PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I guess I've always believed that there was something mystical about elevators. We get inside, and the doors close, and we stand still, and moments later they open, and we are somewhere else. They are Ferries to another dimension, but they are also places where anything can occur. In 1860 when the five story Grosvenor Hotel in London installed elevators, they were powered by city water pressure, and the visitors arriving from Victoria Station called them "ascending rooms." However, even then elevators had been around for centuries, and we can be certain that from the moment men learned how to hoist the stones of ancient monuments, they also hoisted themselves and upon reaching a new plane, enjoyed the view. Whether we call them lifts, cranes or hoists, they are all elevators, and even the lowly dumbwaiter plumbs mysterious depths.
Perhaps the magic is a legacy from childhood in New York City. What city kid doesn't run to be first to the elevator for the privilege of pushing the button or remember being scolded for pushing the button too many time? When I was little, elevators in new Manhattan office towers had just begun using magic buttons that sense body heat, and light green to summon the elevator. Is that still magic for kids in the age of touch-screens? Do they still test it to see how close they can get before it turns? Those were the elevators that started so quickly they left my guts on the floor and then stopped fast while my guts kept rising.
At about the same age I recall being amazed that there were elevators that opened on both ends and were so big that cars could drive on to them and get parked in upstairs parking, but they were nothing compared to the elevators at Madison Square Garden where sometimes the passengers were large elephants and the floor was littered with straw and manure. On newsreels I saw the elevators of aircraft carriers that lifted airplanes, but I knew the important magic was not size, but connections.
The ascending room I remember best was the one I rode each time I left or returned to our apartment on the 16th floor at West 86th Street. It had never been updated, as some buildings, to run automatically with no operator. The room was paneled in worn wood the color of chocolate sauce, but it sparkled, the brass controls were original and polished by use. The ceiling light had facets that glistened and reflected in the large mirror on the back wall that made the room seem large. If it wasn't quite elegant, it seemed enduring, and so it has been. I can still hear the creaking wood as it began moving or came to rest, and the sense of foreboding at rare times when malfunction forced them to open the doors between floors and I realized it was only a box in a deep, brick shaft.
Normally the shaft was hidden by heavy, metal doors. Riding in the cab, I watched them pass at each floor- saw how they locked from inside the elevator with bars geared to fit heavy latches top and bottom. At every floor, but especially at the lobby, the latch bars were worn and shiny at the spot where elevator drivers had grabbed them over decades of opening and closing for passengers. Of course, to me it seemed the elevator operators I knew had always ferried people there, they were eternal, and I knew them all by name.
I can still picture a tall, grey-haired man with a fading brogue and a black man named Willy and Henry. I especially recall Henry who had a German accent and a military disposition to match his cap and brass buttons. That was sixty years ago, and they still wore uniforms. Behind the metal doors was an accordion gate with two brass handles, I never knew why there were two because nobody used the first, and the second always looked as if it might soon come loose from overuse. The gate rode in a track at the top and bottom of the elevator cab and it rattled playfully as Henry swung it open or closed, but when he let me try, it took all my strength to budge it an inch or two. So Henry closed the accordion gate for me before relinquishing to my control the large brass lever that made the elevator go down when you swung it left and up when you swung it right, and, if I was coming home, with both hands I swung it right and began watching for the numbers at each floor except 13 because there was no thirteenth floor. Of course it all depended on if there were other passengers and who they were, but in any case I'd always watch the doors pass, and I learned to distinguish floors by the changes repairs had made to some of the closers and the careless ways the numbers had been applied and how they were chalked in where some had fallen off.
One can be hypnotized as the floors go by, and elevator culture is a curious thing. Sometimes people strike up spontaneous conversations with complete strangers and at other times pause in silence with friends. People on similar schedules find themselves riding up and down with similar people and over decades never exchange a word or learn each others names, and other people arrive in the midst of a running narrative that finally trails off as the elevator leaves them at their floor, and nobody else says a word, though we have all shared the cross section of an opera with no beginning or end, only the closing door.
If I forgot to keep watching and counting and we got to fifteen, Henry would shift position and look down, and I'd know my stop was next. If I could land the elevator within an inch of being level with the landing, that was pretty good docking, but Henry was always ready to nudge it up and down until the cab was perfectly level with the landing so no one would trip, before he unswung the accordion gate and pulled the bar to unlatch the door on the 16th floor. I knew he could land it level in a single move, and I sought to match his control.
I suspect that elevator operators in that same elevator where I grew up are still training a new generation to land the cab in one move. My niece and nephew, who grew up in the same building a generation after I did, may also have controlled the ascension room and recall operators who guided their navigations, and generations have followed since then. There are few buildings with elevator operators today; they've all gone automatic, and the space is not quite the same without the ferryman. Curious that in this most transitory of crossroads Henry and Willy have become welded to my soul while so many possible encounters were squandered between floors.