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Elevators I Have Known

Today is a day of quiet reflection as the elevator in my building undergoes repairs. Small paper signs appeared a week ago to warn us that the elevator would be out of service from 8 AM to 7 PM, and sure enough there has been a steady hammering from down the elevator shaft since early morning. Why maintaining the elevator should require eleven hours of hammering is something I try not to think about, just as I avoid asking why this particular elevator has to get its inspection certificate stamped each month instead of, say, every three years.

Elevators in Argentina rarely have automatic doors. Almost all of them use a kind of inner metal folding shutter that you have to slide shut after stepping inside. Sometimes this inner door is made of thin metal slats that fold up like an accordion, but more common are steel strips that criss-cross like a chain link fence, so that when the door slides closed you can see the inside of the elevator shaft through the gaps. When you are drunk in this type of elevator there is an irresistible urge to stick your keys or hands through the gaps and tap the numbers painted on the inside of the elevator shaft as they go by. Fortunately some atavistic part of the reptile brain seem designed to prevent you acting on this urge before you lose your keys, or a well-loved limb, at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

I often end up on the fifth floors of buildings. My parents' apartment was on the fifth story of a Warsaw apartment block, so this may represent some unconscious desire to return to the womb-like apartment of an irretrievable youth. The first elevators I can remember were the small Soviet boxes that served this apartment building. There were two shafts, back to back, and each elevator had a big red call button that would glow red when you pressed it with a small, sausage-like finger. The elevator required a large flat key to open its outside door, further adding to its mystique. When you stepped inside, the floor panel would drop a couple of centimeters with a disconcerting thunk. This turned on a weight sensor that told the elevator it was occupied, so that tenants on other floors could not hijack you to an unwanted floor before you had a chance to press a button.

I found myself missing this advanced socialist technology in Buenos Aires, as I would sometimes step into the elevator and slide the metal inner door shut only to find myself whisked away to an awkward and unexpected Spanish learning opportunity on a distant floor. Eventually it was made clear to me that I could override an unwanted summons by hitting the big red EMERGENCY STOP button, bringing the elevator to a sudden halt and leaving it unresponsive for a nervous five seconds or so. It would then obediently head to whichever floor I selected, unless I lost the button-pressing race with my hidden adversary again, in which case it was necessary to repeat the procedure.

I have already written about the saddest elevator I've ever known, in a pink residential apartment tower in Beijing's Haidian district. My life there was bookended by another elevator a few hundred meters away, in a glass box office tower where I worked.

Unlike my home elevator, the work elevator didn't have a Hans Christian Andersen attendant; instead there was a disembodied female voice that would sing out the name of the floor as the doors opened. The office tower was part of a complex that included a Wal-Mart, and so to use the technical term was underelevatored. Most people who worked in the building would arrive at roughly at the same hour, and then the wait would begin. I could never understand how the elevator decided whether to stop on the ground floor or continue into one of the many subbasements, where Wal-Mart employees would load it with large boxes and space-consuming pallets. At times it would stop on the ground floor and then continue down, at other times it would stop and then surprise everyone by going back up empty, the deceitful "down" arrow flipping to "up" after the doors had closed in front of us. Many times it would not deign to stop at all, going from subbasement to top floor and back, leaving a growing queue of Chinese office workers crowded into the lobby, watching the creepy flat-screen televisions that looped the same two-minute advertisement. It was rare but not unheard of to have to wait for over twenty minutes before reaching the front of the elevator queue and squeezing in to an available car.

The drama would repeat in reverse at lunch tme, with every office leaving to eat as a group (Chinese are gregarious diners) thereby overwhelming the elevators again. A downbound elevator would stop on each floor only to reveal an apologetic wall of humanity. Chinese people have no compunction about squeezing in, but even before everyone had eaten lunch it soon became physically impossible to fit another body; and the elevator would open its doors and disappoint the waiting crowd on each successive floor below with its display. Elevator etiquette required that as soon as everyone had entered the elevator the person closest to the buttons should begin mashing the "door close" button. In deference to both Western and Chinese superstitions, the building did not have a fourth, thirteenth or fourteenth floor, but this hardly sped up the descent at all.

I began keeping increasingly odd hours, coming in after ten, bringing my own lunch, and staying later than everyone else just to avoid the elevator circus. Leaving the building after midnight I would stand in the darkened hallway, wait for the chime, and hear the mellifluous Chinese voice say "fifteenth floor" as a crack of light opened between the doors. Then I would mash the "close door" button like a good citizen and walk the few hundred meters back home in the pitch dark back to the apartment towers, passing silent couples holding hands in the dark and taxi drivers snoring in their cabs. My reflection in the brushed metal doors of the elevator looked like a pale big-nosed ghost. I always hoped some insomniac Chinese child would board the elevator as I made my spectral return home, so that I could terrify him with my computer pallor, but for once in that crowded city I had the elevators all to myself.

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