The Lives of Elevators
The longest smoke break of Nicholas White’s life began at around eleven o’clock on a Friday night in October, 1999. White, a thirty-four-year-old production manager at Business Week, working late on a special supplement, had just watched the Braves beat the Mets on a television in the office pantry. Now he wanted a cigarette. He told a colleague he’d be right back and, leaving behind his jacket, headed downstairs.
The magazine’s offices were on the forty-third floor of the McGraw-Hill Building, an unadorned tower added to Rockefeller Center in 1972. When White finished his cigarette, he returned to the lobby and, waved along by a janitor buffing the terrazzo floors, got into Car No. 30 and pressed the button marked 43. The car accelerated. It was an express elevator, with no stops below the thirty-ninth floor, and the building was deserted. But after a moment White felt a jolt. The lights went out and immediately flashed on again. And then the elevator stopped.
Along with this account, there are many other interesting things about the vertical-transportation industry to be gleaned from the article, such as studies on how passengers space themselves, elevator engineering, and psychology.
In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power
And who, at some point, has not pondered,
the age-old half-serious question of whether a passenger barrelling earthward in a runaway elevator should jump in the air just before impact, Pulling responded, as vertical-transportation professionals ceaselessly must, that you can’t jump up fast enough to counteract the rate of descent. “And how are you supposed to know when to jump?” he said. As for an alternative strategy—lie flat on the floor?—he shrugged: “Dead’s dead.”