Whenever I go to a party or I am introduced to people I don’t know, they invariably ask me what I do.
“What do you do?”
And I always tell them, “I am an elevator operator.” I say that I drive an elevator in downtown Manhattan.
The reaction to my announcement varies. Some people smile politely and then move on to more interesting people. Some ask questions about the art of piloting an elevator in a skyscraper, if I ever forget the route, if I ever get lost. Almost everyone quips, “I bet that job has its ups and downs.”
Generally, when that happens, I’m the one to smile politely. And then I respond with some variation of the retort I learned my first day on the job and have repeated many times over the years: “It sure does have its ups and downs, but it’s the jerks in the middle that cause the most trouble.”
Operating an elevator was not my career choice. I actually taught English for 33 years to reluctant high school kids who preferred drinking beer and getting laid to learning English grammar. Teaching I discovered, like the operation of elevators, is also a job where “the jerks in the middle” can be the most difficult.
The reason I tell strangers who ask that I operate elevators is because of first impressions. I figure that people won’t expect much of some “mobile doorman” who also drives them up and down before opening and closing the door. That way if I say or do anything stupid, their reaction will likely be: “Well what can you expect? He operates elevators for a living.” And conversely, if I am witty, charming and brilliant, their after-conversation will go something like this: “He’s so cultured for an elevator operator. He reads books. He appreciates fine wine and he is a great conversationalist!” For me it is a win/win situation.
I did, in fact, operate an elevator at The Equitable Building, a 38-story office in New York City, located at 120 Broadway across from Trinity Church in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan. The building is a landmark engineering achievement designed by Ernest R. Graham and completed in 1915. Originally it was supposed to be 40 stories high, but it was reduced on the advice of consulting engineer Charles Knox. He determined the lower height as being optimal for its elevators, the very ones I operated for one summer, the year I graduated college and before I started teaching. My friend John’s father worked in the Maintenance Department at the building and he got the job for me, and for Sal, a high school/college friend who was also going to teach in September. After our interview, Sal and I in civilian clothes took the elevators for a spin in the middle of the mid-day rush under the watchful eyes of veteran uniformed operators. We both passed our driver’s test, and reported for duty the following Monday.
The boss, a man named Andy Rattazzo that everyone called “The Rat,” but not to his face, had a glass eye that glittered under the overhead florescent lights and a jutting jaw. He looked like Benito Mussolini, and like Mussolini, The Rat prided himself on keeping his elevators running on time. He had risen from the ranks of elevator operator to become the “boss of all bosses,” the final boss of temporaries and hangers-on in a dying industry, at a time when all the elevators in the building were slowly being automated. Progress meant forced retirement or unemployment for the many who had spent their lives and logged millions of miles going up and down the insides of skyscrapers. It was summer employment for a select few.
That fact that he was on a sinking ship didn’t deter The Rat from running a taut ship. So every day, before every shift, he conducted mandatory inspections of the crews, checking the cleanliness of uniforms, the starch in the collared brown shirts, the shine on shoes and the condition of fingernails. If someone didn’t pass muster, he was banished, with instructions to stick his shoes under the electric polisher or put on a clean shirt, to the Break Room, a dingy sub-basement filled with discarded office furniture and a leaky toilet the operators shared with the rats. It was where we spent time between our shifts, where the old timers griped about their changing lives, complained about the bosses and played practical jokes on the temps.
Spencer Something-son was a particularly favorite target. A big, beefy kid from Utah, he looked like a gorilla with his blond hair and glasses in his brown starched shirt and uniform pants with the satin stripe. Although he had started weeks before Sal and me, Spencer was eager to please and still so naïve he believed all their war stories from the “glory elevator operating days.”
“We used to have these contests in the old days, to shoot up the fastest to the Penthouse without getting caught, or to see who could pack the most people into one elevator.”
“But isn’t that dangerous?” Spencer asked.
“Only if the cable breaks.” They all laughed. “And then there was that contest to see who could wait until the very last minute before putting on the brakes and stopping the levelest at the Main Floor without crashing into The Pit. I think Rattazzo won most of them contests, before he became The Rat, of course. He won a lot of money and he still holds the building record for getting twenty-six people into a car designed for twenty.”
The elevators at 120 Broadway were organized in banks. The Local cars patrolled the ground floor up, stopping at each of the 35 floors of the 38-story building. They were the most difficult to operate because they involved the most stops, the most people and had the highest margin for error. The Express banks left the ground floor and traveled through a dark, enclosed shaft like a vertical tunnel that opened at the floors they serviced. The three Express banks were floors 11 to 20, 21-30, 31-35. There was also a separate, private elevator that went directly to the top three floors where the exclusive Bankers Club was located. Only the most senior operators ever got to drive that one.
As a safety precaution, a large red #3 bull’s eye was painted on the walls of each Express shaft to alert the operator that he was approaching the ground floor. It served as a warning to apply the brakes, which meant returning the control handle to the center position, so the car would glide to a smooth stop that was also level if the operator timed it right. None of the cars had automatic leveling devices, and each elevator had different accelerating and stopping characteristics, so stopping level at any floor depended on the car, the weight inside the car, the speed of the elevator as it approached the floor and the experience of the operator. In the event of an uneven landing, which was not unusual when there were too many people on board, or the driver was new, “leveling off” required slowly taking the car well above the desired floor and letting the weight pull it down again. Sometimes the maneuver had to be done more than once. The hope was that it would eventually settle relatively level with the floor. Failing that, the customary warning to passengers was: “Please watch your step. Jump up! Jump down!”
Stopping level at the ground floor with a full elevator hurtling down the shaft from above required great skill and a greater amount of luck. Seeing that red #3 bull’s eye was crucial to brake the elevator in time and avoid disaster. Of course the people who designed elevators had taken into consideration the possibility that a distracted elevator operator might occasionally overshoot a landing, so they built catchers in each shaft, at the bottom, called The Pit, and top, The Claw, with heavy springs to cushion the impact and steel hooks to hold the car in place until Maintenance was able to free the car and its contents.
What happened to Spencer the day he was fired was the topic of discussion in the Break Room for weeks after the event. Some speculated that he was trying to earn elevator history glory and outdo The Rat by setting two new building records – for most people in an elevator. They later counted twenty-seven. And for waiting until the last instant, which he seriously miscalculated, before applying his breaks. Others said that Spencer likely missed the red #3 bull’s eye and crash landed in the basement at full speed. Whatever the truth, neither the twenty-seven people trying to get out of the building for lunch, nor Andy Rattazzo were amused. The instant my friend John’s father and the maintenance crew freed everyone from The Pit, a shaken and dazed Spencer was stripped of his uniform and sent walking.
The building operated twenty-four hour schedule, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year. Work shifts and elevator bank assignments were a matter of seniority or favoritism. The career guys, soon to be searching for new careers, mostly opted for Express elevators on weekdays from 9 to 5. The temps got what was left. Daytimes were busy and nighttimes were lonely. Some old timers preferred working the graveyard shift so they could nap, drink or pull pranks on the unsuspecting. A favorite was pressing the call button on every floor to get a new guy in motion, and then scaring him by jumping out of the shadows when he opened the elevator door.
If the Local elevators were the most difficult, the freight elevator was the most peaceful, but only after hours when there wasn’t much freight to move. Temps never got the assignment during the day because the freight operators often got tips. Whenever I got the opportunity in the middle of the night, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was no roof on the freight elevator, so it afforded an unobstructed view of the entire shaft, all 38 floors, and piloting it was like taking a slow rocket ship into the dark heavens.
During my brief tenure at 120 Broadway, I tried to be a good elevator operator. I showed up for my shifts on time. I worked over-nights. I passed inspection. My shoes were shined and I smiled whenever I interacted with the public. I was even relatively consistent whenever I had to “level off,” accomplishing it with a minimal number of tries. But still there was a part of me that was curious, distracted, a part of me wanted to test the limits, to see just how far I might go up without getting hooked, how low without ending up in The Pit. Of course I didn’t want to kill anybody or myself in the process. Perhaps that was that wonder that caused the problem on my last day of work. Or maybe it was the image of a smiling Spencer climbing the maintenance ladder through the escape hatch in the elevator, wondering how it felt riding full tilt into the springs below. In any event, I missed the red #3 bull’s eye and kamikazed my elevator filled with Japanese office workers from Mitsubishi on the 28th floor into the The Pit. I don’t remember much, but I am sure it wasn’t me who shouted, “Remember Pearl Harbor!” as somebody reported hearing on the descent.
Of course I was fired in full view of everyone.
My friend Sal later told me The Rat gathered everyone in the Break Room and announced that my crash landing made a bigger impact on the building than the one he had witnessed in March 1942. That was when a seven-inch artillery shell fired by an anti-aircraft battery near the East River by mistake struck the 37th floor.
“It was one of eight,” The Rat told them. “The only one to hit. And I was right there when it happened. The other rounds all fell harmlessly into the river. That shell caused less damage, and no injuries.”
So my career came to an abrupt and crashing end. But I did make it into elevator operator lore, and in September I started on a new career path, teaching high school.
© 2011 Joseph E. Scalia