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Stranger in a Strange Elevator
Coming face to face with your inner alien

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, November 18, 2007

When you work in a very large building, you get used to certain elevators. Maybe yours services the lower floors, or the odd-numbered ones or another pattern determined by people who know more than you do about moving workers from here to there. You wait for your assigned door to open, enter, nod to neighbors you more or less recognize, folks with jobs somewhere along your same upward route. That there are people working elsewhere, way below or high above you, is kind of bizarre, if you let yourself think about it.

Today I am thinking about it as I travel upward to 28, a foreign land, to deliver a package to the linguistics department. My usual stop is 5, English, which we have just weirdly zoomed past. This is the "H car," an express elevator that doesn't even pause at 5. I wonder about my fellow upward travelers, how it must be to know nothing of 5. But the really bizarre part is the guy with the beard. We just made a stop on 20 -- history? accounting? -- and the bearded guy got on, and he's standing here, facing inward. Inward! All of us are obeying normal elevator etiquette, looking outward, upward at the lighted numbers above the door, and this guy is standing here, tall, towering over the rest of us, dark hair, blue eyes, facing our shy faces.

Dude, I want to say. Turn around. It's bad enough that this elevator is at or beyond capacity, all of us breathing the same humidity. I've got my elbow pressing into a guy's wet leather jacket, and somebody's drippy umbrella is aimed at my chin. No one wants to be standing here. No one. An elevator, especially a crowded one, is a thing to tolerate and be done with and forget.

And now we have this inward man.

It would help if someone would do something -- a little "Ahem," or a sniffle -- to acknowledge the awkwardness. But no one is doing anything. What is it with the people who work at this higher altitude?

Mercifully, we stop at 22. A woman in the back needs to get out. That shuffles things around. Some of us step out, rearrange ourselves, but when we get back on, the bearded one resumes his inward stance.

Dude! I make eyes at the wet umbrella woman, try to say, Isn't this odd? But she is not cooperating. I can't get anyone's eye. What is with the people of the H car?

I come up with theories. I think the inward man is a terrorist; but, no, he would be more covert. I think we are somewhere in the atmosphere of the drama department and this is performance art. I think we are in the vicinity of the sociology department and the inward man is studying people's reactions to broken patterns of normal, everyday social engagement. Or, he is a hip young Turk who reads alternative newspapers and is staging a protest, and this is something I am supposed to understand.

Now, if we were on my elevator, the K car that stops at 5, someone would surely do something about this situation. Someone would say, "Hey!" Or, "I never saw anyone stand like that!" My people are different. My elevator services the chatty folks in the East Asian languages department on 10, and the bleary-eyed philosophy majors on 13, and the ever-entertaining French and Italian professors on 18. My people would say something to the inward man, offer to help or make a joke to soften the weirdness.

When I was in Russia in the late 1990s, I remember some odd elevator etiquette. People faced every which way: sideways, frontways, inward, outward. Just no pattern at all. Perhaps we are somewhere in the vicinity of the Slavic languages department, and the inward man is just one of many who carry on as they do in the old country. This is the theory I land on, anyway. People on the express elevator are different, and I don't belong among them. How strange to experience culture shock in a building I have worked in for more than six years.

Some jostling on 24 causes the inward man to tower over me directly; my face is now planted into his coat, a wet wool blend with a history that includes plenty of time with mothballs.

"Ahem," I say, because I can't stand it anymore. " Ahem!"

"Do you need to get out?" a woman asks me. (Like I'm the odd one?) "Crowded elevator," I say, awkwardly. "I don't usually take this one. I work on 5."

"Five!" one says. " Five?" This remark elicits actual laughter. I fake-laugh, pretending I understand. (Something about how I should take the steps?) I apologize for working on 5. "Um," I say. "That's where my office is."

" Five!" The laughter goes on and on, as the full blast of cultural estrangement overtakes me. I will never understand the joke of 5 or the language of these wacky foreigners.

On 28, I flee the H car, breathe, deliver my package to a secretary. As for my trip down, I elect to take the stairs all the way to 18, where I know the French and Italian folks will escort me safely home.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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