Saturday, July 3, 2010


The elevator is a form of transport. It is like an airplane transformed into a box, a cube of space enjoying a conversation with gravity.

Up and down and down and up and up and up and up and down and down and down and down.


What an astonishing forehead, you think, as the doors slide open and a woman stands inside holding a bag of potatoes.

Or an octopus hugging a grizzly bear.

Or Meg Ryan. Or the Rolling Stones. Or Dilbert. Or Ferdinand Magellan.

What is your notion of beauty? Mine is an elevator with mahogany panels and warm pink buttons on a shiny brass panel. Numbers inscribed in LED.

Elevators are curious public spaces. They become private and intimate for short durations when the doors close. They are like little theatres, tiny enclosed stage sets.

The elevator in Drive opens on a heavyset, tough looking man in a blazer. Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan) step in. Driver spots the handle of a revolver under the man’s lapel and knows what he is there for: to kill them. Driver gently maneuvers Irene into the corner. He turns, kisses her passionately, then turns to the man just then pulling out his gun and smashes his head against the panel. He beats the man to the floor. The doors open and Irene recoils in horror as Driver continues kicking the man in a fury of rage and disgust, crushing the man’s head like a watermelon.

There is the lively scene in The Departed when Matt Damon and Vera Farmiga enjoy a sparkly repartee of brisk flirtation in a crowded elevator.

Elevator stops. Doors open. Farmiga gets off, expecting Damon to follow. “I’m one more up,” he says cockily. “Oh, fancy policeman,” she says. “Yeah, that’s right, fancy.” “Are you a statie?” “Yeah, I am,” he answers, catching the doors before they close, “I’m actually going to law school also.” “Suffolk, nights?” “Yeah, they don’t run Harvard at night, last time I checked.” “When’s the last time you checked?” “Before I went to fucking Suffolk.” “Okay, listen,” Farmiga says, turning around, worried that she insulted him, “I went to U Mass. I wasn’t insulting you.” “Well, I thought you were. So now you gotta buy me dinner.” “Maybe you can shoot someone and then see me professionally.” “I’ll stab someone in the heart with a fucking ice pick if it gets me dinner with you.”

Or Jim Kerry, in Fun With Dick And Jane, when, after his coworkers gradually disembark from the elevator in the tall corporate headquarters building, he ascends to the top floor to accept his new position as vice president of Communications for Globodyne, he sings “I Believe I Can Fly,” hesitant at first, a timid tremor in his voice, then bursting out in passionate lunatic zeal, “I believe I believe I believe.”

Or Ving Rhames and Brendan Gleeson in Dark Blue, two police officials who despise one another. Rhames, Assistant chief of the LAPD, a decent man of high moral character, and Gleeson, the self-satisfied and totally corrupt police Commander who is mastermind of a cover-up involving multiple murders, stand, hands clasped, alone together when the elevator doors close.

“Sailboats,” says Gleeson calmly, but with menace, “I don’t understand them. I prefer a big boat with a big motor on a big lake behind a big dam. How about you, Arthur? You a motor or sail guy?” “I don’t like boats,” says Rhames, “and I don’t like you.”

The wait in the hall is one of anticipation. Sometimes frustration, sometimes a calm interlude in a busy day. We wait for a light to light up or a bell to ding. The up arrow to light up. Or the down arrow to light up.

Sometimes it is a moment of confusion. Does that light mean up or down? Which elevator is going up? Is that the one with all those people? Or is it that other one that’s completely empty?

We board. The doors close. We look at the panel. Numbers, sometimes with letters, ‘p,’ for parking, or ‘l,’ for lobby. Or does the ‘p’ stand for plaza? Or the ‘l’ for lavish, or lullaby, or lithia water, or living wage.

There are more than five senses. There is also the sense of seceding from gravity. Of flowing upward into the sky. Aboard a box. A box within a box. A box within a box within a city within a country within a continent. A point in time and space. Rising, rising, rising into the sky. Where God and his angels look down in pity at the world and its hustle and bustle. Up and up and up and up. A slow ascension of smooth steady support beneath our feet, numbers lighting up on a burnished brass panel, up and up and up.

Or down and down and down we return in a slow measured descent to the lobby. The cold hard lobby of marble and stainless steel that feeds into the street. The city and its daily complexities. The city and its crowded sidewalks and meters and zones and syndicates and sins. Its gazillion details and pigeons and delirious alcoholics and beautifully tailored lawyers and people embracing and people racing to catch a bus and people people people.

When they're not functioning as mini-theatres in the movies, elevators are chapels of calm. The calamities of life are given a momentary respite. This is where people talking on cell phones become especially obnoxious. The calm is desecrated. The spell is broken.

A book has many of the same features as an elevator. It can take us up in thoughts of high exaltation or down in gloom and desolation. Up in learning, down in unlearning. Up in adjectives, down in nouns. Up in ideas, down in silly diversion.

Nonfiction currents are slow, but deep and reflective. The currents of fiction are rapid and rousing.

Elevators, like books, can be opened or closed with minimal effort. And elevators, like books, are contained dramas, wood-paneled chapels of chance concentration, transient encounters of hushed conversation.

Elevators are choreographed by counterweight and cable. Books are choreographed by sentence and phrase.

Elevators have gears and pulleys. Books have words and grammar. Elevators are floors and doors. Books are forests and metaphors.

When we open a book we encounter a wilderness of words. When elevator doors slide open, we encounter a frieze of faces.

When we enter an elevator we invest it with our trust. When we enter a book we invest it with our time.

What would Euclid say of the elevator? He would say that it is a theatre of geometry. A machine for providing the drama of up and down.

What drama does not involve going up and down? People do not go sideways in a drama. They go up and down. Otherwise there is no drama. There is only monotony. The monotony of the horizontal.

The skeleton lives in a house of muscle and bone. The cabbage climbs into itself. The elevator is a mechanical correlation to the breviaries of hope. The psalms of the vertical. The cables dancing in the shaft.

Pulleys pull the elevator up and down. It is a stratagem of balances and counterbalances. Traction steel ropes wrapped around sheaves.

When you rotate the sheave, the ropes move too. An electric motor turns the sheaves one way and the elevator rises. The motor turns the other way, and the elevator descends.

The ropes are also connected to a counterweight. The counterweight conserves energy. With equal loads on each side of the sheave, it only takes a little bit of force to tip the balance one way or the other.

The system is just like a see-saw. Both the elevator car and the counterweight ride on guide rails along the sides of the elevator shaft. The rails keep the car and counterweight from swaying back and forth, and they also work with the safety system to keep you from plummeting to the ground if something goes wrong.

And what would that feel like? That sudden plummet.

Something snaps. Gives way. And you and the elevator fall. Straight down. Until the safeties kick in and brings the hurtling death trap to a stop. You are jerked, fall to your feet, maybe hurt your back. But you’re alive.

Safeties are braking systems on the elevator car that grab onto the rails running up and down the elevator shaft. Some safeties clamp the rails, while others drive a wedge into notches in the rails. The safeties are tripped by a counterweight overspeed governor.

Or possibly a group of screaming people.

Has anyone ever gotten married in an elevator?

The elevator is small, like a chapel, and modest. There is sometimes a mirror, but most often the interior is geared toward decorum. Wood paneling and thick red carpets. Brass doors. Shiny buttons.

A heated argument seems unthinkable in such a space. And because it is in movement, no one feels trapped. We can get off at such and such a floor. We can ride it to the top, or perhaps to the basement, where the janitor keeps his mops, and buckets, and calendar, and empire.

It is the elevator that made the city’s skyscrapers possible.

But it began with steel. Bessamer steel. A lightweight steel with great strength and flexibility.

The world’s oldest working elevator is in a Potbelly sandwich shop in Washington, D.C. The shop used to be a furniture store. Litwin’s Furniture. Mr. Litwin used the elevator to move furniture around. Now it languishes in a plexiglass case erected by the Smithsonian Institution. So it really no longer works. But you can get a good sandwich and gaze into it with a flashlight.


David Grove said...

Didn't Magellan circumnavigate the world in an elevator? Didn't he just push the Asia button?

Books are to computers as stairs are to elevators. Books are kept in bookcases, stairs in staircases. There are flights of stairs and flights of books. Why just the other day I saw the complete works of Isaac Bashevis Singer V-ing across the sky, flapping their covers.

A book of elliptical, ambiguous poems is like stairs: the reader has to make an effort to climb them. A book of "accessible" poems, on the other hand, is like an escalator: the reader has nothing to do but passively absorb the information conveyed.

Why elevator rather than depressor? Doesn't the contraption go down as often as it goes up?

Ever see Elevator in the Brain Hotel, George Romero's sequel to Season of the Witch? Great soundtrack by The 13th Floor Elevators. Orpheus writes down surrealist poetry intoned by a talking elevator. Later, elevating Eurydice up from Hades, he looks at her reflection in the brass panel, and she disappears.

I bet an octopus with a knife in each tentacle could hijack an elevator.

Steven Fama said...

Geez, you've top-posted atop this great Pongian poem-essay already (July 6th now)!

Do you ever get into an elevator with an operator anymore?

I don't get to NYC much anymore, so I don't know if it's different there, but out here in California the only elevator operators I know about are in the State Capitol building (Sacramento, natch). They are very polite, and appear to have done the work for years.

I tend to offer to push the button myself but they insist on doing their work.

It has to be an odd job, operating an elevator.

steve potter said...

Hey John, An elevator repair guy once told me that if an elevator cable snapped, the result would more likely be that the elevator would go soaring to the the top of the building and possibly through the roof due to the counterweight being so much heavier than the elevator car and something or other about the section of cable most likely to snap. But there are apparently a number of backup safety measures to prevent any of that, unlike with deep sea oil welling operations. I sometimes imagine that happening when I get on an elevator, flying through the roof of the building like Willy Wonka and Charlie and Charlie's Grandpa at the end of Charlie and the Choclate Factory or Willie Wonka and the Choclate Factory as I guess the movie is called.

John Olson said...

David, yes, Magellan circumnavigated the globe in an elevator. Pressed the Asia button, absolutely. There is a panel in Seattle that offers Corinth, The Underworld, French Revolution, and Hesperides.

I do remember as a kid in Minneapolis men dressed in snappy uniforms who not only pressed the buttons, but announced floors, things on sale, the general news of the day, and passages from Homer.

Potter, the first one to shoot an elevator through the roof of a building wins the outer rings of Saturn and an all expenses paid vacation to the NASA space center in Florida. I think the trick is to eject it through the roof of the building so that it parachutes gently onto Orcas Island.