Going Up or Down?

Once, I glimpsed a unique perspective that not many people can claim. It was more than a few moments to peer into other people’s true selves, that is, the part of us that exists outside routine and the expected. In short, if you want to see what people are like, trap them in an elevator. Of course, there are dozens of ways to get a similar glance into the interior of another person, but a sure-fire method is to take eight or nine people and suspend them in a small metal box above a ponderous height (ponderous, as in “we’re not sure how much”).

I became of those people on a chilly winter evening following a lovely performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the local philharmonic orchestra, a thoughtful Christmas present. My sister, mother, and a friend of hers formed our merry, cultured band. Ordinarily, we would have taken the stairs and that night wouldn’t have been remarkable other than the music. My mother’s friend has some difficulty getting around, so after the concert, we decided to take the elevator in the parking garage. Buzzing with the thrill of the performance, we stepped in with several other people who were wanting to get out of the cold night air for a moment. After the doors slid closed with a thump, it was a typical crowded elevator. Everyone avoided looking at everyone else, some fussed with purses, a few considered the ceiling. That usual scene shattered when we felt an abrupt jerk. And then there was silence.

It only took a few seconds to realize that we had stopped. My first thought was that this was a worrying situation, but then I remembered that we had gotten on at the second floor, heading for the first. This was not a Hollywood-worthy scene to build tension in the least. I glanced up at the ceiling panels, noting that they could probably be moved if we had to get out that way. At least that didn’t seem like something scriptwriters had invented for convenience. One of the farthest from the doors and buttons, I leaned against the wall and watched with a feeling of peculiar amusement. My third thought was, Hey. I could write about this someday.

Remembering the emergency equipment—those buttons and panel that you always notice, but never have to use—one man closest to it pressed the red button, setting off a shrill alarm bell. We waited, not sure what was supposed to happen. The silent question went around the crowded compartment, I’ve never been trapped in an elevator before, have you? When the man stopped holding the button, the bell stopped as well. We waited a bit longer.

Nothing happened.

The elevator car burst into panicked conversation. What if the old alarm system didn’t work? The elevator was broken. Maybe it was, too! What if no one came by? How would we manage to make enough space for people to sit down if it took hours for the fire department to come? Did the fire department come to get people out elevators? Many people had ideas and threw them out for consideration. Finally, someone decided to try the red corded phone and someone else called a family member who had fortuitously taken the stairs. When this business-like woman told him about what had happened, she asked him to get a hold of the building supervisor. There was a crackle of a response, and she nodded seriously. Her reply was gracious, as if we had the choice: “Yes, we’ll wait.” Meanwhile, the service phone got us in touch with people who could help. A friendly but tired voice told us that the problem would be resolved quickly.

Instantaneously, everyone became restless. Some checked watches every twenty seconds, some their phones, while others smiled at each other for the first time and made small talk about they never thought that this really happened to people. From the looks on my companions’ faces, we were all taking this in stride. Others were far from amused or calm. We all jumped when the piercing alarm went off again. The man who had found the panic button earlier found it again. Face set in a determined, rigid glare, he leaned on it repeatedly. He only stopped after several people begged him to. One woman kept wringing her hands despite the lack of space. Another reapplied her lipstick, perhaps freshening up for a rescue.

All told, the “ordeal” only lasted about twenty minutes. For all I know, the elevator was simply coaxed into doing its job, rather than any outside force needing to be applied. It was an old piece of machinery. Maybe it was simply cranky from overuse that day. Though it was a short period of time, for some of car’s passengers it had been an eternity. I’d be dishonest if I said I wasn’t a touch disappointed. The same part of me that wishes—and dreads—the idea of running to catch a train as it leaves the platform had hoped for a more dramatic escape. I’d imagined pushing aside the panels and crawling out of the top of the car in my sparkling evening dress or having to climb out of the elevator and hop to the floor after they forced the doors open. A bit ridiculous, I know, but it was almost rude how low-key the whole affair was. After all, how often does one get trapped in an elevator?

I learned later that this particular elevator was well-known for these antics. I’ve been back to the philharmonic a few times since then, but, needless to say, I’ve taken the stairs. It hasn’t changed, and I’m sure many more were given glimpses into strangers’ lives that they didn’t expect. People-watching, they say, is the writer’s hobby, but even if you don’t try to capture life in words, keep your eyes open the next time something unusual happens. You’ll learn things about people in a snap, but you’ll learn something about yourself, too. I suppose there’s a spark of the dramatic in me, but I mostly blame Alexandre Dumas and Samuel Taylor Coleridge for that. I hope that eagerness for an adventure never flickers out.

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