The Theory and Practice of Elevators

The elevator. What an odd subject to write about. But in an essay (Boston Globe, 3/2/14), earlier this year, Leon Neyfakh reviews a book by Daniel Wilk that criticizes academics for failing to recognize the importance of elevators, how they transformed American residential and commercial life. Wilk writes:

“The lack of interest scholars have shown in the cultural life of elevators is appalling.” I know well what he means as I find myself in elevators all too often throughout the day in the high rise condominiums where I’ve lived lately.

I take the elevator to the gym and then back up, to the picnic area and then back up, to the pool and back up again, to check the mail, take a walk, get the car, walk to the grocery, take a stroll in the evening. Up and down several times a day.

Most of the time no one else is in the elevator, but sometimes there are one or more individuals. I greet them. Some return a smile. Others turn away. Some ignore my greeting. And once in a while I engage a person in conversation, albeit a brief one. But never once have I developed a friendship with a person I’ve met in an elevator.

My extensive observations during the past several years of this experience indicate there are two types of people in the world: the friendly and the unfriendly. As I ponder this cosmic distinction, I realize it has far reaching implications

I have also observed the unremarkable fact that the likelihood of conversation varies as function of several factors. The more individuals there are in the elevator, the more likely there will total silence. Conversation also decreases as the size of the elevator increases. People also distance themselves as far as possible from anyone else inside the space. No doubt there are other such relationships. Neyfakh suggests:

“If we tend to ignore the significance of elevators, it might be because riding in them tends to be such a brief, boring experience, and even awkward experience—one that can involve unplanned encounters between people with whom we have nothing in common, internal turmoil over where to stare, and a vaguely unpleasant awareness of the fact that we’re hanging from a cable in a long, invisible shaft.”

In Honolulu, where I currently live a fair number of months each year, the central areas are teaming with high rising condominiums and new ones under construction. You can’t avoid seeing the enormous building cranes dotting the sky in every direction, a Manhattan clone on a distant island in the middle of the ocean.

After dinner one night, I got in the elevator to go down for a stroll. The elevator stops, the doors open and a young girl walks in with her puppy. He sniffs my shoes, seems agitated. I say he is eager to go out. She says he’s always like this. How many times do you take him out? Only twice a day. What is his name? Mo Jo. I like that. We head outside. She says good night. Short and sweet.

The other day I went to an apartment in one of these new residential towers, with state of the art elevators, if it is an art. To fetch the elevator you first need to use a fob to beckon it down, then you press a keypad with the number of the floor you wish to reach. At the same time, it informs you which of the several elevators to take. So you walk over to that one and wait, sometimes you wait for quite a while, as your blood pressure surges. Finally the elevator arrives, you hop in and bingo it takes you to the very floor you had hoped to reach.

Coming back down is a breeze: no fob this time (since you were able to reach one of the distant floors, you are no longer considered an undesirable), simply call for the elevator, move to the one the keypad tells you is just the one for you, hop in, press the floor number you want on the keypad and in a flash you are there. Wonder of wonders.

I haven’t been living in a single family home lately and while I really prefer to take the stairs, most of the buildings I’ve lived in l have been tall towers. Who wants to walk up 40 flights of stairs to reach your home? I know it is good for the heart and bones and all that, but really now, I have more important things to worry about. Like, do I really need to go down to get the mail today?


Linda said...

Very interesting post. I'm uncomfortable on elevators. I remember in a sociology class we were assigned to break a social norm. The norm I was assigned to break was to enter an elevator and instead of facing forward like everyone always does, I was to turn around and face the back of the elevator, and of course, the other people in it. I just could not do it. So, in penance, I had to write an essay explaining the sociological reasons why I could not break the norm.

Richard Katzev said...

And what did you conclude in your essay? Why was it so difficult for you to break one of the several elevator norms, much like any norm in a small, narrow space, subway, bus, taxi, etc. In contrast, I greatly enjoy breaking a norm. It amuses me, shows the ridiculousness of some norms, the maddening degree of conformity here and there.

Stefanie said...

That's really interesting about there not being much scholarship on the importance of elevators because they really did change the way we live and work. Could you imagine living or working on the 30th floor and there not being an elevator? How many people would be excluded from those spaces! Personally, elevators scare me, it's that closed box hanging on a cable thing. My imagination goes wild and all I can think about is plummeting to the bottom of the shaft and dying. If I can take the stairs, I always do. If not I break out into a sweat and think horrible thoughts until I can get out of that death trap :)

Richard Katzev said...

When was the last time you heard of an elevator cascading to the bottom of the shaft? They are really safe. And when the electricity is out, they don't fall to the bottom; instead they just sit right where they are until they can be lifted out.

Stefanie said...

Yes, well, we all have our not entirely rational fears and mine happens to be elevators. And bridges. Bridges make me nervous too but that one isn't entirely unprecedented as there have been major bridges that have fallen down and it is not uncommon for people driving on icy roads to go skidding off of them. :)

Richard Katzev said...

Goodness, I had no idea. Elevators, bridges, icy roads, etc. I guess they are all a bit unnatural, nothing like that in our genetic baggage. You have to be a little bit unnatural to get by these days.