down, somehow, like I had been irresponsible with a car that was not mine. I tried to fix the situation and I couldn’t.

I sure hope no one steals that rental car, because they totally could, I said to myself.

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I woke up early the next day to drive from Mansfield to Cleveland to catch yet another red-eye flight home, this time at 6 a.m. The Sentra was still there, decidedly not-stolen.

The people of Ohio are good, kind people, I said to myself, or they just don’t want that Sentra. Which was perfectly understandable.

The airport’s Rent-A-Sentra wasn’t open when I arrived. I had to do after-hours dropoff instead. That meant leaving the keys in an envelope to be deposited in a mailbox out front.

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But I had no keys. That was a problem. Or was it?

Instead I tore a page out of a reporter’s notebook and wrote, in big bold letters, “KEYS IN VEHICLE.” Because they were. I think. I stuffed that in the envelope, plopped the envelope in the mailbox, boarded my flight and never saw that particular Sentra again.

I haven’t gotten a bill for the key fob or the car, so I assume someone found it or discovered another solution. I don’t know what happened to the fob, but I also don’t spend much time thinking about it.

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I will say this: thank you, people of Ohio, for not stealing my rental car. Because you totally could have.


Contact the author at patrick@jalopnik.com.