The Ups and Downs of the Elevator Life

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Those confined spaces remain central to our urban lives—and our fears

Christopher Moore is a writer living in Manhattan.

by Christopher Moore

I hate to write about it. I even hate to think about it. But the question comes to me, usually after the door shuts. I wait for the movement. I look up, seeking the little illuminated sign to tell me where I am and where I’m going. There’s a tiny, ugly pause.

After the little surge starts, I’m grateful, especially when I’ve quickly and unpleasantly confronted the question, if only in my own mind: What happens when my elevator luck runs out?

I ponder the matter anxiously when I’m alone in an elevator. Or when I’m reading a newspaper or watching a TV news report, like the ones last week about how the average number of elevator inspections done by the city’s Department of Buildings has decreased dramatically during the past four years. That particular tidbit came after the awful death last December in Midtown of Suzanne Hart, a 41-year-old who died while trying to board an elevator.

News is when the everyday turns horrific. I’ve spent enough time in a newsroom to know that much. What happened in the Hart case could have happened to any of us. Such accidents also hit home because elevators remain such a part of our urban culture and common experience.

Responding to last week’s report, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer issued one of his ever-present press releases. This one wasn’t bad. He recommended carving the Department of Buildings into two parts: the Department of Buildings, which would deal with development, and a new Office of Inspections to handle the inspections. Whether a bureaucratic shift is needed or not, it’s clear New Yorkers need their elevators to be tested and as secure as possible.

In my building, the elevators are a relatively social experience. In those confined spaces, I’ve had better, albeit brief, conversations with strangers than I used to have with some of my best friends in New Jersey. Maybe it’s knowing that the chat will be short. We get right to the point. When somebody asks how things are going, the answers tend to be shockingly and refreshingly real. We’ve talked about the weather in there, yes, but we’ve also covered the pain of unemployment, the challenges of teaching college students who went to bad high schools, presidential primaries and the ongoing balancing act of a decent romantic relationship.

Sometimes I wonder, does this happen in other buildings? Granted, even in our building, elevator passengers have an annoying habit of wanting to stop at other floors. Still, having those people around keeps me from worrying about when the good elevators
might go bad. My basic understanding of science is pathetic enough for me to consider
the elevator’s operation to be, basically, magic. So I go through much of my time on the elevator wondering exactly when things will go wrong.

Sure, I go through life that way, too. When it comes to the elevator, though, I tend not to tell anyone. The questions running through my mind seem so clearly nuts. Like…Should I have my cell phone with me every time I get on the elevator? If this thing stops, how long will it be before I get out of here? Should I have used the restroom before I got on? Would it be worse to be stuck here alone or with that crazy lady with the red hair I have never liked?

I’m crazy, but not alone. Last week, I read exactly what to do when an elevator is plummeting. The piece must have been in the Science Times section of the
New York Times, since it’s the answer to a question I never would have asked— Science Times specializes in such cases.

The bottom-line advice this time was: lie down, as flat as possible, with your back
on the floor. This strikes me as unrealistic. In a plummeting elevator, I’m going to be fairly busy screaming.
Christopher Moore is a writer living
in Manhattan. He’s available by email
at ccmnj@aol.com and is on Twitter (@cmoorenyc).

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