Joe Cotten’s Escape From New York

Last weekend, Global sent me to a web design & development conference in New York, NY. A great time was had by all, but it wasn’t without its difficulties…difficulties which happen to be hilarious.

The conference was in the middle of Manhattan, and I debated whether to use public transport, or to simply drive and book parking for the day. Driving ended up being significantly cheaper, so I opted for that, assuming the experience of driving through Manhattan would be an adventure. It being my first time driving to New York, I had not properly considered the various and sundry toll roads that one encounters when traversing the asphalt paradise that is NYC. For example, who knew that it costs $15 to drive through a tunnel? Despite that, I made it to the conference on time and ready to get my geek on.

The event itself was top notch. Having worked for Global for almost two years, I have a good idea of what it takes to put on a conference like this, and I was impressed. The speaker lineup was a mixture of web designers and web developers. Perhaps you’re wondering what the difference is. Here’s a great article about the differences, but suffice to say that designers make art, and developers make code. I am neither and both at the same time. I’m a web development specialist, so I straddle both sides of the design/develop fence, and as such, this conference was right up my alley. Well, technically, the alley belonged to the city of New York, but I digress.

joe and jamesI learned a lot, got inspired to try new coding and visual experimentations, and also found quite a bit of affirmation in how I think. There are ways that I approach web design which have not been the industry norm for the past few years, but is now becoming the recommended way of approaching things. I was happy to hear that I’ve been right all along! Probably the biggest highlight, for me happened not in the speaking sessions, but in the conference after party, where I was able to meet and spend time with one of my greatest sources of inspiration for the past 10 years: an artist named James White. James’ career started to take off just as I graduated college, so he was essentially a few years ahead of me. As such, we shared a common age bracket, entertainment preferences, childhood toys, and the desire to forge a new path in the design world. James and I have conversed over email, Twitter, comment threads, and I was able to briefly meet him at an event in Montreal several years ago, but this time we were able to actually hang out. It was a great time for me, and he said he was pleasantly surprised to see me there, because all the other speakers were web developers or designers, while James is a visual artist. He felt out of place amongst the other speakers and attendees, but I was, for him, a comforting presence because he knew me to be an artist as well. Likewise, since I can’t claim to be the world’s best developer or designer — remember: I do both! — I had to overcome feeling intimidated by attendees who coded all day long. Isn’t it funny how we so often think we’re out of place, or don’t have the skills to meet the demands upon us, yet all the while we are uniquely qualified to do what needs to be done? I think as we can all reject the lie that we’re uniquely and fatally flawed, and instead receive the truth that we’re uniquely called and equipped — failings & all — we will see amazing things happen.

Now the real fun begins: leaving New York.

escape from new york

After stopping off in a Lebanese convenience store for a quick bite to eat, I found my car in the parking garage and began the treck home. Although it was nearly midnight, the streets of Manhattan were alive with activity, so I entered my home address into my navigation app. My contact lenses were starting to get blurry, so I leaned forward and squinted to see road signs as the GPS shouted out commands which gave me barely enough time to dart between lanes and cars to make turns.

As I got close to the Lincoln Tunnel, I suddenly remembered the dozens of tolls that would be paid before I made it off the island. It was quite an inconvenient time to recall that bit of information, as there was no way to leave the road, so I pressed on and prayed for an ATM to come into view. It should be noted at this point that the driver’s side window in my car recently began to malfunction. It won’t roll itself up, so I have to grasp it with my left hand and pull up while I press the “raise” button with my right hand. It takes effort and both hands to get the window raised. I pulled forward, retrieved my toll road entrance ticket, and started forward as I pulled the window back up. As I exited the Lincoln Tunnel and finished crossing 18 lanes of traffic — how did I end up in the far left lane? — I saw a glorious sight: a gas station on the toll road! I was saved! Upon finding an ATM inside, I inserted my bank card to withdraw cash…“ERROR: MACHINE OUT OF ORDER”. I tried again. “ERROR: MACHINE OUT OF ORDER”. “It’s ok,” I thought, “I can just use my debit card to purchase something in the gas station, and get cash back. Debit cards always allow for cash back.” I walked to the cashier in the gas station and presented my request, to which she responded “Oh no. We don’t do cash back.” “Huh,” said I, “What about next door at the restaurant?” “No, honey, nobody can do cash back here.” Since she worked on the toll road, I assumed she was an expert in such matters, so I asked her if the toll collectors took credit or debit. “Nope. Just cash.” Yikes. I knew I only had two $1 bills, and maybe two more dollars in change, nowhere near the $20 or so that I paid on the roads coming into New York. I explained my predicament to her, but in hindsight I think she thought that I lived nearby, because her solution was to point out a small access road behind the gas station which was used by employees, parcel delivery, etc. Having no other recourse, and trusting the relative experience of the clerk, I drove onto the dark, unlit, exceedingly creepy access road.

Soon I saw a diner in the middle of what appeared to be an abandoned lot, the asphalt broken and full of holes, a dim flickering street light from ages ago standing alone amidst the ruins of some bygone era of prosperity. Greasy flourescent lights were lit in the diner interior, so I pulled into the parking lot, parking alongside an early ‘90s Ford Taurus in drastic need of body work. Into the diner I ventured, opening the old, creaking door, and there directly ahead, its face gleaming in glorious technological novelty stood an Automated Teller Machine. I literally pumped my fist in the air and said “YES!”. Placing my card in the machine, I found that it worked, and gave me precious cash. I quickly put it into my wallet, scurried back to my car and pulled out of the parking lot.

Having never been here before, and having no street lights by which to navigate, I didn’t know how to get back to the gas station, but directly ahead was an entrance back to the toll road. “Perfect!” I thought, “I can just hop right back on, it won’t be long now until I’m back home.” After an unexpectedly short trip on the turnpike, I pulled up to the toll collecter. My cheeks red with embarassment, I let my window fall back down and explained to the toll collector what happened with my exit and re-entry to the turnpike. Whether it was my out-of-place southern accent, or abundant lack of knowledge, she didn’t seem surprised by the fact that somehow I had come to her plaza with two entrance tickets — a feat which is supposed to be impossible. To her credit, she did not break out into laughter. She did point out, however, that the department of transportation would, in their mercy, be sending a citation to me in the mail forthwith. You see, one can not pay two entrance tickets. The system is automated, and would not allow me to pay what I owed, no matter how much I wanted to do so. She said to just pay the smaller ticket, so I did so. It was $1.75. I paid the toll, and started moving forward, yanking up on my window with my left hand, and waving good-bye to the attendant with my right hand, all the while my GPS shouting instructions to me.

Arriving back at home in the wee hours of the morning, it struck me that the toll I paid was only $1.75. That means that if I had simply stayed on the road and not exited to find an ATM, I would have had more than enough to pay the toll using the change I had in the car! Reaction seen here »

So, that’s my story. Maybe there’s no moral to this story, but if there were, it might be that in life, we face toll collectors: situations that tax us, drain us, push us beyond what we think we have (like thinking I didn’t have enough money to pay the tolls), but in reality, we do have what it takes. We know we’re not alone, right? Maybe we just need to open up the console and pull out what we need.

– Joseph “Joe” Cotten

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