My childhood playground? Funny you should ask. My father owned an eleven-story office tower in Raleigh, NC. Naturally, it had elevators, and the elevators were hands down my very favorite things in that building. In the early 1960s the old crank-operated machines with their colorful (and colored) operators were replaced with automatic self-service cars that, wonder of wonders, had music “piped in”, as my mother called it.
In a closet in my father’s office, on top of a brown steel cabinet that had too many drawers to count,
was a huge, early tape player that employed a large endless-loop cartridge the size of an iPad. I couldn’t imagine how the music reached the elevator cars, which not only were far from the player, but they also moved up and down through the empty, largely unseen space of the elevator shaft in the building’s core.
One song from the collection of elevator music on that big cartridge will forever haunt me. Undoubtedly it haunts many. It is “Unchained Melody.”
The score was written under contract in 1955 by Alex North as the theme song for a prison film titled “Unchained”, about a prisoner’s dilemma: either he escapes prison for a life on the run or completes his sentence to return to his wife and family. The theme of the film was that prisoners are human.
North wanted Hy Zaret to write the lyrics. At first, Zaret refused. He was too busy painting his house, he claimed. Eventually he gave in to North’s request, though he refused the film producer’s request to include the word “unchained” in the lyrics. Instead, Zaret’s focus was someone’s pining for a lover he had not seen “in a long, lonely time.” Both men were Jewish. Both Anglicized their names. Alex North was born Isadore Sofer in Chester, Pennsylvania. Zaret, born in New York City, was Hyman Harry Zaritsky at birth. Their song was among the most performed and recorded of the 20th century.
The sounds in that song—longing, wistful, mysterious sounds—were the perfect accompaniment to the mystery of the two elevator cars moving so quietly through the hollow shafts that extended from the basement to the eleventh floor.
Above the top floor of the building, rising from the roof, was the elevator machine room, which housed the hoisting machinery and the controllers,
never seen by those who rode inside them. They did the work that made the cars rise and fall in a safe, predictable manner, day in and day out. The machine room was hot in winter, unbearably so in the summer. Whenever the elevators were in motion, the noise, the constant clicking clacking and whirring of the gizmos that choreographed the elevators’ movements, was a complex mechanical symphony, music perhaps only to the ears of the mechanics who visited regularly to service them, or to me and my young fascination with things electro-mechanical.
Rise and fall, speed up, speed down, precisely meet the threshold, open the door, close the door, avoid duplication of effort: an elevator’s straight-line, vertical dance is a complex affair. Every movement must be perfectly timed. Every action must be coordinated so that riders are well and safely served.
The elevator car, or cab, is a unique environment, meant to be occupied only very briefly and, of course, with simple purpose, as it is merely a means of transport. After you get on, you ride in dutiful silence, unless you’re among friends; and even then, you converse quietly, pointedly, to avoid puncturing the tender, invisible membrane that separates you from those you don’t know. Elevators are no place for deep discussion, despite the solemnity that typically prevails in them.
Undoubtedly, significant encounters have occurred in elevators, as in Allan Sherman’s parody of “Hava Nagila”, which he titled, “Harvey and Sheila”, a song about a couple who fell in love in an elevator.
After observing the elevator mechanics do it, one slick trick I mastered—and thoroughly enjoyed—was riding on the top of the elevator car, using the control panel mounted there so the elevator could be controlled right there during shaft and machinery inspection. Operating in inspection mode, the elevator would not respond to normal passenger service demands. It ran in slow speed through the shaft under my control. That was a strange, fascinating adventure, to ride as if on my own private mechanical elephant that could hoist me to the top of the building or lower me all the way down to the basement.
The silence that prevailed inside the elevator shaft felt so comforting, so private, as the elevator moved quietly through the space. That silence was intoxicating; the privacy, unmatched anywhere else on earth. The noise in the machine room was far away. Sometimes the other elevator, in normal passenger service mode, would fly past with a whoosh, moving like a phantom, pushing the air within the shaft. I never felt the slightest danger on top of the car. I was safe there, safe from any intrusion, sequestered within the most sacred space in that building, the very space that made its eleven stories practical.
At this point you might think my nighttime dreams are loaded with elevators. I guess I had enough of the reality of elevators that I have no need of dreams about them. But the dreams of many people must feature elevators: there are a number of websites which purport to shed light on the many different kinds of elevator dreams. In some dreams, the car flies right out the top of the building and into the heavens. In others, the car gets stuck, moves sideways, or refuses to open its door. I haven’t confirmed this through exhaustive personal research, but I’d bet real bucks that, given the active, probing minds of New Yorkers, their bigger-than-life dreams and their frequent rides in elevators, elevator dreams are frequent among us here in the Big Apple—present company excluded, of course, even though I use the one in my building every day. Maybe I’ll rise someday.
The elevator and its up-and-down path is a metaphor for human life so strikingly simple—and so easily accessible—that you might come to see its invention as inevitable, a technological development that simply had to happen. And, save for the inventive, practical mind of one man, we might not be riding them today. That man was Elisha Graves Otis. He developed a safety brake which prevented a vertically movable platform from falling. Standing on such a platform at the 1854 World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace in New York, he ordered an axeman to cut the platform’s only rope. His safety device worked; the platform fell only a few inches. After that demonstration, orders for Otis traction elevators flowed in, doubling each year, and the most famous name in the elevator business was born.
Try as they might to make it more glamorous by glorifying the interiors of the cabs, the elevator remains a pretty raw mechanical device relied upon throughout the world as untiring workhorse. Impatient people pound on its call buttons relentlessly as they wait for its arrival, unaware that there is no way to hurry the machinery. The elevator will not be pushed. It will arrive in due time. You’ll just have to wait. It’s just like many things in life.
My favorite elevators are the see-through kind, the ones with glass enclosures that bare all. Glass makes elevators much more interesting, much more accessible, and may even remove some of the fear around them. Glass is a marvelous building material, itself a mysterious compound described as a “non-crystalline amorphous solid.” When used with discretion, glass imparts a refreshing lightness to a structure. Glass makes the world seem far less grim and heavy. My tip: keep your glass clean, and your world will seem much brighter.
Without the elevator, that fabulous, famous Manhattan skyline simply would not be, nor would that of any other city that builds “up.” Remember that the next time you ride an elevator. And remember that with a simple twist of fate, a simple matter of timing, your life could become a very different place.
There was a moment when we got off on the same floor—
And I fell, I fell big.
I saw stars and heaven in her mean eyes.
I had no safety brake.
Five times she pushed the stop button,
And five times she shut that door.
I opened it. I just kept walking in.
It was a ride to the top floor,
And a terrifying plunge to the pit.
It was bound to happen sometime.
Now I know a little more.