This train is bound for Paoli — a multiple-choice essay

     Are you sure you know which way this train is headed? (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, file)

    Are you sure you know which way this train is headed? (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, file)

    Train 664 leaves Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station bound for New York City at 10:55 a.m. Concurrently, train 663 leaves the station, headed for Harrisburg. Both trains are called The Keystone. You see where this is going.

    Train 664 leaves 30th Street Station bound for New York City at 10:55 a.m. Concurrently, train 663 leaves the station, headed for Harrisburg.

    Both trains are called The Keystone.

    If Mark and I have tickets for train 664 because we plan to celebrate his 58th birthday with a day of Manhattan museum-going, but somehow end up on train 663 instead, how many miles do we travel in the wrong direction before we realize that we’ve made a terrible mistake?

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    Or, to put it another way, how fast does my pulse begin to race and how high does Mark’s blood pressure spike when, as the train picks up speed and we settle into our seats, anticipating a glorious day in the Big Apple, the conductor comes on over the loudspeaker and welcomes us aboard the train to Harrisburg?

    Bonus question: How loud do I scream upon hearing this announcement? (Keep in mind, we’re in the quiet car.)

    Train 664, the Keystone, heads in one direction. Train 663, also the Keystone, heads in the opposite direction. What could possibly go wrong?

    So, the thing is…

    When we first arrived at the station, we checked the information board to see what platform train 664 would leave from. It said platform 7. Of course, Mark wasn’t wearing his glasses. I was wearing mine, but I’ve got cataracts. So who knows what it really said? It could have told us that Train 664 was the Hogwarts Express, now boarding from platform 9 3/4. Or that train 664 was the Peace Train and Cat Stevens would be our conductor.

    The world can be an uncertain place when viewed with middle-aged eyes.

    Just to make sure, at platform 7, we asked the Amtrak employee checking tickets: “This is train 664, right?”

    Nodding, he glanced at our tickets, then ushered us onto the wrong train.

    If your entire job consists of making sure nobody boards a train who doesn’t belong on that train, and you let a couple with tickets for one train get on another one instead, can we safely assume that you are:

    an underachiever.
    suffering from sudden onset dyslexia.
    just another Boomer with cataracts. The dude was our age, and if his eyes were as bad as mine, there’s no way he could actually read the itty bitty numbers printed on our tickets.

    Turning around

    So there we were, intending to spend the day in New York but speeding toward Harrisburg instead.

    “Happy birthday,” I said to Mark. “I hope this isn’t an omen.”

    When the conductor appeared to take our tickets, we didn’t shout at him because:

    we were in the quiet car.
    our being on the wrong train wasn’t his fault.
    shouting at people is no way to celebrate a birthday.

    Sympathetic to our plight, he told us to get off at Paoli and grab the next train heading back toward Manhattan. So we did. But we had an hour to kill in Paoli, so we checked out a nearby Japanese restaurant. The food was terrific.

    Even though we got to Manhattan later than we’d planned, we still had a great day, because:

    it was Mark’s birthday.
    we have each other and we have our health, so what do we have to complain about?
    we’re 58.

    A matter of destiny

    And what we’d concluded, after feasting on sushi, then boarding the train that would actually take us to our destination is this: If you’re on the wrong train, it’s better to be 58 than 28.

    If you get on the wrong train at 28 it can change your life.

    Maybe Mr. Right is on train 664, but you board train 663 and fall for Mr. Wrong. Or perhaps some aspect of your train 664 journey would have inspired you to quit your job or change your career or move to Cincinnati. So much of your life is ahead of you that a lot can turn on each choice you make.

    But by 58, you are who you are. Board the wrong train and it may delay your trip, but it probably won’t change your destiny.

    Although you could discover a really good place for sushi.

    Thankfully, Mark and I aren’t the kind of couple who get angry and blame each other when things go wrong. We’re a couple who can appreciate how ridiculous it is to be stuck on a train that’s going in the wrong direction.

    Especially on your birthday.

    We get along so well that it’s likely we’ll still be together when it comes time to celebrate Mark’s 59th birthday.

    We will:

    triple-check our tickets before boarding the train to Manhattan.
    boarding, ask the conductor “Is this train going to New York?” “Really?” “Are you sure?”
    before the train starts to move, ask everyone sitting nearby if they’re planning to enjoy a day in Harrisburg.

    On the other hand, maybe we’ll just go to Paoli for Japanese food.

    Roz Warren is a frequent NewsWorks contributor whose work is also featured in New York Times, The Funny Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Good Housekeeping, The Christian Science Monitor, Humor Times, Women’s Voices for Change and Girlfriendz.

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