Don’t Let the Elevator Bring You Down

I don’t like elevators.

The clip above shows the agony of one Nicholas White, a former production manager at Business Week, who went down for a cigarette on a friday night in a Manhattan office building in 1999. As he finished, he got in an express elevator to reach his floor, number 43. But midway up, the car jolted and the lights went out. The elevator had been erroneously stopped for maintenance and workers, still attending to others cars, would not hear the alarm bell. When they left for the weekend, Nicholas White was the only person in the building. He somehow endured this ordeal for 41 hours. On sunday afternoon he was finally rescued, he took his jacket and went home. He subsequently sued the company and the building for 25 million dollars, but after four years of litigation he settled for much less. He never returned to the job, and eventually lost his apartment and all his money. He is still unemployed.

Elevators don’t routinely ruin people’s lives, but they can still give you trouble. Claustrophobia is a strange form of anxiety because it’s the fear of having fear. People who suffer from it anticipate the possibility of being trapped or having a panic attack. I can manage myself, but I will gladly avoid an unfamiliar elevator when the social cost of doing so isn’t too high. I will also intentionally skip an elevator ride when leaving for the airport or some other important endeavor, on the odd chance that I might get stuck and miss the flight. This might be OCD territory, or a brilliant rationalization of fear, I’m not sure.

Even if you’re not claustrophobic, a ride in an elevator full of strangers is likely to make you uncomfortable. The violation of your personal space is difficult to tolerate, the banter is usually cringe-worthy, and the mirrors do not help at all. You might have heard of the fact that men position themselves according to very rigid rules in bathroom urinals (if you think that’s a trivial issue, check out this study on the matter – it even has mathematical equations), maximizing the distance from others. The same happens in elevators, with people conquering corners first and shifting around as more passengers embark, moving about like atoms in a crystal to conserve the maximum amount of personal space. It’s a non-written social contract but its rules can be easily changed by engaging group behavior. This classic experiment is so hilarious it even has a laugh track, but it doesn’t hurt its brilliance:

So you see how hard it is to know what to do. No wonder elevators lead us to engage in pointless behaviors such as obsessively pushing the call button or the ‘close door’ button, which – I hate to break it to you – often doesn’t do anything at all. It’s one of those pesky placebo buttons, and in many elevators, especially in the US, it can only be activated with a key.

Yet for some reason there’s a class of elevators that don’t bother me at all: those in hotels. I suppose they give me a stronger sense of security, or maybe the social pressure of people coming and going cancels out the fear. My favorite hotel elevators are the ones in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. They have quotes engraved inside them, following the theme of the establishment (the front entrance bears Stevie Ray Vaughan’s immortal words: If this house a-rockin’, don’t bother knockin’, come right in). The middle one says Don’t let the elevator bring you down (Prince). It’s not even a verbatim quote, you will find, but I always hoped that the middle elevator would ding every time I pressed the call button (the other two said Love in an elevator (Aerosmith) and She’s buying a stairway to heaven (Led Zeppelin), which are far less inspiring).

The most awkward elevator ride I’ve ever had was in Rasputin Music, a famous used records store on Powell Street in San Francisco. It has five floors and it smells like pizza (there’s a Blondie’s right next door), and to move around you ride a rickety old elevator with an employee standing in it, pushing the buttons for you. It’s a bit weird to get in and declare which floor you want to go to. My operator, a girl, was bored so stiff by the miserable job that she was doing crosswords between floors. But go check on Yelp, the elevator gimmick is mentioned in every other review (mostly unfavorably).

Still, nothing beats this:

It never stops: you just swiftly hop on and off. It moves sufficiently slowly, but it’s no wonder its use has dwindled in recent years and it’s nowhere to be found in lawsuit-happy America. This type of elevator is called a Paternoster, after the first two words from the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (meaning “our father”), because the looping compartments resemble the beads in a rosary. Or maybe because you might say a prayer while boarding, hoping the thing won’t kill you.


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