Up or Down?


The light “ding!”ed above the elevator doors. 7PM. I was on my way home from work on the 61st floor. I stepped into the elevator to join 3 other strangers. Going home, too, most likely. Two women and a guy. The button marked “L” for “Lobby” was already lit. Everyone shifted accordingly, and I stood evenly spaced from the other passengers. I was preparing. I was ready. I might die. Three months now. Every time I entered an elevator, same mental drill.

The elevator began its descent. One of the women, of medium build and average height, looked nervous. Light brown hair; green eyes, maybe? She was tracing the left side seam of her coffee-colored skirt with her left pointer finger. The same two inches along her hip. Her head faced slightly downward, and it seemed her eyes were shifting. She blinked a lot. And her breathing seemed a little too shallow. And strained. Like an overheated puppy. It made me very uneasy.

No one seemed to know each other. The other woman was shorter, brunette. Attractive, except for the harsh frown on her face. She stood still for a few seconds before fumbling around in her purse. She pulled out a cell phone, flipped it open, and began scrolling through her phonebook. Everyone else averted their eyes from the phone’s soft, hypnotic glow. I tried staring it down.

The guy held a black leather briefcase. Six feet tall, late 30s or so. Dark brown, receding hairline, strong jaw, cheekbones; collar still perfectly starched and great-tie in a perfect double Windsor. Clear, striking blue eyes. He was calm and his face held a half-smile. Looked to be one of those guys in constant meditation. Helped settle my mind.

So we all took a few seconds to notice each other and to look unconcerned. Weird energy. God likes to put complete strangers in tight spaces. He likes to make us squirm. I kept most of my focus on a piece of lint on the floor as well as a smudge on the wall right where I was leaning. I didn’t know where those people lived. They didn’t know anything about me, either. They didn’t know I was an architect for that firm on the 61st floor. They could probably guess, since the firm was the only business on the floor.

I wondered about my elevator-mates. Why was that woman nervous? Why was that other woman frowning? Whom was she going to call? And the guy, what was he going home to? Why’d he look so happy?

Did the others wonder about me? Did they want me to stop looking at them? Were they equally curious about the piece of lint at my feet?

They didn’t know me. Nobody knew me. I was new in this enormous city. People stacked on top of each other for hundreds of feet, and no one says hi. No one smiles. My neighbors aren’t friendly and they are hardly gracious when I try to approach them. What’s the deal with this place?

53rd floor. Still dropping slowly. Ever so slowly.

Wherever I go, no one even tries to know me. Not even half-heartedly. We pass each other; we pass through each other like ghosts. I mean, if they tried, would I open up to them? Some things I would not readily admit. Like I have these very silly fears. Last place I lived was between the river and the ocean. Lots of bridges. I was extremely scared of being in an accident where my car would be pushed over the side of the bridge to plunge into the river/ocean/bay and I’d drown to death.

And since I moved to this great big city with all these tall buildings, I developed a fear of elevator cables snapping and freefalling to my demise. So what was I doing working on the 61st floor in such a tall, dangerous building? Did the other ghosties in the elevator with me realize I say a prayer each and every time I step into an elevator that I worried about and resented them at the same time? They’d die with me; their loved ones would suffer, but it’s their own fault, because they’re adding more weight to the elevator, making the cables more likely to snap.

If I’m going to die with these people, I’d sure like to know more about them. Some bonding would be nice in the last moments of my life.

51 floors to go. But we’ve stopped here to let on another passenger. Another guy, but decked out in business casual. This one was brown‑haired, too. Dominant trait, they say. Anyway, he was a man of smaller build than Mr. Windsor, but still, that was an extra 160 pounds, maybe, he added to the load? The pit in my stomach deepened, though not nearly the gorge we’d dive into if something went wrong. I wished the elevator went faster. But not too fast.

I tried breathing deeply, yet discreetly. Not much shifting happened when Mr. Casual stepped on board. And, naturally, somebody had to worry about unbalancing the elevator. I barely budged. All 110 pounds of me. Surely that helped. Ms. Tracer started fidgeting again. To keep myself from ripping her fingers from her hand, I hummed a little tune to myself. “Killing Me Softly,” or something like that. It was an exhale. Hardly audible.

So everyone’s eyes continued to face forward. I glanced over at Ms. Frowny. She and I had on similar shoes with tapering square toes. I hate those shoes with extremely pointy toes. Elf shoes. Genie’s lamps. They don’t look comfortable at all. And I have good feet. Terrific feet. Frowny had good hair, too. That I didn’t have. Not at 7PM after a whole day at work. How do people get hair like that? For a second it seemed her hair and cell phone were fighting for my attention. She was still messing with her phonebook. My hair never feels in place, much less perfect. But I never feel like messing with my hair. Serves me right.

47th floor. Was the elevator particularly slow to anyone else? No more stops after the 50th floor. It should be a straight drop from here. Gulp.

I needed a distraction. A really good one. I tried gripping my toes through my shoes to the floor. That didn’t work. I tried playing Rorschach with the smudge on the wall. All I could see was a turtle. And Humphrey Bogart. Looking at me, kid. Then my stomach resumed that sinking sensation. I looked for wedding rings. Only two out of the five of us wore them: Windsor and Frowny. I tried discerning the reasons for their expressions. Maybe Windsor had dinner waiting for him and two kids eager to see their daddy. Maybe Frowny hated her job because that took time away from her kids. Were Windsor and Frowny married to each other? Related otherwise, perhaps? Maybe Windsor was actually smug because he was getting away with an affair. Maybe Frowny just found out her nanny was stealing from her. Oh, the endless possibilities. It was passing time. And if the elevator was getting closer to solid ground as time was passing, I felt fine.

My mind continued to wander. What was marriage like? I’ve heard it’s hard work. I’ve also heard it’s a lot of fun. I have this really soft skin right behind my earlobes. Very tender, highly sensitive. Now that’s fun. I like to be kissed there. Mr. Casual wasn’t wearing a ring. Maybe he could help me out with that. But that would leave Tracer all by herself. Maybe she had a boyfriend and was going to his place right now. Hey, how did she find a boyfriend in this crazy city? Was he in an elevator?

Did anyone notice I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring? Was anyone wondering what my story was? Had Casual already decided to pair up with me should the elevator abruptly stop, or maybe even drop? Maybe as the elevator shot down he’d look me in the eyes and tell me he loved me. Probably not, though.

I sighed rather loudly. Anxious. I felt like puckering my lips and strumming them while humming. Not because of boredom, but because it would be fun. Kind of how babies do. Or, rather, how parents do to their babies. “Killing Me Softly” would do just fine for a tune. Imagine that in a “blurby‑blurby” sort‑of way. I slowly brought a finger up to my mouth, poised to perform, then something that never happens happened.

Just as we were passing the 41st floor, Tracer turns to me and asks, “So, you’re an architect?” Somehow, I kept my jaw from dropping, because (in my mind) that would have thrown the elevator’s momentum.

“Yes, actually, I am.”

“Anything exciting going on around town?”

Was she really talking to me? She seemed genuinely interested in my work. So I remained suspicious. “Well, we have a biggish commission in the south part of town, just east of 2nd Avenue.” I was wishing Casual initiated conversation, but this was just fine.

“Your firm’s doing the Magnanimo Building? That’s a little bit bigger than ‘biggish.’”

I stood up slightly straighter. Proudlier. “I’m actually overseeing that project. The guys don’t like that a girl is supervising them. It’s a really strong time for me.” At the same time my mouth was moving, my eyes were following the elevator buttons as they lit up in descending order. 37th floor and counting. I also heard a nasal huff come from Casual. I smirked.

Tracer replied, “My dad’s firm was competing for that commission. It would probably be wise not to tell him about you. He probably knows, though. It’s not like the contractors’ names aren’t posted in giant letters on the property down there.”

“True.” I was feeling a little self‑conscious. Everyone in the elevator could hear us. No one else was talking. Sure, they stared ahead, but certainly their brains processed everything that their ears caught. Everyone could go down to the future site of the Magnanimo Building and see my name in big, black block letters. Maybe I shouldn’t have come across so arrogantly at first. Four more people knew me–yay?–but they probably thought of me as some sort of taskmaster termagant. And a braggart. That’s not who I was. Or was I? I should have just started strumming my lips anyway. Now I was worried about my image. Was Tracer showing disdainful respect or obligatory sympathy? The elevator was creeping. We just passed the 29th floor. Well, if we die, at least my reputation would die with me. Mum’s always the word in an elevator. That’s the rule. Which I would break all the time, if I had friends to talk to.

What could I do, what could I do. Don’t panic. Deflect the attention. I asked Tracer, “So, I assume you work for one of the law firms on those top three floors? Are you a lawyer?”

She laughed sheepishly. “No, I’m just a paralegal. It pays the bills, you know? I’m actually a singer. I’m actually on my way to an audition uptown at 8:30.”

That explained her nervousness. “Oh, really? That’s cool. What do you sing?”

“A little bit of everything, actually. My parents sprang for singing lessons when I was a child. So I’m classically trained. I like opera. I also like blues and jazz. And Broadway. But I also like the Carpenters and the Beastie Boys and Justin Timberlake. I can’t believe I just said that out loud.”

I laughed. “It’s wonderful you’re so eclectic. I haven’t run into that many people who are that open. I like a variety of music as well. I don’t know if you could hear or tell, but ‘Killing Me Softly’ is tonight’s entire repertoire for me. It’s stuck in my head.” I sounded fake. Like the high school girlsnobs in movies acting like nice people. I didn’t mean to sound like that. I just wasn’t used to talking.

“You know, that’s why I decided to talk to you. A familiar little tune like that really helped settle my mind.” I wasn’t about to tell her it was her very fidgeting that sparked the song.

“Which version do you like better?” Tracer and I looked at each other. We turned to Casual, who’d asked the question. 23rd floor. I was stunned. And pleased.

Then Frowny chimed in. “I like the Roberta Flack rendition. It’s a whole lot more longing. And these days, longing is just about all I do.” Somehow I missed noticing when she put her phone away. Then I felt sorry for her.

Windsor said, “I like the Fugees. It’s fun to add that rhythmic, drummy element that makes me want to bob my head and tap my feet and attempt some sort of whiteboy spasm that I call ‘dancing’ to such a song about pain. I guess it looks like I’m in pain when I dance, so it’s appropriate.” Funny, I thought. The married man was actually funny.

Tracer appeared thoughtful. “You know, I can’t say I prefer one over the other. It just depends on my mood. If I feel like supplementing hurt in a more simplistic way, then Roberta Flack it is. If I want something a little bit more upbeat and conflicting, then I invite Lauryn into my head. Both versions are simply wonderful.” Oh dear. Cheesy sincerity. I was hoping her auditioners liked that kind of thing. She didn’t seem to like paralegaling very much.

Still, everyone nodded at this remark. And everyone’s eyes seemed to have lit up. What the heck just happened? One moment, we were minding our own business, then the next moment we end up talking to each other. As far as I could tell, we were complete strangers before stepping into the elevator. I was caught up in my own little world, doubting the world ever thought about me. But the world’s surprising; it stepped out to meet me. The world squirmed with me, was sinking to the ground with me. They probably didn’t worry about dying on the elevator, but they had their own issues. I guess we all had our own issues. We went back to gazing forward, but not without smiling.

For some reason, I could see Frowny liking Roberta Flack, but I couldn’t picture Windsor dancing to the Fugees. And Tracer was downright likable, almost too likable. Casual was quiet so far, but I admired that. I also admired what he could potentially do to my ears. My mind then wandered to a place where Casual was getting acquainted with my ears. Very acquainted. At that moment, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have friends.

Deep in my imagination, Casual was befriending the cartilage pieces sticking out of the sides of my head. Talking to them, nuzzling them. Hi there, ears, how ya doin’? It tickled, and I giggled. Out loud. I quickly opened my eyes upon hearing myself and hoped no one saw me blushing. I glanced at Casual. He wasn’t looking at me, but a grin seemed to be on his face. Most likely imagined it there. I so badly wanted to know his story. Maybe I’d want him less if I did.

It was quiet for a few moments after Tracer’s comment (thus giving rise to my pathetic daydream). Then Windsor broke into song. He really had a nice, baritone voice. However, it was a little strange hearing the words coming out of his mouth: “Strumming my pain with his fingers …” Everybody joined in, and Tracer harmonized as best she could with everybody else starting in a different key. Once she joined in, though, everyone magically agreed on a single melody line. It wasn’t “Let There Be Peace on Earth” but still, it was strangely unifying. The beauty of remakes: You’re neither too old nor young to know the song. Both versions were equally longingly achy to me. After the first strain, we faded out. Maybe we all realized the song could be sung nonstop. We stopped, though. Just in time.

Just in time. I knew it. I just knew. No one even noticed the elevator stop because it was moving that slowly. The cables didn’t snap. Not yet. It looked like we were stuck somewhere around the 11th floor. The whole time I worked there the elevator never went that slowly. Finally I had reason to doubt whether my fears of elevators were unfounded. I’d never even come close to driving off a bridge. But here I was, in a broken elevator. At least I was with friends, however extremely new. It was better than nothing. That I knew.

I wish I knew how elevators really worked. All I’d seen in movies is how people climb up and down those dark shafts. I looked up, trying to find the trap door. In my mind, I had already pushed the panic button. I looked calm, but I really wanted to scream. I should have been an engineer. I should have designed elevators. That way I would have at least learned to love my fear.

Casual grabbed the phone from the emergency box. “Hello? Yes. We’re stuck somewhere around the 11th floor. Yeah, there are five of us. … You’re working on it? … Well the elevator wasn’t running well to begin with. … Could you please just hurry?”

He put the phone away and turned around to face us. “Security said they’re aware of the problem and it’ll be a few minutes until it’s fixed.”

I stopped holding my breath. The others seemed to retreat as well when they heard the news. If the power had shut down, emergency lights would have come on. The fluorescent lights were still working; the “L” button was still lit up; we could still see the electronic display marking the 11th floor glow its bright, trademark red. Something was wrong with the elevator itself.

Tracer spoke up, “I hope this doesn’t make me late for my audition.” She was back to her nervous fidgeting.

Windsor responded, “So, you’ve had enough of your day job?”

“I didn’t say that. It would be nice to nail an audition for once. Something always comes up. If it’s not traffic, then it’s weather or a family emergency or food poisoning. Today, it’s a stuck elevator.”

“It’s not a bad voice?”

“Excuse me??”

Windsor sidestepped the accusation. “Isn’t that just the nature of the business? Don’t the majority of people in a hit-or-miss industry end up missing a majority of the time?”

“Welcome to the US economy,” Casual interrupted. “Every industry these days is hit-or-miss. Chances of landing a job anywhere seem pretty slim. The difference in odds between fields seems to be leveling out more. Maybe it’s just me, but I consider myself pretty lucky to have the job I do right now. I might not have it tomorrow. And who knows, when this elevator starts moving again, this young lady might land herself a Broadway role. What’s your name?”

Tracer hesitated. “Sam.”

“Sam, that’s a great name. I’m Gary.”

“Thank you. And nice to meet you.” And Sam smiled.

How cheesy. But I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Nevermind Gary was a better match for Sam. Nevermind he found her worthy enough to defend. Maybe he sticks up for all women. Maybe he’s chivalrous that way. I wanted to roll my eyes, because my heart has soaked so long in cynicism, but I didn’t. Somehow I found myself admiring him even more.

We stood silently for a few more minutes. Again.

Suddenly Frowny turned to me. “Do you know what could make an elevator malfunction like this?”

I was then aware that all eyes were now on me. “I really don’t know. I actually work with the engineers on a relatively superficial basis. When we collaborate, it’s pretty much to make sure we have the same vision as to where the elevators are supposed to go; that their location won’t compromise the integrity of the building–safety on his end, presence and aesthetics on my end.”

From their subconscious, disappointed sighs (which seemed almost choreographed), I could tell that was not the answer they wanted. I leaned against the wall and looked right back at the Bogey smudge. All I knew of elevators was that they were metal boxes. They transported people vertically to their respective floors. The insides usually had fake wood veneer walls and tacky carpet. The ones that still play music play pretty cool music. I didn’t have the slightest idea why an elevator would slow to a dead stop around the 11th floor of this building. Maybe it was a magnet thing. Maybe someone reset and recalibrated the speed.

What I didn’t know was that a relatively simple rope/pulley system controls those elevators in tall buildings–same system that would operate ours. I also didn’t know that 4 to 8 very thick, strong cables hold each elevator up; and should any one of them break, the others would keep the elevator from falling. I wasn’t aware of an additional braking apparatus at the sides of the elevators. The brakes are there just in case the all the cables give way. And what most likely happened in our situation that couldn’t even cross my mind was either the actual wheels in the pulley were sticky and our snail‑like descent was friction-based; or the counterweight balancing the elevator was somehow heavier at the other end of the ropes and slowed us down. Way, way down.

That’s why I told Frowny “I don’t really know.” Because I really didn’t. Were architects supposed to know such things? Why did Frowny assume I knew about elevators? Tracer–Sam–knew not to ask because she knew her big shot architect‑father even didn’t know. Still, I felt guilty for not knowing something others expected me to know. I was so confused, and my demeanor finally told the truth. No one could misconstrue that expression. Frowny’s frown grew downward. Another person who succeeded at not knowing me. Maybe she felt bad about being wrong. Although not necessarily about me. I just didn’t know. Could anyone know? No.

I wished someone would start singing again.

Trying to dodge further embarrassment and remembering I wanted to bond “meaningfully,” I asked everyone, “So, besides Sam, does anyone else have anything waiting for them when we get out here?”

I held my curiosity, just in case we didn’t end up dying.

Frowny was the first to answer. “I’m Alice. Sorry if I’m too intense. I’ve tried changing, but I can’t. Nervous and uptight. I just can’t escape it. Unfortunately, neither can my husband. He probably is wondering where I am. I was supposed to go right home, and we were supposed to have one of those ‘talks.’ The last thing I need is for Dax to think I don’t care about our relationship.”

Windsor broke in. “I doubt your husband has to wonder about you. You two met just out of high school, and in all of my years of knowing you, I’ve never observed you or him questioning in the least how much you love each other.” He held up his left hand to show his wedding band. “This. I’ve worn this for 12 years. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. I was just happy to be leaving the office earlier than 9 o’clock. You and Dax are the last hope I have of anything decent in this world.”

“Tim, just because it has looked like we’ve had a happy marriage doesn’t mean that has been the reality.”

I’m glad I don’t hate melodrama. Fun to discover the Alice‑Windsor connection, though.

Sam, apparently recovered from now‑we‑know‑Tim’s‑name’s attack, opined, “At least it seems you know what kind of commitment it takes to maintain your relationships. All I’ve ever been truly committed to is my singing career. I’ve never had a boyfriend. Passed up opportunities, I’m sure. I run into attractive men all the time. Sometimes we even talk, go out after an audition or work, but it has never gone further than that. I’ve always run away from it. They pursue, I turn away, turn down, turn in. I can’t break out of it, either; I can’t live any differently.”

The elevator phone buzzed. Energy shifted. Everyone shut up. Casual answered. He listened for a moment, and then he smiled. “Thanks. We’ll be here.” He hung up the phone, turned to us. He slowly raised an eyebrow. Then the elevator hummed. I felt the gentle vibration of a motor, and shortly after that familiar sinking feeling came. This time at a normal speed. I couldn’t have been more relieved. In a matter of seconds, the elevator softly landed. The “ding” came, and the doors slid open.

Nothing was going to escape from that vacuum. Mum. Everyone bolted. No one looked back. Sam raced to her audition. Alice and Tim eagerly went home to their spouses. I was speedwalking home, the same route I used for the past 3 months, hoping to shake off my humiliation and do some elevator research. Gary somehow chased me down.

He shouted after me, “Hey!” I stopped and turned my head; my ears perked. “You never told us your name.”

I looked down at my watch. 7:17PM. It should never take that long to die.

One thought on “Up or Down?

  1. Sometimes there’s trouble on the ocean, sometimes there’s trouble on the shore
    And there’s always someone hoping there won’t be trouble anymore
    It’s an elevator, baby, get off on any floor
    There’s only up or down

    Patty Griffin

    A good read. I hope all is well.

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