I once wrote an article about elevators for a now defunct magazine. The story was, of course, titled Shaft, and I visited some of the more ornate elevators in the city. I spoke to a few surviving elevator operators, those men—and a few women—who spent their lives on their feet as they pressed floor buttons and opened and closed doors.
In America, I noted, the elevators are almost always large, designed to hold a dozen or more riders. In France, where I was raised, elevators were often little more than refrigerator-size metal boxes hung from steel cables.
In my family’s apartment building on the Rue de la Terrasse, the elevator did not work for more than a decade. It sat in the lobby, its door open and inviting, and guests visiting tenants were known to stand in the elevator pushing buttons for several minutes as they waited for something to happen. Nothing did, and after a while, the watching concierge would rise from the chair she occupied in the lobby and suggest the putative riders take the stairs.
The concierge told all the tenants that she had called the repair people several times over the decade, but no one ever had ever shown up.
Then, one day, a crew of workers arrived and dismantled the elevator car. They spent an afternoon in the building’s bowels and, for a miraculous month, the elevator worked. It worked so well, in fact, that people stopped using the stairs and rode for the sheer joy of it. If I did my homework on time, and got the right answers on the math tests, I was rewarded with an elevator ride.
My mother taught me elevator etiquette. When someone was on the same floor as I, waiting for the elevator to arrive, I was told to always say, “Bonjour monsieur,” or “Bonjour madame,” as the case may be. Then, I was to let them enter the elevator first and volunteer to push the floor button. I was shown how to slide the grilled door open, let the people out, and wish them a good day. Since a number of uncles and aunts lived in the building, I often dealt with immediate family, but still, my mother said, etiquette mattered.
I am thinking of this today because the two elevators in my building are automated, and require a security key before they’ll go up or down. Nobody talks while on these elevators. There is no eye contact. Riders restrain their dogs, and there is one lady with a pet rabbit who clutches it to her chest whenever she rides. We enter, turn, and face the door and stare into the few inches space in front of us. In the morning and evening, we stop at every floor and perform the elevator dance, as people move to the left or right to allow riders to get on or off. The etiquette seems to indicate that speaking to another rider is neither expected nor welcome. We should instead focus on our phones and use the time between floors writing text messages.
Yesterday, a friend and I had to take a large piece of disassembled furniture on the elevator and we earned a scowl from two young women who resented the amount of elevator space we were occupying.
Today, the morning stillness was shattered by an alarm. One of the elevators passengers had pushed the emergency stop button and the elevator had halted between floors. There was a flurry of activity, and when order was restored less than a minute later, two passengers left the car and one was in tears.
Here’s what I mostly remember about the article I wrote some years ago. There are more redundant fail-safes in an elevator than in almost any other means of transport. Elevators are far safer than cars. An average of 26 people die in elevators each year in the U.S. There are 26 car deaths every five hours.
Though destinations are limited, elevators are by far the best and the safest way to travel.