Essay: This car up

Words: Cirrus Wood
Illustration: Alex Despain
Originally published in Issue #39

Imagine another room appeared suddenly in your house. Or if a room had always been there and you just never noticed. This room is a self-directed chamber, wandering and windowless, with doors that open and shut on their own. Sometimes it’s on the first floor, and other times you go up the stairs and find it on the second. An errand might send you to the basement where you find this mysterious room had followed you down. No matter where you go it always seems to get there first.

You might understand now my suspicion of elevators. It’s a silly form of distrust. Anachronistic even. And it’s mostly because I have no idea who is actually driving the thing. Every other form of transit, from submersibles to hot air balloons, has some knowledgeable service person to conduct you along your journey, to offer words of advice, to cheerfully maintain comfortable service. But in a modern elevator a mechanical ghost does all the work.

BT 39 Essay illustrationI would never have guessed when I began working as a bike messenger in San Francisco that this would be the form of transportation I use with greatest frequency. I ride the same bicycle all day, take two trains, but in an average shift I ride six elevators.

I haven’t kept precise track, but it would seem that at least a third of the ones I ride were made by Otis. The variety of Otis elevators is astounding. I can’t think of any other form of transit where one name holds so much of the market, or with such diversity. There are Otis elevators by Union Square that lift one upward as though in a flying birdcage, and other more contemporary ones along Market that make you feel as though you’re locked inside a bank vault. There are a few cantankerous ones in SoMa that give an excellent idea of what it might be like to ride out an earthquake in a filing cabinet, and on a grander scale, several absolutely cavernous models big enough for surgery.

The second most common elevators are Westinghouse models. But unlike Otis, there are no new Westinghouse models being made. They were acquired by the Schindler Elevator Company in the late 1980s. Only the newest buildings have Schindler elevators, and whenever I get in one all I can think of is: “Schindler’s lifts.”

In a Schindler car, every piece is always in top form. The lights will brighten at every floor. The button that closes the door will actually close it, and quickly too. In any other lift, I would be glad for this, but something makes me feel ruffled when I enter a semi-crowded Schindler, the crowd rearranges, and someone hits that button. What are they doing? We can fit another person! Don’t they realize this is a Schindler?!

When I enter 525 Market Street with the delivery I head straight for the elevator. Unlike most of the high-rises, 525 has no concierge. The majority of the concierges I meet are quite personable, but there are a few who fulfill their role with the sort of militancy best reserved for guarding nuclear research facilities. But at 525 there’s none of that. There’s barely even a lobby between the entrance and the elevator doors, and the elevators themselves are the modernist type, all faceless steel, gliding in a vacuum, leaving the passengers unsure if they’ve actually gone anywhere till the doors open again and the tiling has changed.

There’s something foul in this elevator. A slight, but detectable smell, vinegary and meatish, like a spoiled tin of Vienna sausages. In a few more floors it will be gone and we can all pretend it wasn’t us. This is a blessing of urban life, the continuously presented opportunity to dispose of the past with every passing block. Or in this case every floor.

The doors open on the 27th floor and I exit. The customer has left instruction to leave her order at reception, which I do, then pause a moment. This lobby is decidedly unusual. The light is soft, and every surface made of the same black stone, except for the far wall, which is glass. There’s very little in the way of decoration and the bareness only strengthens the sharp lines of the structures outside the window as you gaze out. This is the room’s focus, as though I had walked within a camera obscura.

The main subject within the frame is the Shell Building. It’s a stunning structure—a succession of tiers and artful cornices, carved in shapes resembling sheaves of wheat and large scalloped shells. A gothic revivalist wedding cake.

Then a picture entered my mind. San Francisco has recently become the darling of disaster movies, each centering around the destruction of some attractive landmark, which means Sutro Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid were both spared but the Golden Gate Bridge was stomped repeatedly. To watch any of them you would think the films’ creators were absolutely furious with infrastructure. The city would eventually meet its end in an earthquake, naturally.

But in my version, nothing would topple, only be shaken loose, like coins off a bedsheet, then rise upward, every structure suspended—houses and boxes, towers and pyramids. A mass of floating glass and concrete come unmoored. Then a sweeping tongue of fog would push through the Golden Gate and lap them all across the bay, where inland thermals loft them all yet higher where they join the jet stream. They would float as loose balloons. Grace Cathedral, the Ferry terminal, the Pyramid, the old Mint. Later, above the Sierra, they condense into clouds and rain down. The valley will flood with them—the Merced and San Joaquin overflow their banks…

I have a tendency to daydream, a bad habit when your work requires timeliness. There’s no reason for me to stay. I’ve dropped off the package and there are other jobs waiting. So I turn, walk back, and catch the other car down. I get in and the doors close. This car has the same stink as the first. You’d think in such a fancy office high-rise the custodial staff would be more attentive. Did someone boil hotdogs in a pair of underpants between floors?

Oh, I realize, gazing around the empty car. It’s me.



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