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Up and Then Down (digression on an elevator ride) - New Yorker


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Up and Then Down The lives of elevators.
by Nick Paumgarten

page 1 :
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.

The control panel made a beep, and White waited a moment, expecting a voice to offer information or instructions. None came. He pressed the intercom button, but there was no response. He hit it again, and then began pacing around the elevator. After a time, he pressed the emergency button, setting off an alarm bell, mounted on the roof of the elevator car, but he could tell that its range was limited. Still, he rang it a few more times and eventually pulled the button out, so that the alarm was continuous. Some time passed, although he was not sure how much, because he had no watch or cell phone. He occupied himself with thoughts of remaining calm and decided that he’d better not do anything drastic, because, whatever the malfunction, he thought it unwise to jostle the car, and because he wanted to be (as he thought, chuckling to himself) a model trapped employee. He hoped, once someone came to get him, to appear calm and collected. He did not want to be scolded for endangering himself or harming company property. Nor did he want to be caught smoking, should the doors suddenly open, so he didn’t touch his cigarettes. He still had three, plus two Rolaids, which he worried might dehydrate him, so he left them alone. As the emergency bell rang and rang, he began to fear that it might somehow—electricity? friction? heat?—start a fire. Recently, there had been a small fire in the building, rendering the elevators unusable. The Business Week staff had walked down forty-three stories. He also began hearing unlikely oscillations in the ringing: aural hallucinations. Before long, he began to contemplate death.

page 4 :
In elevatoring, as in life, the essential variables are time and space. A well-elevatored building gets you up and down quickly, without giving up too much square footage to elevator banks. Especially with super-tall towers, the amount of core space that one must devote to elevators, in order to convey so many people so high, can make a building architecturally or economically infeasible. This limitation served to stunt the height of skyscrapers until, in 1973, the designers of the World Trade Center introduced the idea of sky lobbies. A sky lobby is like a transfer station: an express takes you there, and then you switch to a local. (As it happens, Fortune was working on a project to upgrade the Trade Center elevators when the towers were destroyed.)

There are two basic elevatoring metrics. One is handling capacity: your aim is to carry a certain percentage of the building’s population in five minutes. Thirteen per cent is a good target. The other is the interval, or frequency of service: the average round-trip time of one elevator, divided by the number of elevators. In an American office building, you want the interval to be below thirty seconds, and the average waiting time to be about sixty per cent of that. Any longer, and people get upset. In a residential building or a hotel, the tolerance goes up, but only by ten or twenty seconds. In the nineteen-sixties, many builders cheated a little—accepting, say, a thirty-four-second interval, and 11.5 per cent handling capacity—and came to regret it. Generally, England is over-elevatored; India is under-elevatored.

page 5 :
Passengers seem to know instinctively how to arrange themselves in an elevator. Two strangers will gravitate to the back corners, a third will stand by the door, at an isosceles remove, until a fourth comes in, at which point passengers three and four will spread toward the front corners, making room, in the center, for a fifth, and so on, like the dots on a die. With each additional passenger, the bodies shift, slotting into the open spaces. The goal, of course, is to maintain (but not too conspicuously) maximum distance and to counteract unwanted intimacies—a code familiar (to half the population) from the urinal bank and (to them and all the rest) from the subway. One should face front. Look up, down, or, if you must, straight ahead. Mirrors compound the unease. Generally, no one should speak a word to anyone else in an elevator. Most people make allowances for the continuation of generic small talk already under way, or, in residential buildings, for neighborly amenities. The orthodox enforcers of silence—the elevator Quakers—must suffer the moderates or the serial abusers, as they cram in exchanges about the night, the game, the weekend, or the meal.Bodies need to fit. Designers of public spaces have devised a maximum average unit size—that is, they’ve figured out how much space a person takes up, and how little of it he or she can abide. The master fitter is John J. Fruin, the author of “Pedestrian Planning and Design,” which was published in 1971 and reprinted, in 1987, by Elevator World, the publisher of the leading industry magazine, Elevator World. (Its January issue came with 3-D glasses, for viewing its best-new-elevator-of-the-year layout, of the Dexia BIL Banking Center, in Luxembourg.) Fruin introduced the concept of the “body ellipse,” a bird’s-eye graphic representation of an individual’s personal space. It’s essentially a shoulder-width oval with a head in the middle. He employed a standard set of near-maximum human dimensions: twenty-four inches wide (at the shoulders) and eighteen inches deep. If you draw a tight oval around this figure, with a little bit of slack to account for body sway, clothing, and squeamishness, you get an area of 2.3 square feet, the body space that was used to determine the capacity of New York City subway cars and U.S. Army vehicles. Fruin defines an area of three square feet or less as the “touch zone”; seven square feet as the “no-touch zone”; and ten square feet as the “personal-comfort zone.” Edward Hall, who pioneered the study of proxemics, called the smallest range—less than eighteen inches between people—“intimate distance,” the point at which you can sense another person’s odor and temperature. As Fruin wrote, “Involuntary confrontation and contact at this distance is psychologically disturbing for many persons.”The standard elevator measure is about two square feet per passenger—intimate, disturbing. “Elevators represent a special circumstance in which pedestrians are willing to submit to closer spacing than they would normally accept,” Fruin wrote, without much parsing the question of willingness. The book contains a pair of overhead photographs, part of an experiment conducted by Otis, of elevators loaded to capacity (by design, cabs are nearly impossible to overweight, unless the passengers are extremely tall). In one, a car is full of women, each of whom has 1.5 square feet of space. In the other, there are men as well as women, and each passenger gets 1.8 square feet per person: men are larger, and women, in their presence, try to claim more space, often by crossing their arms. It is worth noting that, in experiments with prisoners, researchers found that violent or schizophrenic inmates preferred more than fifteen times this area.

There’s a higher tolerance in Asia than in the United States for tight rides and long waits. “In China, you’ll get twenty-five people in a four-thousand-pound car,” Rick Pulling, the head of high-rise operations at Otis, told me. “That’s unheard of here.” Pulling said that at the Otis headquarters in Hong Kong people wait patiently in line for the elevators, behind a velvet rope overseen by an attendant, and cram in. “New Yorkers wouldn’t stand for it,” Pulling said. “He’d have two broken legs.”

page 7 :
It was Rick Pulling, Otis’s felicitously named high-rise man and the company’s chief envoy, who took me around the test tower. He has worked at Otis for twenty-three years. He has an air of world-weariness, earned perhaps in complicated dealings with foreign builders and governments, but it gave way to fervid evangelism when the subject turned, as it did very quickly, to elevators. “We’ll wait ten to fifteen minutes for a train, without complaining,” he said. “But wait thirty seconds for an elevator and the world’s coming to an end. Which means, really, that we’ve done a good job. We deliver short waits. But why are we held to a different standard?”

Our first stop, on the ground floor, was the so-called “drop car,” a rudimentary elevator platform stacked with dozens of hundred-and-fifty-pound lead plates. The Otis engineers use it to test overspeed stopping—free-fall prevention. The drop car shares a hoistway with another half-elevator, from which a tester can examine the performance of safety brake shoes. Piles of them were on the floor, like discarded lobster claws. It takes just a couple of feet for the brakes to engage. Over several weeks, the drop car lurches down the hoistway, from the top of the building to the ground, in mini-free-fall intervals that make the notion of an eighty-floor drop seem both ludicrous and newly horrifying. To 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.”

page 8  (40 hours after last entrance) :
At a certain point, Nicholas White ran out of ideas. Anger and vindictiveness took root. He began to think, They, whoever they were, shouldn’t be able to get away with this, that he deserved some compensation for the ordeal. He cast about for blame. He wondered where his colleague was, why she hadn’t been alarmed enough by his failure to return, jacketless, from smoking a cigarette to call security. Whose fault is this? he wondered. Who’s going to pay? He decided that there was no way he was going to work the following week.

And then he gave up. The time passed in a kind of degraded fever dream. On the videotape, he lies motionless for hours at a time, face down on the floor.

A voice woke him up: “Is there someone in there?”


“What are you doing in there?”

The end  of the article let me down (didn't like it) but the author might be the first one to write an article upon which, when finishing my read,
it has answer every thing my brain could have wanted to know, reading it, and even a little more....
You're having strange thoughts again??

Wow -- that's unusual!!  >:D
ArmyVern said:
You're having strange thoughts again??

Wow -- that's unusual!!  >:D

Thank you (beaming) :)

They pop up from time to time ... I prefer them to the unnerving hamster that kept running in my mind,
usually when I'm trying to "fall" asleep  :-X !

Why can't we be a bit on the mechanical side, sometimes ? I would disconnect the batteries of that ?*(@#! hamster,
and be asleep in a click!

At least you sleep sometimes!! That's a rare occurance for me.  :-\

Perhaps were I stuck in an elevator though ---  ???
Didn't work for the guy of the article.

It's the "getting there" that is hard for me. Once asleep, without clock, the world  make a half turn before
my eyes pop up usually from a nightmare ...

I presume that you tried every trick in the book to fall into Morphee's arms...
I've found only one thing that lulls me to sleep, and even then, it's only for a couple hours (perhaps 2) at the most.

That's:  After having a good old donair!!  ;D
ArmyVern said:
That's:  After having a good old donair!!  ;D

And you're still fitting into those chaps ?

You're amazing  :p!