The Elevators

Joel Weinbrot

Martin smiles inwardly at himself, presses the number “14.”
“Come on, old Charon,” he declaims broadly, “Hell’s the other way!”
—Robert Coover, “The Elevator”
Pricksongs & Descants, 1969

A man walks into a lobby. He nods to the doorman and boards an elevator. The music descends like mist. The doors become a wall. The elevator rises.

A man walks into a lobby. He nods to the doorman and boards an elevator, alone. The music descends like mist. The doors become a wall. The elevator rises. The doorman adjusts his watchband and stares into the rain.

A man walks into a lobby. He ignores the doorman, approaches an elevator, but does not board. He looks behind him. The doorman, he sees, is trying to eat a sandwich too big for his mouth. He waits a few minutes more, then boards. Outside, the clouds are low and gray. There’s a cockroach on the floor.

A man walks into a lobby. He is an artist but not one the doorman would recognize because, to the doorman, art is for the birds. The artist stops short before a row of 4 elevators, all of which open simultaneously. The doorman yawns, making a grand total of 5 cavities from which the artist may choose as a point of ingress.

A man and a woman stumble into a lobby shouldering luggage, both still giddy after narrowly averting a major car accident on the way from the airport. They stand in the lobby breathless having just run through the rain. The man drops his luggage in a heap and, cradling her face, kisses the woman, deeply. His wedding band feels like bone on her cheek. The doorman examines his watch and grimaces. Of the building’s 4 elevators, 2 are immediately available, their doors open.
“Let’s race!” the man says, his lips and eyelashes glassy with rain. He runs into the 2nd elevator, nearly slipping on the way, and begins tapping frantically at a button.
“Come on, slowpoke!” he says, tapping. “You’re going to lose!”
The doors become a wall and he’s gone.

A man walks into a lobby. He nods to the doorman. The doorman does not acknowledge or return the nod because he’s reading a newspaper dampened from the rain. The man faces the row of elevators, 4 of them in all. He looks at the floor indicator. The illuminated numbers spell the year his daughter was raped and murdered and dismembered on a highway in Maine. He decides to take the stairs. The doorman is frustrated. Goddamn rain has made all the ink letters run together and his stocks are down. He throws the paper into a waste receptacle.

A man walks into a lobby. He stops before the elevators. This is no ordinary man. This is a large man. No need to be circumspect here. He can’t hear us. Let’s say it. Let’s just say it. We might describe this man as mammoth. Not to be cruel but so we’re clear: his earlobes have conspicuous girth. Okay, enough. Indulgence is rarely a virtue. We’re on the same page, I think. So the man, let’s call him W, this very large man named W, usually makes a point of returning to the building in the wee hours of the morning, two or three a.m., when he knows he’ll be able to procure his own elevator and ride comfortably alone up to the 8th floor to visit a friend who can’t leave his apartment for, well, the reasons are too personal for me to reveal. You wouldn’t believe me anyway. It doesn’t matter. Listen: this friend, though, he demanded W come midday today, and so he is here, in the lobby, immobile, sweating, and wet from the rain. W, of course, is self-conscious about his size, especially in circumstances where proximity factors in acutely.

The woman watches the floor indicator change as the elevator rises and water gathers around her heels. Raindrops cling to her earlobes like diamonds. Her cheek is cold where the ring touched it. When the floor indicator stops, she approaches the remaining elevator, but pauses at the threshold. Behind her the doorman taps something. Water idles down her cheek—or at least she thinks it’s water: it might be blood.

The man has been in this elevator before. More than a few times. 9 times to be precise, not including today. Every Tuesday, the man enters the building and waits for this elevator but only boards if at least one other person accompanies him. He’s made a deal with himself: if he boards the elevator and another rider presses the 10 button—the top floor—he will interpret this as a sign to go ahead with his plan to leap. But if no one presses the 10 button, well, then, there’s always next week. But Tuesdays have come and gone and no one, as of yet, has committed to 10. Last Tuesday, another person boarded, a woman holding a clutch of mylar “Get Well!” balloons. The man could see his gaunt countenance reflected in the balloons 7 times over. The woman pressed 9, swore softly and made a face, confessing she’d intended to press 10. “You can still,” the man said with something like hope in his eyes, but she declined, explaining that she was a woman who stood by her missteps.

The City Fathers sanction the artist’s project. The 1st exhibit appears in a building on the Lower East Side. What was once an elevator has become a mouth. Human lips made out of some sort of moist rubber. Teeth inside—2 with caries. When the lips open to receive a passenger, breath redolent of truffles expires. The passenger boards and discovers the floor under her feet is spongy. A tongue? But she realizes this too late. The mouth closes and the digestive process initiates.

W’s immediate problem: every time it seems he might procure his own elevator, another resident strolls into the lobby, presses the already-lit elevator button, and waits for the doors to open. When the elevator arrives, the new resident boards. W, of course, doesn’t due to the acute-proximity factor. Then there’s a moment of static awkwardness. W and the resident look at each other from radically opposed worlds. A sense of imminent departure charges the air. W, not knowing what else to do, nods to the resident. The resident exercises an arthritic thumb or perhaps studies the ceiling or fingers a fob chain—you get the idea. The doors do not become a wall. Do NOT. It’s almost as if the elevator relishes the awkwardness. They stand like that forever, face to face, awkwardness without end, without relief.

Two men walk into a building. Having just met, the men don’t know each other from Adam but are carrying on as if they’ve been friends for years. They’re laughing heartily at the unwitting expense of a woman they jointly observed limping through the rain and cradling a small dog bundled in Saran Wrap. The woman fell splaylegged on the curb and the dog ran into rush hour traffic protected from the elements, if nothing else. One of the men laughs so hard he begins to retch. “That dog looked like a…like a—” but he can’t finish the thought. Spittle shoots from his lips. The doorman is visibly annoyed. The men cross the elevator’s threshold together and the laughter is vacuumed from their faces. They each press a button and stand side by side, like twins, waiting anxiously for the doors to become a wall. The men find they have nothing more to say to each other and so say nothing.

No, no, scratch that idea. The doors become a wall, as they always do, and the man, this very large man named W, is left alone, except for the doorman who looks up from his magazine and shoots him a withering glance. W shifts his weight to his heels. The doorman can’t believe it. He straightens his jacket, brushes lint off the silver stripes lining the lapels. What a joke, this racket. A comedy if he ever saw one. If he had his way he’d set a flamethrower to the godforsaken place.

W waits, mortified. He wonders: how had he gathered all this…
this flesh? Somewhere in him, there is bone, he is sure. At night, in his bed, he imagines it buried inside him, his lost skeleton, its form grown baroque under the relentless mounting pressure of his being. Trapped like a fossil, the skeleton he imagines no longer serves any structural function, a useless thing that has no discernable relationship to the mass that houses it. He waits, nervously shifting. Meanwhile, his introspective faculty descends into his bowels like a dumbwaiter. The word it eventually recovers is “hoarded.”
Not “gathered”: hoarded. The doorman flips a page. It was true, wasn’t it? He was a kind of miser. All these years, his psychic distress vis-à-vis his size only appeared to be related to his low self-esteem. Beneath the feeling that he is hideous or ridiculous—beneath the feeling that others perceive him as hideous or ridiculous—lies something else: guilt. W now realizes that when people gaze upon his enormity, the primary feeling it arouses is, in fact, guilt.
But why?

Quickly, she dumps the luggage into the elevator. Some of the pieces lie on their sides, overturned like vandalized headstones. She removes her wedding band, places it atop her vanity bag, presses the 5 button. Then she walks past the doorman, out of the building, into the rain, never once looking back. She is sure she’s bleeding from somewhere, hemorrhaging. The doors become a wall. The elevator rises. The floor indicators match. They remain at 5 for 5 minutes, side by side, but then split, the numbers slipping, one rising, the other descending. The doorman uses his thumb to rub the crystal on his watch, but it’s no good: the moisture clouding the face is on the other side, out of reach. He looks at the puddles on the floor of the lobby. They really should clean up that mess before someone kills himself.

In his core, W discovers that he feels he occupies too much space. Way too much. More space than is due any human being. For this reason, for this audacious imposition, he feels he is hated and envied and feared. The fact of his presence makes a tacit bid for omnipresence. How dare a single man obscure so much of the world? The hubris. The imperialism of it. His doctors have told him that despite his size, he is showing no sign of the ailments typical of the obese: diabetes, hypertension, gout, angina, etc. It’s a miracle is what they say. The man suspects he will grow and grow, and the more space he occupies, the more of the world and its secrets will be hidden. Moving is no help. If he moves, yes, something will be revealed but an equivalent something will disappear from view. Spatiality, for the man, amounts to blasphemy.

[Exhibit 120] Title: out of order

[Exhibit 1234]: Title: stuck (epoxy resin, bone chips, houseflies)

[Exhibit 3121]: Inside the elevator, a replica of the electric chair from Sing Sing, circa 1951. Title: witness. The City Fathers
refuse comment.

The elevator doors open. W looks around. It’s a miracle. No other resident has strolled in. Could it be? He looks behind him. No one there but the doorman, who rolls his eyes, huffs, snaps his magazine straight. Outside the lobby doors, he could see the rain frothing on the sidewalk. He turns back to the elevator. The man has been immobile for so long it takes a few moments for his motor neurons to coordinate and heave his heft into action. But then he takes a step, then another and another; and then he’s inside the elevator, alone, except for a cockroach crushed flat in the corner. He turns around, presses 8, and waits for the doors to become a wall.

[Exhibit 5]: A corporate building on 13th Street. Each panel of the elevator is a different color—blue, red, yellow, white, green, orange: 6 in all. The passengers board; the doors become a wall. It is observed that if exactly 6 passengers board the elevator they will orient themselves in such a way so that each faces a different color.

[Exhibit 52]: An elevator is transformed into a cage. For a month, jungle birds nest in it. They flutter from perch to perch, wings beating, a wild distribution of color. Customers proffer nuts through the bars. One unfortunate bookkeeper loses a finger up to the 2nd knuckle. Dander amasses. The birds scratch up the paper that lines the floor. Rumor has it that the scratches are coded doomsday messages. The next month, a lion cub replaces the birds, but, to everyone’s frustration, it sleeps most of the time. The next month: a bug-eyed lunatic. The veins in his head throb bluely when he sleeps. Who feeds him?

The woman deboarded on the 9th floor and walked away, the balloons bumbling behind her. The doors became a wall. The man didn’t know what to do. Under what circumstances did intention trump action? He didn’t know, he didn’t know: he wasn’t a philosopher. But before he could apply more thought to the matter, the elevator began to rise. The doors opened but no one was there. At the opposite end of the hallway he could see himself reflected once again, this time in a window pane, his image afloat in the stormy evening beyond the glass, suspended in midair. He stared until the doors closed and then looked at the array of buttons, 1 through 10. Quickly, he began pressing them, all of them—he had to be quick or else all was lost. At each stop, he expected the image to be already gone, fallen, but no, there it was every time without fail, the morose face returning his gaze expressing indifference to its terrible inexorable descent whose culmination he himself could never witness.

He wonders if his friend will be angry with him. This friend,he’s the kind that angers easily, though it’s not his fault. It’s his condition—you might say it’s his pre-condition. W feels anxious. From his perspective, the lobby is an unremarkable painting framed by the elevator’s threshold. The doorman rolls up his magazine, taps it against his chin. W bites his lip. When will the doors close? He shuts his eyes and concentrates, willing them to draw together…it works! The frame begins to collapse. The doorman disappears, the lobby thins into a column. Soon, he will be on his way. But when the doors draw to within a hand’s-width of each other a hand shoots through the opening. “Wait!” a woman’s voice calls from the other side.

The doors bounce open. “Fuck yeah,” the woman says, boarding the elevator. W looks at her. She has a red Mohawk, slick from the rain and angled on her head like a weapon. Sparkles spark on her eyelids. Her shirt reads: “behold your god” (little b, little g). She squeezes in, undeterred by the limited amount of elevator-space available to her. W’s heart is thumping trochees. He considers stepping out of the elevator but something about the woman or the situation, he can’t tell which, keeps his feet planted. He doesn’t move to accommodate her. “Ten, Buster,” she says, feeling along the shellacked edge of her Mohawk. Buster? The mascara trailing from her eyes make them look like grotesque fish. W presses 10, the tip of his giant finger nearly blotting out the entire button.

[Exhibit 1777] & [Exhibit 1778]. The former: a man, naked from the waist down, sitting in the corner of the elevator masturbating aggressively. The latter: a woman wearing an elevator operator cap and performing a striptease. The elevators: constantly on the move, stopping on some floors, bypassing others, without any apprehensible pattern. Doors specially timed to provide glimpses
of the activity, though sometimes they don’t open at all. Other times, they remain open for hours. The City Fathers frown behind their faces.

“Wait!” a voice calls. A hand shoots through the opening, the
doors bounce open. “Train nearly left without me!” the man on the other side of the threshold says, smiling. He is cradling a baby in his left arm. Or one must assume it’s a baby—it’s wrapped and blankets and all he could see is its misshapen head. The man, sniffling, boards the elevator. The baby is pale and silent and damp. The lights in the elevator flicker. Thunder rattles the walls but the
music descends like mist.

“Wait!” a voice calls. A gloved hand jams between the closing doors, forcing them open. A young police officer stands in the threshold, his uniform sopping wet. A pair of handcuffs dangles from his belt, a glittering 8, a hip-slung infinity. “The long arm of the law saves the day,” he says, displaying the arm. The police officer smiles, revealing a missing incisor, the dark square suggestive of open elevator doors behind which no elevator exists.

[Exhibit 243]: The button panel replaced by a rotary dial. The passengers gather around it. They are first puzzled, then amused, then addicted.

[Exhibit 1017]: A set of 4 elevators in a redbrick apartment building in Midtown. Painted on the back panel of each is a giant Hebrew letter. Taken together the letters spell the Tetragrammaton—_____ —the sacred name of God. Over the course of the exhibit it is observed that at no time are all 4 elevator doors open simultaneously, on the same floor.

Hold it!
Wait! Wait!


Wait! Wait!

Hold the doors, please!

Today will be different though. He has a feeling about today, which is why he’s bending the rules, why he’s inside the elevator, holding in the “Doors Open” button, waiting patiently for someone, anyone to join him. The man looks out into the lobby. The doorman scowls at his sandwich. Mushrooms hang off the sides. Through the lobby doors, he can see the rain slanting down, dicing the sky. He looks at the cockroach. Did it move? He thought maybe it did. No, no it’s probably dead.

There’s no way to tell how many people are aboard the elevator. He figures anywhere from 10 to a 1002. It didn’t matter. W stands in the center, sweating. Everyone else is marginalized, mashed up against the walls, noses squished, anatomies compromised by the scraps of space relegated to them. The man could feel the woman’s Mohawk against his neck, insistent as a mugger’s blade. The police officer’s handcuffs are pressed against his thigh. The baby is crying. “I can’t find my baby,” says the man who was holding the baby. “Who has it?” “Not me!” “Not me!” Not me! People struggle around him, legs and arms jockeying for position. He hopes the police officer says something: “Sorry, too many passengers, folks. As you can see by the posted ordinance, we’ve exceeded the weight capacity. Someone is going to have to step off!” But he says no such thing. The baby continues to cry, though no one can find it. The doors become a wall.

Elevators are the talk of the town. Time names “The Elevator” the Vehicle of the Year. As some elevators are more popular than others traffic patterns have changed. An elevator on 60th Street and 2nd is said to generate an antigravity field—passengers float like goldfish in the cab. The metropolis is shifting. The Consumer Product Safety Commission disbands. Underground, the City Fathers blink in the face of their powerlessness. There doesn’t seem to be a building without at least 1 of its elevators re-imagined, and even when a building’s elevators appear to be untouched by the artist’s hand, could you ever be certain? There might be some subtle but significant change if you just looked hard enough. If 6 people board the same unremarkable elevator in a given building each deboard with an entirely different idea about what the elevator had meant to convey. Reports are filed: passengers boarding elevators in buildings uptown but emerging from elevators in the Bowery; bright elevators sighted streaking over the skyline like artillery fire, clipped hoist cables whipping behind them; denizens entering elevators in the darkest corners of the Seaport and disappearing forever. The artist refuses to respond to interrogations, abdicating responsibility and saying only that the elevators must carry the weight of their own meaning.

“Eight please!” a muffled voice says. “Anybody else?” W asks politely, but there are no takers. The baby’s crying sounds as if coming from far away. “Where’s my baby! My baby!” W struggles to press 8 again. Miraculously, the elevator begins to rise, its progress slow and strained as his cursed metabolism. W looks up at the ceiling. He can hear the elevator’s worm gears squeal as they abandon their tooled shapes. “What did I do to deserve this?” a voice laments from somewhere beneath him (…2, 3, 4…) “I can’t feel my leg!” someone else whimpers. “Is this some kind of joke, Buster?” (…5, 6…) “Isn’t this unlawful?” Unlawful, surely, but is there any recourse now? W’s friend is going to be very angry. Waaaaaaaa! The lights flicker, the elevator inches upward, and as it does, W feels himself growing larger, denser, amassing mass, though he’s unable to determine if he’s metabolically generating flesh or gathering (hoarding! hoarding!) it from the bodies that surround him. Who has done this to us? someone wonders (is it him?) as the baby’s crying becomes his own and the other voices merge with the strident wailing of the worm gears. Then, abruptly, somewhere between floors 7 and 8, the elevator comes to a jolting halt. Simultaneously, the lights go out and later, much later, before the fall, when everything is still, W, a lone heartbeat trapped between planes in the dark, can’t tell where his breathing ends and the world’s begin.

The dog, the woman, the Saran Wrap, it’s all forgotten. Now it
is very awkward. Very awkward indeed. The first man puffs air as
if lit birthday candles were before him. The other feels along a conical skull whose hairline is in full-scale retreat. The elevator
rises. The music descends like mist. Outside, traffic worsens.
A Chinese ambassador perishes in a plane wreck. Decembers
wither. Countries gravely underestimate one another’s ideologies, gods, resolve, in precisely that order. A great and terrible temple
rises from the rocks in the east. Wars gape, bombs bloom.
Seaside cities tilt and sink; cars bounce down the avenues like pinballs. Every last cockroach dies. By the time the moon
descends into the ocean and crumbles in its salts, the bald man begins to shift a little in his suit. He pulls at his collar. Then he smiles at the other man sheepishly, raising his eyebrows and
drawing in his lips, an expression he constructs anytime he
finds himself trapped in an inescapable social mechanism.

[Exhibit Unnumbered]: A glass elevator buried in a frozen lake in Central Park. The City Fathers abandon plans to build an underground observation deck. Children on skates peer down through the ice to see what they can see, their noses and cheeks deadened by the weather. They say a man is buried inside!
Could it be the artist?

There’s a cockroach on the floor. It might be dead. The man waits and waits for someone to come but no one comes. 7 or 8 minutes pass. The doorman punches his sandwich flat. The music descends like mist. The man breathes it in…up, up and away in my beautiful balloon… OK, new deal: if the cockroach is dead then he will interpret that as a sign to go ahead with his plan to leap. But if the cockroach is alive, he won’t. That was fair, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? He looks at the cockroach. The antennae twitch. No. The lights flicker. The doorman adjusts his watchband and wishes for rain.