Friday, January 8, 2010

what are the odds

This happened a few moons ago. But I remembered this story today after being stuck on a train for some time…

It was a crisp and chilly Thursday morning. I was on my way to a financial securities exam center to take a test, one of those with a poetic name that begins with a word “Series” followed by a number. After running up the steps to the subway, I realized that I just missed it. With a slightly audible “sh—t”, I sent off an express B train to Manhattan.

The mood I was in can be described as “mainly cloudy with a chance of a heart attack”. The thing is, I am not as smart as I look (I can say quite confidently that I look pretty smart). It’s one of those inconvenient truths, like the global warming, that I've learned to live with. My friends and family are convinced that
I am brilliant (thank God, right?) but I know that I am not. It’s a miracle that I graduated from college. Few know that I failed ESL so many times that I broke all the school and, probably, all the thresholds for lethal embarrassment records. I was so terrible in math from the early days of my academic career that my elementary school teacher used me as her "last resort teaching" tool. When the class wasn't getting the new formula (something scary like 2X=6) she'd ask me to stand in front of the class while she annunciated, pointing her finger at me, "Look, idiots! How can you not be getting it! Even RINA already understands". While I often use this story as an effective compassion-gathering ploy, deep inside I know that she was right. I was (am) amazingly dense when it comes to logic, math, multiple choice exams and a few other things that I camouflage fairly well.

After studying long enough (or however long I could take it), I scheduled an exam date and with a very uneasy feeling of the inevitable failure, set out on the trip to the testing center.

Finally, the train arrived, and I situated myself comfortably next to a window, expecting a smooth ride. After all, what could go wrong? I knew the odds of me passing the test were slim, but the odds of the train bringing me to the exam site quickly and on time were high enough.

Just as I was about to review the first chapter, horrified by the surprising first sentence (no, it wasn't the new content that I was shocked about, it was the fact that it still looked new after months of studying), the train stopped abruptly. From the windows, it looked like half the subway cars were at the station while the other half was not, but that was a later-on discovery. At the moment of the abrupt stop we, the other passengers and I, knew that we were at the station, but the doors were tightly shut and nobody could leave the train.

A minute, three minutes, five minutes gone by….The longer this strange pause lasted, the more annoyed the passengers became "What the f---! Why can't they at least let us out! What's the deal?!!!" I was getting pretty agitated myself. I didn't want to miss the stupid test. As uncertain as I was of the positive outcome, I wanted to at least finish what I started (did I mention that I volunteered to take the exam even though it wasn't a job requirement? Why? To remind myself of the good old elementary school
days...Another oddity of my personality).

Ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes had passed. Silence mixed with some incomprehensible screeching sounds was all we heard on the intercom. Now the cursing was wide spread and expressions of dismay at the fact that we were "being held hostage", were loud as well as supported by nearly all the passengers. "Do they realize time is money? If I am late to this client meeting, I am totally screwed!", said a young heavy gentleman to no one in particular, wiping off beads sweat off his forehead. "No kiddin'", said an older lady, adding "and with this kind of service they want to increase the fare?!!!" As time went by, we've got several announcements from the conductor that the train was out of service and an apology that they couldn’t let us off yet due to a police investigation.

Now, the situation in our subway car resembled a riot with a heavy use of portable devices: blackberries were clicking, phones were ringing, people were seriously annoyed and frustrated…and were not afraid to show it.
As you can imagine, I stopped studying the second the train stopped. I am one of those people who can't combine such tasks as being afraid, worried or trapped with something productive like washing the dishes or studying. When I wait, I don't do anything else. I just wait.....So, this is exactly what did.

The ordeal was reaching its one hour mark, when the conductor said that the passengers have to use one available open door to evacuate from the train. By this point the police and emergency activities were visible and audible even from inside of the car. With continuing sense of disappointment at how "screwed up" this day is turning out, the passengers lined up to be evacuated.

As people finally reached the single open door, the police officers were directing everyone to the opposite side of the tracks and away from the epicenter of the emergency. I was lost in my own angry thoughts about wasted time, possibility of being late to the exam, and just pure dismay at how miserably this day had begun. Just as I stepped off the train, the woman in front of me screamed and pointed to something under the train...

…At first I saw something gray, a coat? How….then I saw a leg and an arm…a body….then I saw blood. I realize that I probably saw all of the above at the same time…but I often think that a human mind (or maybe just mine) is only capable of absorbing one horrific detail at a time. Yes, the emergency that conductor could not speak about was the fact that the train ran over a person. The mere disruption to our day, was actually the end of someone's life.

While the firemen were trying to retrieve the body, I overheard eyewitnesses being questioned by the police, "Yeah. One minute he was just standing there and the next thing I knew he jumped on the tracks". These were the kinds of chilling remarks from the ordinary bystanders who unwittingly watched a person take his own life.

As the crowd continued crossing over to the other side of tracks to go back to the beginning of the train
line and restart their journeys, everyone was eerily quiet. And I thought, moments like these put things, put life in perspective. Don’t they?

An unspoken sentiment of "man, things are bad for me, but not as bad as they are for this guy” hung over the slowly moving crowd. In a few minutes the train came and many got onboard, others were left to wait for the next one. But no one seemed agitated anymore.

...I couldn't help but wonder, what happened to this poor soul? How will his family find out? Did he regret his decision in that split second when he saw the approaching train? Couldn’t anyone have helped him? Wasn’t there any other way? Couldn’t anyone have given him hope? Nothing else seemed to matter.

Who cares about missing the test? Who cares about failing it? Who cares about being late? What are the odds he was also worried about something as trivial and unimportant and THAT just pushed him over the edge? Perhaps, no one will ever know.

But I knew something in that moment, as part of me grieved for that man’s life, another part of me was making a silent promise that if life is like box of chocolates or a bowl of cherries or one damn thing after another, I am going to eat it all up, let it all drip down my chin, get all messy…and be grateful.


Jenni said...

WOW. Isn't time an experience vastly different from person to person. Thank you for sharing...

D said...

Thanks for sharing. Your spirit is inspiring.