Photo : Wiki Commons / Jonathan Zander
“How do you pronounce your name?” I asked.
“Paschow,” said the cab driver.
At least that’s what I think I heard as I looked down at the business card he had handed me. The name was scribbled across the top in black ink. We had both been waiting for the jammed receipt machine mounted to that dash of the cab to work, but Paschow had finally given up and wrote me a receipt for the fare on the card.
I thanked him, and stepped out into the dark morning and walked into the Jacksonville airport.
I had been in Jacksonville the previous 48 hours or so to attend the 2015 TEDxJacksonville event. Having been sent by my company, infrastructure solutions firm HNTB Corporation, I was there to support Jim Barbaresso, the leader of the HNTB’s intelligent transportation systems practice. Intelligent transportation systems, summed up simply, encompasses driverless cars, connected cars (standard cars that are able to wirelessly communicate with other cars), and connected infrastructure.
Jim was giving a talk on the future and benefits of driverless cars, and I was essentially along for the ride, there to support Jim in any way he needed and enjoy the experience.
I arrived in Jacksonville two days prior, on a Friday, to attend the rehearsal of the event. Soon after I stepped out of the airport, I was on a shuttle taking me to my hotel, the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront. I struck up an excellent conversation with the driver, a Haitian of about 32, about Florida and the Caribbean Islands, which has inspired me to soon visit the islands or perhaps even Venezuela. But that is another matter.
After dropping off my bags in my room, I made the mile-or-so walk to the WJCT Studios, where TEDxJacksonville was being held. During this walk I passed a Maxwell House Coffee factory, and took in the aroma. Shortly thereafter, I passed the stadium of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a professional American football team. It was an impressive structure, and I was later told it is the only stadium in the National Football League that contains swimming pools to watch games from.
I arrived at WJCT and made contact with Sabeen Perwaiz, the overall organizer of the event, who led me into the studio to sit and watch the rehearsal. The stage was stunning, x-shaped and surrounded on nearly all sides by seats. I leaned back in a chair and watched the activity. Musicians were rehearsing for their performances the next day, and sound technicians were working to ensure all their equipment was functioning properly. Eventually, the talk rehearsals began, and I enjoyed the rare opportunity to hear nearly all of the talks in their entirety before they aired live on YouTube and were given to the audience the next day.
Bright and early the next morning, and after an ironing crisis that left me with a damp and wrinkled shirt, I rode over from the hotel with Jim and Kevin Gover, another speaker at the event who is the director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. The three of us arrived at WJCT and stood outside the building in the bright morning, chatting idly about baseball and a recent dramatic Michigan State University football victory over the University of Michigan.
After milling about a while and sipping coffee, the large group that had formed around the tents and tables set up in the parking lot headed inside to the main room. I took a front row seat next to Jim, and we took in the first three talks, starting with a man with Down Syndrome who has a dream and an incredible story to tell, a lawyer who was involved in an important Jacksonville civil rights case, and Gover, who gave a talk on common misconceptions about some historical events most Americans are taught in school.
The event was broken up into four sessions, each session featuring three speakers and a musical performance, split by approximately 30-minute breaks. The emcees asked the audience to find a new seat during each session, in order to sit next to new people and spark new conversations.
A woman in a fedora had caught my eye in the first session, and at the beginning of the second session I took a seat in the front row on the other side of the room, intentionally facing a camera to try to get on TV. The room was nearly empty as I had returned early from the first break, and the woman in the fedora came up to me and asked for a picture of her onstage. After obliging, I sat back down and thought about what a good idea that was, and asked her to do the same for me.
The second session was Jim’s session, and I was pleased with the way his talk turned out. He was followed by Mark McCombs, who gave a genuinely rousing speech about turning North Florida into a hub for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and robotics activities for kids, which will help build the futures of America’s engineers.
At the beginning of the third session, the woman in the fedora and I sat next to each other, and at one point we were instructed by the emcees to turn to the person next to us and stare into their eyes for 15 seconds without saying anything, an interesting exercise that proved impossible for me as I began to talk to her almost immediately. Still, it was an interesting thing to do and I would like to find out what value there is in it.
The fourth session ended fantastically. All the musicians from the day joined each other onstage and performed a rendition of “Freebird,” which I later learned was because Lynyrd Skynyrd came from Jacksonville. It reminded me of the final scene of “Slumdog Millionare,” when all the characters from the film dance at the end. I looked around the room during Freebird, and saw a few of the people I had seen throughout the day dancing or playing onstage. It was truly a great moment.
We closed the night by taking a group photo that included most, if not all, of the audience, volunteers, speakers and performers. This was followed by an outdoor after party featuring drinks and hor d’oeuvres.
In the end, my makeshift receipt from my cab driver to the airport was accepted for my expense report, and all was well. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life, and it has been one full week since I was there. I am still feeling the glow.
Author’s note: The talks are not yet available, but should be sometime in December 2015.