The other day when it was raining buckets, I got into an elevator already occupied by a woman. Her hair was soaked and beads of water as large as puddles clung to her coat. I looked at her and she looked at me and I said, "Is it raining out?" I had succumbed.
All my life, I have abhorred Elevator Talk. If I had my way, one of the signs that would hang in the elevator, in addition to the one listing the date of the last imaginary inspection and the one telling you not to smoke, would be one saying that talking is prohibited. That way, I would not have to talk to people I do not know. Most of the time, these conversations are about the weather because this is all that I and the other person in the elevator have in common. He says, "Hot out" and I say, "Sure is," when what I really want to say is, "No kidding, dummy."
I do not know what there is about elevators that compels people to talk. I first noticed this in the Empire State Building where I used to work years ago. People who would not talk to each other in the office felt obliged to say something on the elevator. People who would not think of saying anything to a stranger on the street talk to strangers once they get into elevators.
To me, an elevator is a cocktail party that goes up and down. It entails the same kind of small talk, an endless search for common ground -- the obligation to say something that by definition has to be meaningless since you've got to get the whole thing over before you reach your floor. Maybe all elevators should have canape trays.
For some reason, the fact that I often have melon for lunch is endlessly fascinating to people in elevators. I go down to the cafeteria, buy my melon and then take the elevator back to my office. "Diet food, huh?" someone says. "Pretty healthy," says another. Says me: "Just shut up. I like melon and leave me alone." Of course, I say all that to myself. What I say out loud is more likely "Yeah, right." And then I smile. I am, after all, a friendly guy.
Just to make things confusing, I have to add that there are elevator groups consisting of people who will not, under any circumstances, talk. These are often people who spend the day talking to one another. Put them in an elevator, though, and they clam up and usually stare at the lighted numbers indicating the floor.
There is, though, one thing worse than an elevator in which either no one talks or perfect strangers talk to you. That is the elevator in which two or more people are already involved in a conversation. I never know if I'm supposed to listen or not, although the truth is that I don't have the choice. I feel like an eavesdropper or, worse yet, that I have been left out. I want to leave, but there is nowhere to go.
If there is something worse than that, it is the elevator you enter where two people are having a conversation and they clam up the minute you get on. One person rolls his eyes, the other wears a don't-say-a-thing expression on his face, and you leave the elevator convinced there is still something you don't know about sex.
Somewhere, I know, some psychiatrist has made a study of the social dynamics of elevators. Why is it, for instance, that people always look so uncomfortable in them? Women look like they think they are about to be raped and men look like they are about to be accused of rape. No one knows where to look. God forbid eyes should meet. This is strictly against elevator etiquette.
Some of the same rules apply to buses. On them, you are also not allowed to look into the eyes of passengers when you first board. This makes it awfully hard to find a seat. The same rules say that the people who are already on the bus can stare at you when you board. This is because they are already part of the group. You join the group after one stop and then you can stare at whoever gets on. Boarding a bus is like pledging a fraternity. I have the feeling I will not be accepted.
But elevators are the worst. I know people who are afraid of them. They study the inspection certificate, listen for ominous sounds, and look for a rail so they can boost themselves up when the elevator plunges -- as they know it will -- to the ground. I'm not afraid of that, though. I'm just afraid someone will talk to me on the way down.