If you ride an elevator often enough—especially to and from a high floor—you can turn this experience into a psychological study of your neighbors, both the two- and four-legged kind. Such close confines offer a focus on some of the most animal aspects of humans, and the most human aspects of some animals.
A damning revelation of human benightedness crops up both inside the elevator and just outside where people wait for it. Inside, the button for the ground floor has been pressed and is lit up. As a new passenger steps in on a lower floor, he or she does one of two things: Either look at the lit-up 1 button, and do nothing, the sensible thing to do; or supererogatorily press that button once or even, in a nervous staccato, several times. This, I am sorry to say, is stupid.
Outside, when the elevator door opens on the ground floor, there is all too often some wretched person smack in front of you, a mere foot or two away, and thus blithely blocking the egress. Of course, the person does eventually step aside or back, but not before having given excellent proof of mindlessness.
Then there is the matter of what conversation may arise during the ride. The most likely subject, the only one of sure concern to all about to go forth, is the weather. You will recall the saying ascribed—with no great certainty—to Mark Twain: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The joke is in the absurdity: how could anyone change the weather? But perhaps the absurdity is even greater: why even waste much time talking about something that you can’t control?
Well, like almost any other subject, the weather can be discussed intelligently or not. Just to utter the cliché the characters sing about in the Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes musical, Street Scene, “Ain’t it awful, the heat?” is of very limited interest. But suppose someone says, “It’s funny. In the August heat we always think we can cope better with a severe winter cold. On a freezing January day, we always say that even the worst heat is better than this.” Not a particularly brilliant observation, but at least one remotely connected with thought.
And, incidentally, one can do something about the weather: dress accordingly. But in the elevator we usually see people dumbly dressed not by the weather, but by the calendar. It may be the most wondrously balmy winter day—65 or 70 degrees—but because the calendar says December, these folks are swathed in layers of clothing. And vice versa: on an unexpectedly frigid July day, with the temperature at an almost unheard-of low, these unfortunates go out in paper-thin batiste shirts.
But let’s get back to elevator talk. To begin with nomenclature, what about the very name “elevator,” which in my mind often conjures up those ugly elevator shoes worn onstage by short actors and singers? The British term, “lift,” adopted by several other languages, is much more attractive, even if you don’t get much of a lift out of the ride. The French ascenseur is quite melodious; the spondaic German, Fahrstuhl, too ponderously earthbound. To be sure, most people are not particularly sensitive to language; if the elevator were called glubglob, it would be just the same to them. Contrarily, the angel that frequently appears in the works of Cocteau, euphoniously called Heurtebise (something like wind-repeller), derives his name from a model of the Otis elevator.
Anyway, talk. Some people will compliment a fellow passenger on his elegant Savile Row suit or her stunning Hermes pocketbook. Deep down, such compliments may please everyone, but the more discriminating person might take umbrage at them as flattery. A fond Dad or Mom may revel in your praise for a cute child; an owner, in admiration for his pure breed Afghan. But then again, must one fill two minutes involuntarily spent with a stranger with chatter? Isn’t a hello or a good-bye quite enough? As long as it isn’t that saccharine “Have a nice day.” But beware of persons who, you feel, cannot stand a couple of minutes of dead air. Those are the undesirably insecure.
Speaking of the cute child, however. Every so often there is the doting parent who must bestow a lesson in elevator science on his tot, explaining what button to choose, how and where to find it, and the way to press it. Or, as more commonly expressed, push it. This can fill you with apprehension: what if the darling presses or pushes the wrong button anyway? The resultant delay is not tragic, unless you are in a great hurry, but somehow, in the close quarters of an elevator even a minor deviance feels like a delinquency. Proximity, like a magnifying glass, enlarges things.
Now what about dogs on the elevator? There is a goodly difference between a well-behaved dog who cleaves to his master or mistress, and one that can’t be restrained from nuzzling you. But an even greater, mysterious difference is between dogs who, upon arrival, respond only to a tugging leash, and others who actually sense the proximity of the desiderated ground or home floor, which will provide them with a walk or bring them back to their quarters. These know exactly when and where to position themselves with palpitating spout, ready to leap forth the moment the door opens. How do they do it? A mystery, like that of the migration of birds, I suppose.
Finally, there is the person with an elevator phobia who refuses to enter one, and not merely because it is too crowded or usurped by carts or strollers. Such a person is also unwilling to walk up more than a given number of floors, and if you live higher than that, won’t visit you. If it is someone you don’t care for, bless the elevator. If it is someone you like—well, what are restaurants made for?