—–There was a period in my life when I was constantly riding elevators. As you know, every ride in an elevator results in another ride–obviously, elevator rides appearing in pairs, even if the down ride is eight hours after the up ride–though in my case it was during a period when I lived in New York City and was looking for a job, which I never got so I had innumerable job interviews in tall office buildings, up rides in fear and anticipation, down rides in a complex mood half-sorrow and half-relief.
—–During this same period I had a group of friends who were always having dinner parties, and they were all great talkers, but I was the best talker, or anyway they always wanted me to tell stories. And it was difficult to come up with material, because I wasn’t doing much, except riding elevators. One night I told the following true story, except I added a few details to make it more exciting.
—–I was riding this elevator, cruising upwards toward the twenty second floor and the elevator stopped about at the tenth floor, the door opened and there was a woman standing there (I remember her vividly to this day). When the door opened she didn’t move, but she looked right at me. I was standing dead center in the elevator, staring out, and the woman said: “excuse me, is this elevator going up or down?”
—–Well, I don’t know why I did this, but it was entirely spontaneous; I sort of paused like to consider her question, and then I actually forgot which direction I had been going. Then I thought, the elevator door will automatically close in about one second, and I looked her right in the eye and said: “shut up.” The elevator door closed on her astonished face, and I went sailing upwards, out of reach, giddy with emotions I could hardly suppress. I was about doubled over with laughter when the door opened on the twentieth floor, and I stumbled out, through a small crowd of entering elevator people.
—–I told that story at the dinner party, and it was a big hit. I gave the impression that my life was total adventure, and I probably gave a lecture about how it is literally impossible to be bored in this world if you are alert to all the comedy in it. But someone said they couldn’t believe I had actually done that, and I said, no it actually happened just the way I told it–only I added maybe one, or two, scenical details to make it vivid to the listeners.
—–“Oh yeah, which details?” the guy wanted to know (and he was the host of the party).
—–“Well,” I said, “I am not sure I really forgot which direction the elevator was going, literally. I mean I did have a sense of panic, but I can’t remember exactly –it might be true I forgot. The rest of my thoughts were exactly the way I related it,” I continued to assert, “especially the thought of saying ‘shut up’, that was the main thing.”
—–“Okay,” my interrogator then said, “what was the other detail?”
—–“Oh yeah, there were two details,” I replied, “at least, that I fixed a little.” He was looking at me like he found me out, and I had to stare right back at him, like to keep my integrity. I said, “if you want to know, the other detail I added was . . . well, I didn’t really say ‘shut up’. I just thought of saying it, but the door closed too fast. I was going to say it. I did double up with laughter at the thought of it, though, and the woman never did get the answer to her question.”
—–“Thought is real,” I said, with an air of finality.
—–“Well, this is ridiculous,” the host said. Several others panicked too–and they said, “what are we supposed to believe anyway, when we talk to you?”
—–Then I tried to salvage the elevator story by saying that really, the interesting thing is that when that question was asked I thought it was like a test question, for me–like the woman just wanted to know if I knew the answer. It never occurred to me that she wanted to know, actually. I mean I wasn’t trying to be cruel, certainly! It was just this existential episode, central to my life on elevators.
—–“You are totally unreliable,” someone said. It got to be known as “The Shut Up Story,” and since then that group of friends have never believed me about anything. I just went entirely in the direction of adding details to everything, and I became a novelist. In my first novel, there were many scenes on elevators, of course, for I could discourse on the subject forever.
—–It isn’t as if I don’t pay a price for these obsessions–I mean alot of suffering can eventually result from intense speculation and focus on what, to other people, may seem entirely incidental or not worth mentioning. Obviously, the vast majority of all elevator rides taken by all the people in the world have gone on unrecorded, I mean unheralded, people just are quiet about alot of their experiences. But once I am on a subject, I can’t leave it, every elevator ride is taken with increasing excitement; I mean I advance in my substantial appreciation, just because I gave it thought.
—–And, I admit, there were days when I just rode on elevators for no reason at all. I’d go into a building on Seventh Avenue, walk right up to the bank of elevators and wait, get on with other people and pretend I had a destination. It was only awkward when, say, I’d arrive to the top floor with someone else, and have to get off–or say: “whoops, I missed my stop!” Usually, I’d get off, and it would be awkward if it was the lobby, say, of a Stockbroker’s firm, because anyone could tell from the look on my face I had no business there, unless I could be classified as . . . a suspicious character–so it would be under guard of heavy stares from the secretary that I would retreat, hoping the elevator would come back as soon as possible so I could go down, or rather back inside the relative safety of the elevator itself.
—–Also, I wasn’t married at this time, so I was always thinking I would meet my wife somewhere, accidentally, for I thought she, my wife, pre-existed and just needed to be looked for, like I lost her and couldn’t remember where, because of this strange life of riding elevators I felt like I’d lost a memory of more than that even–of everything somedays, and I’d keep riding like to get my memory back, scared, in a sense, to get off the elevators. I say, this is a type of suffering. And I would relate those stories to my friends at dinner parties, and get no sympathy, but just more laughter. It was turning into a conversational genre, these elevator stories, and other people tried it to–or they tried subway stories, or bus ride stories.
—–I encouraged people to come up with their own stories. It was as easy as being alert and remembering what had happened, I thought.
—–Of course you aren’t supposed to be super-alert on an elevator, you’re among a group of strangers who are supposed to stare straight ahead, and self-conscious behavior makes everyone feel uncomfortable. But I would create episodes before I knew I had done anything, and I’d say things to people when there were just two of us. Like . . . “nice shoes!”, if I was staring at somebody’s shoes senselessly for thirty seconds.
—–Through all this I never suffered totally, though, cataclysmically–that was reserved for the next summer, when I finally found a job, which was not in one of the office buildings as an Editorial Assistant for a publishing company (where I belonged), but, believe it or not, running a service elevator.
—–It was on 47th Street, which is called Diamond Street, where all the jewelry shops are, and I got a job running a service elevator. I couldn’t believe they hired me, but I was desperate for work. The trouble here was that I couldn’t operate the thing right. It was an old-fashioned elevator, with a lever operating its up and down motion, and it didn’t stop automatically at floors, you had to make decisions, and expertly line the moving elevator up with the floor you were . . . approaching. I was just no good at it. Also, the doors were actually open and these guys with big boxes on wheel-carts were waiting, so they’d watch me, impatiently. You could look right up and down the shaft and the elevator had a glass roof so I could see right out of the skylight, and I could see the vibrating wires that held the elevator up, and I was terrified (unreasonably) that the thing would suddenly drop to the basement and crash–or by some other action of its own nature suddenly zip upwards and fly right out of the building.
—–I couldn’t get the floors lined up, but would slowly approach the moving floor–or, obviously, it was me that was moving, the floor wasn’t . . . so, I was always disoriented–and then I’d flinch and my hand would move the lever too quickly so I’d drop suddenly, half a floor. The movers, with boxes full of diamonds, would curse at me. I had that job two weeks, and I was demoted on the janitorial staff, to cleaning bathrooms. They put me on the fifteenth floor and told me to clean the bathrooms on every floor, like that was enough to keep me busy for years. I quit that job on the seventh floor.
—–Some people say they decided to become writers. I think in my case it was . . . unavoidable.