You may have given some thought to which famous people you’d most like to host at a dinner party, but I want to know who you would pick to be stuck with in an elevator. Or even more interesting, who you would not want to be stuck with in an elevator. Let’s assume Solange and Jay Z head the list.
My no-thanks roll call would also include the agitated American I once spent a few tense minutes with caught between the upper floors of the Post Office Tower in London. I was visiting the landmark on a school trip forty-five years ago this month, during The Transatlantic Air Race.
Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first flight between the USA and the UK, the event saw competitors trying to clock the fastest time between the top of the Post Office Tower and the Empire State Building in New York. One enterprising team landed a vertical-take-off Harrier Jump Jet in the heart of London.
The man in our stalled car was upset. There he was, stranded just a few steps from the finish line of his attempt, jammed in with a bunch of kids. He seethed as the minutes ticked by, and introduced us to some new American terminology. It brought a whole new meaning to red, white, and blue.
I’ve been stuck on other occasions since, including a rather sweaty hour or so between floors in a hot Florida storage unit. But thankfully I have not had to endure anything like Nicholas White’s two-day ordeal.
Yet even when they are functioning, elevators are typically very uncomfortable for folks. When people board one they tend to either go the look-at-the-floor or stare-at-the-buttons route or overcompensate with exaggerated cheeriness and corny jokes. Such awkwardness has been the subject of sociological researchers and pranksters.
For me, riding an elevator with others can be a helpful interruption of my self-centered world. It’s a reminder that life is bigger than my view of it, that there are so many other real people out there, beyond my horizons. My fellow elevator passengers are more than the two-dimensional characters I pass in a moment on the street or while driving without even really thinking, but less than the three-dimensional people I know and interact with more deeply.
They are somewhere in between, flesh and blood without familiarity. Close enough to register but distant enough to be just out of focus. Their uncomfortable presence reminds me that other lives are going on out there—we’re all only riding together because we each have somewhere else to be, after all—beyond the range of my awareness or interest. And that they all have concerns and joys and fears and hopes every bit as important to them as mine are to me.
I always want to know, Where and who have these fellow passengers come from, and where are they going and why? What’s on their mind? What’s in their heart? What’s in that bag they are carrying? Maybe if we found ourselves caught between floors I’d have time to discover, I’m struck in the middle with who?