Driving stick is something my mom said is a nice skill to add to the Toolbox of Life. My blog boss said it’s good to know because, hey, maybe you need to drive the getaway car one day, and in this hypothetical, the getaway car has a manual transmission. But I first learned how to drive stick in the early hours of Nov. 3, 2008, somewhere in Florida, on the way to the airport in Orlando. My teacher? A police officer.
The reason why I’m recalling this tale of stupidity is because I recently found myself in a 2017 BMW M240i convertible. My colleague, Mike Ballaban, picked me up from my apartment in Brooklyn and drove to a less-trafficked area of the borough. I hadn’t driven stick in a hot minute—my job is covering Tesla and Uber and doing reporter shit, not so much reviewing the cars like some of my colleagues, but sorry anyway—so Ballaban wanted to make sure I could still hack it.
The car itself is slick. It carries a 3.0-liter turbo inline-six pushing out 335 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, which is more than adequate. It’s loud enough to where you’ll turn some heads on a quiet street, perhaps, but that could also happen because it’s an exceptionally sharp looking car—at least, as you’ll see—in red.
There’s four driving settings—Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+—which, to be honest, I didn’t get a chance to cycle through in New York City traffic. But for the most part, the car was smooth, an easy whip to brush up on your grasp of manual transmissions.
I say this, in part, because of a start/stop engine button helpfully located next to the wheel. It’s not my proudest moment, but I stalled out a couple times. Luckily, with this simple arrangement, rather than have to twist a key every time I screwed up, swallowing my pride meant jamming my thumb into a round black button while trying to avoid the cackle emanating from the passenger’s seat. Ballaban definitely enjoyed watching me flounder in misery.
Anyway, the point is, the convertible is a well-rounded vehicle that’s suitable for anyone looking to shell over $58,370, the suggested MSRP for the M240i. I recommend you purchase one immediately.
But it all jogged my memory about that 2008 weekend in Florida. Over Halloween weekend that year, I made the trek to the city of Gainesville for The Fest, an annual party of sorts hosted by No Idea Records that features a slate of punk shows happening across numerous venues.
This particular iteration held particular importance: it featured one of the last out-of-town shows for The Ergs, arguably one of the best punk band of the 2000s and a favorite among my group of friends, before they played one last outing and broke up later that year.
If you’re unfamiliar, imagine the most infectious melodies set to an incredible rhythm section with goofy and fun and memorable lyrics that captivate you to sing along. (The Ergs have since reformed and played a few shows time and again, including a surprise set last week in Brooklyn. It was a good time.)
While the Internet was definitely a Thing in 2008, it was still the early era of social media, so what I did to organize the trip to Gainesville was something of a composite of the free rides section on Craigslist, Facebook, and AirBnB.
At 18, I was dumb, worked a dumb job at a shitty restaurant in Metro Detroit. But I felt like I needed to see this show. The Ergs are a common thread among a swath of my friends, and I spent plenty of nights listening to their records in college and beyond. I heard a particularly fun story about them playing in Detroit, sometime in the mid-2000s, at a now-demolished dive bar located where, today, a new professional hockey stadium is situated. (The bar’s gone now thanks to the workings of a billionaire’s effort to scam the city for millions of dollars.)
Apparently, that night, only a dozen or so Ergs fans showed up to see them play, and, at some point during their set, the electricity went out. But instead of stopping, the drummer just kept playing, while those in attendance either sung along or hummed the appropriate melodies in the song to keep things moving. When the electricity was restored moments later, I was told, the band didn’t miss a beat and immediately launched back into the song. They were that kind of band.
Figuring out lodging was a bit of a challenge. As best as I can remember, The Fest had a forum for the weekend, including a section where you could seek out lodging accommodations. I either posted looking for someone to put us up, or reached out to someone offering a place to stay. Whatever the case, I got a response and we were set.
What can I say about the weekend? It was wonderful, better than I could’ve imagined. The first night I didn’t sleep and went with—at the time—an acquaintance to see another band called The Measure play at a record shop in town at 6 a.m. The set wasn’t particularly memorable, but there was one notable moment.
While The Measure set up their equipment, whoever was running sound played the Guided By Voices album Bee Thousand, something I hadn’t heard before. The Measure’s drummer—also, coincidentally, the drummer and namesake of The Ergs—sang along to the opening track “Hardcore UFOs” and, I don’t know, I never got the song out of my head.
The melody’s stupidly catchy, and I’m not entirely sure how I figured out who wrote the song; if I had to guess, I punched in a line I remembered hearing into Google and scanned all those lyric sites until I found a hit. So staying up for a weird 6 a.m. show ended up being worth it. As a result, I later fell in love with that particular era of GBV, and have loved the band ever since. Afterward, I became close friends with the acquaintance and remain close to this day.
That Sunday, the Ergs played two sets, after a band scheduled to perform had dropped. It was a blast.
And then it wasn’t.
Planning a trip when you’re 18 isn’t exactly foolproof. Neither is relying on someone you meet through a message board. On paper, though, the way that weekend was supposed to end was simple. After The Ergs played, our driver—a guy who proved to be a hassle throughout the trip for innumerable reasons, despite being nice enough to deal with my friends and I—was supposed to drive us to the airport in Orlando, two hours away, so we could catch a 6 a.m. flight back to Detroit.
Around 11:30 p.m. Sunday, we went to our meeting spot. He didn’t show. We called, and called, and called. Nothing. Suddenly, around midnight, he shows up without notice, driving with a woman he was hellbent on trying to sleep with the entire weekend. She leaves, and off we go.
As far as I can remember, the guy seemed in seriously rough shape, and I recall asking if he was OK to drive. He said he was fine, but after about 20 minutes into the drive, everyone in the car—including him—realized, that wasn’t the case.
Therein was the issue: he was the only one who knew how to drive stick.
“I just need to pull off and sleep for 15 minutes or so,” I recall him saying. Sure, fine, whatever. We end up in a parking lot of a motel, next to a Wafflehouse.
About 20 minutes later, we try to wake him up. He’s out cold.
We try screaming into his ear, setting off phone alarms, jabbing him in the arm. Nothing. So we retreat to the Wafflehouse to eat and try to find a way out. Mind you, today, I look back at this and think how stupid the entire situation is—but we all had limited resources and, as far as I can remember, couldn’t pay for a cab between the three of us.
Breakfast—or whatever I ate at Waffle House—sucked. The only other table in the dimly-lit restaurant kept doing dumb shit to mess with the waiter; imagine watching a group keep dropping their silverware and then order the waiter over to pick up the fork or knife. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
By the time we get back to the car, our buddy’s still out cold. Again with the screaming in his ear, punching him in the side. Nothing. The three of us proceed to call friends and pace around the lot of a hotel for the next 30 minutes.
Unbeknownst to us, this sort of behavior doesn’t bode well for guests of a motel. Imagine that: three guys pacing around a parking lot, screaming and yelling at a guy who’s passed out in the driver’s seat of a car. A suspicious sight! Who would’ve thought.
Eventually, a police cruiser arrives to figure out what the hell we’re up to. We try to explain what I’m sure, in 2008, seemed like a bizarre scenario.
“This guy, shit, we don’t even know him! He just put us up for a weekend and was supposed to drive us to the airport and back and let us crash at his place and a hotel he rented so we could watch some grimey punk bands play.”
The cops go over to try to wake him up, and at this point, remarkably, our pal’s waking up. Slowly, he comes to and finds a pair of officers staring him down and asking questions. One of my friends was far more livid than I realized, telling the cop he was completely trashed, despite telling us otherwise. I doubted this was a good look for us.
Finally, the cops asked: “Why don’t one of you morons just drive the car?”
I explained that none of us knew how to drive stick.
“Well, I mean, I’m worried about screwing up his engine or transmission?” I tried to say.
The cop responded with something like: “Why do you give a shit about that? This guy’s about to cause you to miss your flight.”
He had a solid point, this cop.
And so the officers got the guy out of the driver’s seat and into the passenger’s side. My friends immediately retreated to the back because, lucky me, I’m the guinea pig who had to learn stick on the fly.
The cops gave a brief explainer of how to maneuver the clutch, and we just... went. It wasn’t as hard as I imagined; all we had to do was get the car onto the freeway, only about a block away, and shift into fifth gear.
By then, the driver was lucid enough to alert me to switch gears. He might’ve handled shifting into second while I moved the clutch, and then I took over from there. Whatever the case, this guy’s inability to hold his liquor landed me in the driver’s seat of some piece of shit sedan (which I’m sorry again, I can’t remember the make or model). It was fine. We safely landed on the highway and, of course, everyone promptly fell asleep.
A couple hours later, we were at the airport with more than enough time to spare for our flight.
Though I was all sorts of pissed at the driver at the time, I can’t help but appreciate the moment in retrospect. His idiocy made for one of the most memorable and interesting driving experiences of my life.
So, really, thanks, man—wherever you are.