My roommate came home from work a few days ago with news: Our building’s elevators — both of them — were broken. Luckily, we live on the second floor. But it seemed mighty unfortunate for those who live in the upper reaches of the 13-story building.
It seemed less unfortunate an hour later, when I strolled down the stairs on my way to dinner and found that at least one elevator was back in service. But a return to service isn’t the end of an elevator mishap.
Most estimates say that five to seven percent of the world’s population suffers from claustrophobia — an affliction that is often set off by crowded elevators. Last night, as I took the elevator to the basement to do my laundry, I realized last week’s brief elevator incident was still causing a panic. And if you were to believe the people who had just stepped onto the elevator and realized their potential folly as the doors clicked shut, that percentage would appear to be very, very low.
Perhaps the most famous case of being trapped in an elevator was documented in this story from The New Yorker. The story of Nicholas White mainly serves to make you not want to be in his shoes — or in a similar elevator incident. And while most of the people in my building probably haven’t read that story, they certainly had generic visions of themselves in White’s situation flashing before their eyes. It was pretty apparent.
A group of six piled on in the lobby as I headed down toward the basement.
“This is going down,” one short, fair-skinned girl called as a warning. But the others wanted to just get on with it. As a tall, dark-haired girl took charge and pressed a dizzying number of buttons, I fidgeted and tried to position my overflowing hampers in the least intrusive way possible. The girl who had resisted taking this particular elevator to the basement and back boarded last. And as she completed her turn toward the front, the d00rs shut with a clank and she blurted, “I am so claustrophobic. It is going to be so bad if this elevator breaks again.”
And that didn’t seem to help anyone on this elevator that was due for 7 stops. A tall guy in the back of the elevator craned his neck to stare at the ceiling, and perhaps the airspace beyond it that he hoped he would travel sooner rather than later. The dark-haired girl by the controls seemed unfazed. A shorter, stockier guy shuffled to toward the sliver of open space behind my hampers, likely hoping for some fresh air. The other guy on the elevator kept his eyes moving, and I couldn’t help but notice them cross my hampers. Perhaps he was considering where he would sleep if we were unlucky enough to become stranded. Between me, my massive load of laundry and the door stood a girl with obnoxiously frizzed out bright red hair. She bolted enthusiastically out into the basement foyer to let me move past before gingerly reclaiming her spot next to the panicked girl, who was now rifling through her purse.
After putting my clothes in the wash, I went back to the elevators. I rode alone to the lobby, where another horde — this time 5 girls — was already worried about the elevator. They gawked at the opening doors and boarded as the building security guard yelled assurances that the elevators were fine. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between who said what.
They were all headed to the ninth floor. And they must not have paid attention to which floor I was going to.
When the elevator left the first floor, it gave a little push that you felt in your stomach, but the floor indicator still read “L” as we felt the opposite push kick in as if it were an enclosed roller coaster. At this point we might as well have been free falling.
“Oh my god,” one whispered.
“What’s happening,” another said loudly.
“Are we moving?” another wondered. Several began turning and looking around in the elevator, as if clues could be found around them.
And then the display ticked calmly to read “2” and a beep accompanied the opening of the doors. Silence broke out as I exited the elevator.
When my laundry was finished, I hauled it up the stairs.