Years ago, I ran an elevator in the U.S. Capitol Building. One afternoon, an elderly woman got on in the basement and asked for the third floor. My hand rested against the wall, and the woman leaned over to study my class ring embossed with the name of a college she didn't recognize.
"Where's that school?" she asked.
"Tell me," the woman snapped after a brief pause. "What's it feel like to be a 24-year-old failure?"
My wits were with me that day. "Probably not much different," I said, "than it feels to be an 84-year-old failure."
She fired back with an unlikely claim. "Young man, I used to be married to a congressman."
"There," I said. "What did I tell you?"
Elevators make people nervous and irritable. When pinched together in a room half the size of a prison cell, impatience builds up. It can turn a tiny social unit into a pressure cooker without a safety valve.
It's getting to be a serious problem, especially since the local population far exceeds the number of elevators. Arlington County has 1,208 elevators, Alexandria roughly 700, Fairfax counts nearly 2,000 and the District has literally thousands more with the number rising, as they say, every week. Nice to know, of course, but just try to get one.
The Capitol and six main office buildings that make up the congressional complex have 124 elevators, not too bad ... when they all work. Trouble is they don't always, and this results in some peculiar human behavior.
One of the more common problems is the allergic reaction known as "Elevator Eye." Confine 3,500 pounds of people in a box with nothing else to do, and they'll stare at the lighted numbers on the floor indicator as though they were among the juiciest of the Helga paintings. A group photograph with everyone gazing toward the heavens would make a good cover for a UNICEF Christmas card.
The individual rider also gets irritated at little things, such as the child who gets aboard when you're 10 minutes late for a meeting and says, "Let me push the button," then proceeds to push them all.
Perhaps the surliest reactions occur when conventioneers swarm into the car while you're holding four cups of coffee from the downstairs carry-out. You get a bunch of rowdies wearing "Holstein's Are Beautiful" buttons, all laughing about what happened to "good old Harley's false teeth." By the time they leave ("Ya'll come visit the spread someday, hear?"), you've got a shirt full of coffee and a homicidal feeling about Holstein's.
Passengers also tend to be driven nuts by those who talk in code. People step onto the elevator spewing gossip, but disguise the characters in personal and relative pronouns. Between the "you-know-whos" and the "they-did-whats," you develop a case of the "please-shut-ups." You can't figure out what they're talking about, wish you didn't care, and feel like an eavesdropper in a confessional.
So you stand there while a camera crew backs into the car and somebody jams a microphone up your nose. Or someone else -- who weighs in a little over the load limit -- drives a spiked heel into your Bass Weejun. It's no wonder that, like the Dr. Seuss story in which all the children are named, "Dave," all elevators have ended up with the same first name: "Damn."
Why is it that elevators bring out the worst in people? It has a lot do to with the basic operating principles of the machine itself.
First, there aren't enough of them. If elevators were life boats, most office buildings would have "Titanic" carved on their cornerstones.
Second, elevators are elastic and preset to do certain things. The main thing they do is shrink or vanish at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. They also are preset to lurch with a velocity to rearrange your plumbing, stop five inches above or below your floor, and occasionally quit altogether.
Third, the cars are too slow. The speed of all elevators was permanently fixed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 at a ratio inverse to the time you have to get where you're going.
Fourth, the inspiration for elevator doors came to a French peasant in 1793 while watching Marie Antoinette meet her destiny. Most modern office workers dashing to catch an elevator have been "Marie-ed" at one time or another.
Perhaps the most sinister principle on which an elevator operates is that it temporarily removes any sense of control over your own fortunes.
Even in this high-tech era, elevators are one of the few entirely automated means of travel. Normally, they'll go where you want, but according to their own route, and at their own rate of speed. They also take away your sense of privacy since the difference between an empty elevator and a crowded one is the same as the difference between sitting in your own car and standing up in a bus.
Elevators inflict extra pressure on people. But since the alternative is stairway aerobics, here are a few rules for riding that might reduce the chances for spontaneous combustion of the temper.
Keep your hands to yourself.
If possible, visit the rest room prior to departure. If you have to "go" and the elevator won't, you risk creating a major memory for you and your companions.
Keep your mouth shut. If you talk business, you'll sound pretentious. If you try to impress, you'll sound foolish.
No matter how frustrated, resist whispering, "There's a roach on the floor."
If you're in the front of a packed car and hear footsteps down the hall followed by the words, "Hold the elevator!" here's a way to mollify everybody: Lunge for the control panel, but deliberately miss the "Door Open" button. The person staring at you from the outside will think you tried, and the restless mob behind you will be glad you didn't.
If you're in the back of a full elevator and you're only going one floor, limp off and, for your own welfare, keep on limping until the door closes behind you.
There will be times when the door opens, and while walking out, you'll collide with someone else walking in. Do not use your fists.
No pranks. Building superintendents are not amused when you leave behind a banquet-size coffee urn with a cardboard sign reading, "R2-D2."
Be patient and try to remember you're inside what amounts to a cubed yo-yo. The same description might just as easily apply to your traveling companions.
Jim Stasny is a free-lance writer in Arlington.