There’s this great scene in a recent great movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) about timing and the house-of-cards nature of our worlds. One thing bounces just the wrong way, leading to another thing bouncing just the wrong way, leading to another… and eventually, collapse.

It’s very much akin, though just slightly different in tenor, to the story of the horeshoe-nail that lost the kingdom, which I’ve discussed before and more recently. Not unlike what I consider to be a pivotal scene in Loosely Based. Not dissimilar from another scene in another movie, about the irretrievability of scattered feathers. Which, hey, my Dad just blogged about too.

Last night, I was deciding between playing poker online and playing another game on the computer. I hadn’t played poker online in ages, but I had just done really well in a live tournament in New Mexico (7th out of 40 when Afsheen, who joined me was 9th [cash at 5th]). On a whim, I decided I felt like testing the waters again. I didn’t see any poker tourneys I liked open for registration, but thought to check for any in late registration, with only a few seconds left to register. Amazingly, there was a $2 multi-table tournament that was just my speed for adjusting back to online play.

I got in just in time to play this tournament. And it turned out I played it for several hours, till about 2 in the morning. I finished 26th (out of over 2,000) and made a ridiculously low sum of money for the efforts of that kind of time, but I at least proved to myself that New Mexico wasn’t a fluke and I’ve been playing good, disciplined poker lately. But this was way later than I had been planning on staying up, especially since I had an important 8:30 meeting the next morning.

Because I stayed up late, I got up late. Everything was running a little behind. I considered, at 7:20, skipping a shower to ensure that I’d make the meeting in plenty of time, but it occurred to me that this would have consequences just as impolite as being late to the meeting. It dawned on me that I could just punt sitting down on the train this morning and take the Fremont to MacArthur and transfer to something between the early train (that gets me to work at 8:15) and the late train (that gets me to work right at 8:30 or closer to 8:35 if anything goes wrong). There’s a middle train that doesn’t stop in Berkeley (comes from a different line) that would put me in about 8:22.

Because this occurred to me, I took a shower. And because I was feeling confident in this plan, I dallied a little. And because I dallied a little, I was just a little behind for the Fremont train when I left. And because of that, I could hear the train just as I was hitting the first audible grate at the station. And I knew it was the Fremont train. And I thought that I could make the train, but I’d be running a small risk of running so fast I tripped on a step and smacked my face on concrete. And something about that image stuck in my mind and I didn’t want to risk it. Even with lateness on the line (you have no idea what my punctuality record is like at work, especially for meetings), I just didn’t like my chances. Even without face-smacking, it was mathematically most likely that I would end up nose-to-plexiglass with a subway door, disheartened and completely winded as I watched it scoot away.

Because of this decision, I strolled into the station. And as I got down to the platform, I confirmed that those were the red rear lights of the Fremont train, slouching toward Ashby. And so I took up my post standing in front of the yellow safety strip’s contrasting black section that indicates where the doors would open in 7 minutes for the San Francisco (late) train.

And I started reading The Idiot. And was soon immersed in the book.

Until five minutes later, when I heard a thudding sound and a chorus of shrieks and gasps. About twenty feet away, a set of legs was suddenly visible on the tracks, with hints of a torso attached.

Not just twenty feet away, it should be noted, but twenty feet closer to the mouth of the tunnel through which the San Francisco-bound train was about to barrel. Just one black-door-marker shy of said mouth.

There were more gasps and whispered explanations of an arbitrary and unpredictable fall (the person was on the near track, as though having fallen straight down into the track well, as opposed to jumping or flinging toward the far track or the fatal third rail). The legs didn’t move. There were rising yells, calling for someone to stop the train or call to stop the train or tell the agent to stop the train or do something to just stop. The. Train. 90 seconds and counting. And then the heartrending polished announcer voice: “Nine-car San Francisco train now approaching, platform two.

I had briefly considered jumping down to help the person up, but now there just wasn’t time. One imagines scenarios like this and the person is always either conscious and able to be helped up without jumping down with them (an active participant in their own rescue) or times their jump to coincide with the train’s arrival and only a truly psychic shoulder-grab can be of use. This unconsciousness on the tracks now 80 seconds short of the train is unimaginable. Someone is on the white courtesy phone, bleating that the train must be stopped because someone is on the tracks.

Suddenly, the legs move, stretching up in obvious pain, but demonstrating consciousness. I do the only thing I can think of, yelling to the person that they need to get up, that they need to get up now and we’ll help.

The legs collapse again. They do not twitch. The train can be heard loud and rolling down the tunnel.

And then… then… a squeaking. A squealing. A… stopping.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Everything thereafter seemed a bit of a muddle, a bit of a mess. I learned just how long it takes emergency personnel to get to a point where they can deal with someone who is passed out on train tracks. I learned a lot about crowd behavior, how some people just will not give space to a possibly dying person no matter what. I learned about how rumors spread and eyewitness reports become almost instantly corruptible. I learned that BART spokespeople are no more reliable in the newspaper than anyone else. (Although I guess technically “no train was about to arrive as the woman fell” – it was at least a full minute from the fall to the approach of the train, but that’s how long it takes to stop a BART train without an attendant standing by. Maybe this comment was just intended to make it clear that this was not a suicide attempt.)

Most of all, though, it’s about timing. The person could not have fallen so much as 15 seconds later and lived. Though if the person had fallen at the other mouth of the tunnel, there may have been hope to flag down the train as it was going through the station. Had the person fallen a minute earlier, people probably would’ve hopped down and helped her (most people thought it was a guy at the time and I never saw her face) out, though there’s always the risk that this causes injuries too.

And that meeting? I was thirty minutes late. I put in a payphone call to the meeting organizer and she passed on the word that it was all beyond my control.

Thankfully, this moment wasn’t more powerful for me today. The images from this morning’s scene are stark enough without a more damaging punctuation. Just imagining it in that adrenaline-filled second-cum-lifetime was plenty for me.

What are you doing right now that will impact everything you experience from here on out?

Turns out, everything.