I always loved elevators as a kid. Of course, I didn’t get to ride in many; maybe the odd visit to a doctor who had his office in a building uptown or maybe a visit to a department store where the elevator operator would call out the items to be found on the next level. This was generally before escalators so stores like Klein’s or Macy’s had elevators. The elevator operator was a dying breed even then but I always thought it would be a great job. You would meet hundreds of people a day, make new friends with the regular shoppers and it was a kick to operate the big iron handle and gate that you had to pull back to let people out. I loved the way the lights for each floor would glow as you hit your desired floor, and the soft dinging of the door as it opened and closed. It was all very charming.
That all changed when we had to move to the Robert Fulton City Housing Projects on Ninth Avenue in the mid-sixties. At first, it was very exciting to be living on the twenty-third floor, and the elevators were modern, slick steal cars that smelled of machine oil. These elevators didn’t have lighted buttons; they stood out from the wall of the car so you punched them down rather than pressing them in, but still all good.
Until the elevator became a place of terror. There were two kinds of terror we experienced. One was due to the fact that this indeed was a City Housing Project so that meant the damn things would be out of service about an equal amount of time that they would work. We forgave the times that were unavoidable, like the two famous city blackouts when all power throughout Manhattan was lost. But it was harder to forgive when all the other elevators in the city, and there must have been millions of them at the time, were working fine, except for the ones at 418 West 17th Street. On a sweltering day, after walking blocks from school to get home, to then find you would have to climb twenty-three flights of concrete stairs in the dim light of exposed bulbs, well that was a bit much. What we learned, of course, was that it was way better to stand there fuming at the “Out of Order” sign than have the thing stopping while you were on it. And yes that happened more than once; no air conditioning, the smell of oil and the cologne or perfume of the person you were riding with could make it a nauseating experience. We also learned, of course, to love perfume and cologne as opposed to body odor and piss which would soon become the prevailing scents of the elevator cars. That was the first kind of terror; a psychological and sensory one.
Then there was the real terror, the physical kind. You see, again being a City Housing Project a lot of the renters were a bit less than law-abiding and kind. Let’s face it, a number of them were addicts, dealers, and muggers. Most of the time there was no problem on the way up. If you were waiting with someone in the lobby who you would cross the street to get away from if you saw them coming, and the elevator came, you just suddenly remembered you hadn’t checked your mailbox, and the said bad guy took the elevator available (there were three, all mostly malfunctioning) and you waited for the next one.
No, the problem was going down. You would get into the car on the twenty-third floor and for more reasons than expediency, you would pray it didn’t stop on any other floor. Over the years, we got to know the “good floors” and the “bad floors”. If it stopped on the twenty-first floor, no problem; you knew the nice old ladies that lived there; if it stopped on the nineteenth floor, watch out. That was one of the “bad floors”. The worst of the drug pushers lived there, and they themselves were always stoned out of their minds. I never figured how they could run a successful business selling drugs if they themselves were blotto all the time. Capone never drank the booze he sold; he just sold it – let the other suckers get bombed; he just took the money. Smart man. But these jokers on the nineteenth floor were anything but smart. But they were big, scary and loved to make a little kid tremble. Each and every time I was unlucky enough to have the car I was riding in stop on that floor, and one of the many dealers got in, listing to one side, cheap leather jacket loosely tossed over a shoulder, cigarette lit and smoking, it was the same routine of terror.
“Where you live kid?”
“Upstairs” never tell them the actual floor number.
“What you do?”
“Umm go to school”
“You being smart with me….you don’t think I went to school or sumthin?”
“Ummmm no..I didn’t … I mean… you asked….”
“Maybe I need to teach your smart ass a lesson” This is the point where he takes out his knife.
“Eh…no no you don’t need to do that …..totally not necessary”
And on it went. Sometimes I was saved by the car stopping on another floor, and a bunch of older adults who weren’t dealers got in. Sometimes it went on and the only thing that saved me was reaching the ground floor.
“After you” I would say.
“Wise- ass kid…don’t fuck with me kid” he would say as he staggered out the door. As if I ever could.
“No sir….not me….no fucking going on here”.
It went on for years; sometimes I actually did walk down the twenty three flights just so I didn’t have to deal with it, but the stairways got to be even scarier so it was a no win situation. You just had to hope nothing really bad ever happened.
One day as I came home from school there were a whole bunch of black cars and police cruisers parked out front, way more than usual. I asked an old man who was sitting on a bench out front, as he did every day of the year, no matter what the weather:
“What’s going on?
“Raid,” he said matter of factly.
“Yup…. FBI… finally got those bastards dealing drugs upstairs”.
I knew before I asked.
“Upstairs ? you mean….?
“Yup….damn nineteenth floor.”
Well I thought, I was impressed. I thought they were idiots who couldn’t keep themselves straight enough to find the front door, but to warrant a raid from the FBI….well they must have been more effective than they let on. To this day I don’t think I have ever ridden in an elevator knowingly with someone who was wanted by the FBI. And here I was being harassed by some every day that damned elevator decided to stop on their floor.
Things got better after that; I wasn’t as scared anymore to take the elevator but to this day whenever I am in one and it happens to stop on the nineteenth floor, I feel my legs weaken a little. Those things never leave you.
You may think you are past it all, a grown up, an adult now, but deep inside there is a scared little kid just praying for another ride to end.