Wednesday, October 15, 2008

If a train leaves Los Angeles at 12:25...

I had to take a train to go to a job interview. It was just far enough away that taking the train made more sense than driving my own car. It might have actually cost a little less in fuel costs than the ticket ended up being, but who wants to deal with L.A. traffic? So train it was, and the interview went reasonably well. I just might get the job, actually.

The thing that turned out to be the real problem with the day was the return trip. The station nearest to where I interviewed is one of those stations where the train doesn't stop every time. I had to get up at five to drive to the station and catch the right train, which is not that big of a deal, but interviews take all of...well I couldn't imagine one going longer than two hours, tops. So about an hour there, about an hour with time in transit from the train to the office and waiting for my interviewer to get out of a meeting, then an hour and a half of interview and tour of the facility. It's about 10:30, and the next time a train stops at the local station is 3:30. I briefly bemoaned not checking the train schedule more carefully, but it was a tad less than four hours, and I was bound to have lunch anyway, so no big deal, right?

So, I get a ride to the central station, which should actually have trains stopping, but I'm faced with a choice. It turns out there's a train leaving the station at 12:25 heading my way, but it's not going all the way to my station. I can take this train and wait for a train about two hours later that will take me all the way, or I can take that later train from my present location.

Once again, this should be no big deal. It's really a matter of deciding which station I'd like to sit at for two hours. Of course, not being a regular train rider, I have no idea what the other stations are like. I’m thinking about lunch, as I said, and there are a couple of snack bar/hotdog stand-type places where I am, but I wonder, could there be something better at the next station? I decide to stay and have a hotdog, which wasn't bad, although perhaps a bit pricey, and I ended up spending all my cash. I went to the platform and waited.

Soon, I started to wonder if I'd made the wrong choice. I don't know if you've ever been in a big city and spent time hanging around the train station or bus depot, but you wonder (okay, I wonder, I can't speak for you) whether one of the big problems that people have with public transportation is the sort of people who hang out at train stations and bus depots. I suppose like everywhere else, the majority of the people there are fairly "normal" as fine as one can expect of your average citizen, but then...

Well, I'm sitting there, and this guy comes up and strikes up a conversation. No need for fine details, but the guy turns out to be this homeless ex-convict who just got kicked out of his rehab home, and is on his way to another one. Actually, as homeless guys go, he seemed to be set up pretty well: he had a big duffel bag full of clothing which seemed to be clean, and much of it new; he had some food and some books; he had some money and a ticket for the train; and he had spent the previous night in a hotel.

Still, he was obviously not in great shape. Rehab seemed to have done him good, as he was adamant that he wanted to stay away from drugs (although he wouldn't mind a beer or two) and out of jail, but still, drugs are tough on you, and after all, while it didn't seem likely that he was going to end up sleeping on a bus stop bench that night, he was still homeless. Already feeling wiped out from the day, I just felt eaten up inside for this guy who's unloading his problems on me, and I had nothing I could really do to help him. I kept thinking to myself I'd have rather taken the earlier train and not had to deal with this.

I realized something, though. If I'd taken the other train, I might have found myself sitting at a train station without even a hotdog stand, and nowhere to go to get any lunch at all. If that had happened, then surely this story would have been quite different, and no doubt I wouldn't have had the imagination to think that surely if I'd waited, I'd have ended up sitting for over an hour with some stranger telling me about his triumphs and troubles with Narc-Anon. I'd just be sitting there fuming at myself that I'd made a very poor choice, and surely if I'd stayed put, I'd have had a fine time waiting for the later train. Of course, I'd be wrong.

I’d have rather skipped lunch and not had to deal with somebody else's problems, but realizing now my situation and lack of imagination, it's entirely possible that even at a stop farther down the line I might have run into some much more unpleasant fellow, or found that the station had no shade to sit in, or by some random chance, I'd have run into some vengeful ex-girlfriend or the earlier train could have crashed. Who knows?.

I find it fascinating how human nature leads us to notice coincidence, and attribute it to "luck" or even sometimes "miracles". There's been a lot written on the fact that when a psychic makes twenty predictions, and one of them comes true, people say "Wow!" in response to that one, but forget the nineteen failures. Yes, I've heard a lot about this phenomenon, but not so much on its flipside: the noting of pessimistic coincidence.

The fact is, no matter which train I had chosen, I would likely have complained of whatever results I got, claiming that surely, I had made the worst choice possible. If I'd driven, I would have spent hours stuck in traffic, beating myself up for being so foolish as to not take the train. If I had decided not to bother interviewing for the job since it was so far away, I'd have wondered if I had been extremely foolish to not even try and see what my chances were.

Pessimism is easy, and I fall into it a lot. I don't know what the cure for it is, but I do know one thing. As I sat on the train writing this, heading to my home where I would spend the evening with a wife and kids who love me, I realize that somewhere along the line, I could have easily made some series of decisions that had led to me being a homeless ex-con drug addict standing on a train platform and telling my troubles to some stranger.

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