Elevator Man, The Time Out Book of New York Short Stories, Penguin, 1997

As he awaited the day he and his wife Violet would move from North Carolina to New York, Bill luxuriated in nostalgia for the city of his birth. They were moving because Bill had got a job offer from a bank in New York, with a high enough salary to make it worthwhile for them to move, and to be able to live in Manhattan, even if their new apartment would probably be the size of one of the rooms in the big comfortable house they had been living in down south, in their leafy college town. Bill, who had left New York as a child and had never been back, leapt at the chance to live once again in the city of his happiest days, and of his ancestors, and which also happened to be, according to cosmologists and anyone with any sense, the centre of the universe. Violet, who was the leader of the local modern dance ensemble, liked the idea too, for her own important reason: it would be a chance for her to move out of the small pond in which she was far too big a marine vertebrate, and migrate on to land to advance her evolution into a serious choreographer. Her daydreams glowed with the moonlit vision of the draughty dance lofts of SoHo, the sweatshops of the avant-garde.

 In his vigil of anticipation, Bill meditated on the city's virtues. Does the water still run clear from the Croton aqueduct, down from the crystal-clear lakes of the Catskills (he mused), purer than Perrier, so abundant you can let it run while brushing your teeth? And does the black-vested Greek coffee-shop waiter still give you a glass of it with ice the instant you sit down? And every few years is there still a shortage, and brushing your teeth with the water running is illegal, for a while? Or one of the nineteenth-century cast-iron mains pipes breaks, and water bursts out, flooding a neighbourhood, closing the streets. New York is the most old-fashioned city in America, with its own cast-iron ways of doing things that have not been replaced since the last century. Yet in New York City, instead of having a lake at your door, or a field of corn, you have infinity itself, mathematically expressed: the grid of streets expanding northward forever, and less obviously sideways as well, giving you little shocks as you discover the unimagined Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth Avenues. The extremes are inconceivable, yet they exist, even if you never see them. And up at the farthest tip of Manhattan, the edge of the world, there is virgin forest.

 Bill was too much of a Yankee for North Carolina, anyway. He wore his checked shirts ironed, so their loud geometry suggested Mondrian rather than the logging camp. He also spoke too fast, and in twenty years had never let his vowels dilate in the southern humidity. Nor did he ever see the point of southern charm and languid good manners. A tight, tense character had been built into him in the course of a childhood in a small New York apartment a long way from the ground, with no easy way to get out, no grass, and just a television to play with. A clenched, ironic paranoia was his default condition.

 Before long, he was back in the Byzantium of his longings. Bill and Violet rented an apartment on the Upper West Side, off Broadway. Their old house was made of wood, had several big sunny rooms, and a porch with a sofa on it, and was cheap. Their one-bedroom apartment in New York cost $1,450 a month, and the place had been painted so many times that the walls seemed to be caked in icing sugar. Every time a tenant left, the landlord applied a new layer of chalky white paint, and every new painting further obliterated physical detail: the light-switches were visible only as slight rectangular bulges near the door-frames; the electric sockets were two tiny mouse-like eyes in the skirting boards. The bathroom had small black-and-white hexagonal tiles on the floor, and big, chunky porcelain fixtures, On the sink, the faucet marked with an H issued cold water; hot water came from an unmarked faucet that was larger than the other one. The bathtub had a shower head that produced a jet of water so dense and powerful it could make you buckle at the knees if you weren't ready for it. No horizontal was an even plane; no vertical was true: the floors were warped and the doorways askew. Thick iron heating pipes ran from floor to ceiling in each room. At night they made a rattling noise that sounded like a devil was pouring ball bearings down them from the roof. The radiators hissed violently, and sputtered boiling water. Together these infernal devices made the place so hot they had to keep the windows open day and night, even though it was January. You couldn't turn the heat down. But Bill loved the apartment because it was typical of the neighbourhood. It was the kind of apartment Dustin Hoffman lived in in Marathon Man.

 The fabric of the city fascinated Bill. He surprised himself with how much he remembered about the place, and quickly adopted the role of amateur urban historian. When out walking together, they couldn't pass a manhole cover without Bill stopping to look at it and giving Violet a little lecture. Violet was amused by his delight with every particular of life in New York, and she too was excited to be experiencing it herself for the first time. She too found it marvellous. She loved the roar the city made at night, at once exciting and soothing, the twinkling particles of mica in the sidewalks, and novel things like having cold sesame noodles from a Szechwan restaurant delivered to your apartment by a waiter on a bicycle. They were very happy. Bill was working at the bank, and Violet was beginning to establish contacts in the dance world, so in their first weeks they would often meet downtown in the evenings, in a bar or restaurant that Violet had spotted during the day in TriBeCa or SoHo.

 Bill especially loved the elevators, those mysterious vertical gondolas, without which the skyline of New York, and human life within it, would be impossible. Among the many fascinating things about them was that each one was different: they were as numerous and infinitely various as snow- flakes. For the elevator in their building he developed a particular homely affection. It had dark wooden walls, a key pattern decoration around the ceiling, and a varnished metal operating panel with adhesive metal numbers stuck beside the buttons. Some of these numbers had fallen off. (Despite the rent they were paying, everything in this building looked like hell.) The elevator moved very slowly, and whirred and clanked ceaselessly. Bill and Violet would lie in bed and hear it moving through the night, through the dark, sooty elevator shaft, which reached down to the centre of the earth, it seemed, deep through the bedrock of Manhattan. Their apartment was on the tenth floor of a building which had eighteen floors, seventeen if you didn't count the thirteenth floor, which for occult reasons didn't exist.

 Bill developed the habit, when doing laundry in the washing machines in the basement, of opening the door to the room which housed the elevator's controller mechanism, a metal cupboard full of electrical switches and wires, and gazing at it in wonder. Alone in the dark, dusty room, it would spray sparks and issue sinister clicks as it sent the elevator up and down the shaft. It was a very old system, and he would lose track of the time he spent watching it. It seemed to be imitating a living thing.

 'If the elevator gets stuck,' he told Violet one evening, as he was bringing in a basket of clean clothes, 'there's a telephone in it you can use to call for help. It reminds me of a story by Edgar Allan Poe, in which a man installs a bell in his tomb because he's afraid of being buried alive.'

 'Why are you so interested in elevators?' she said. It was the first time she had ever felt impatient with his interests.

 He was lost for an answer, unable to state that one of his strongest memories -- not the clearest, since it was much obscured by time and worn down by decades of psychic gnawing -- was of being trapped in an elevator during the Blackout of 1966, when the whole of the north-eastern United States lost electric power, because of the failure of a piece of electrical switching equipment the size and complexity of a toaster up near the Canadian border. He sat on the floor in the pitch dark with his father until the superintendent of the building forced open the doors and led them out, lighting their way with a flashlight. The car had stopped between floors and his father had to climb up on to the floor and lift Bill out.

 Instead of answering, he said, after a moment, 'Did you know that the ropes are twenty times stronger than they need to be? Twenty times.'

 'No, I didn't,' she said, in a clear tone of disgust. He looked at her sheepishly and said no more about elevators. He was afraid of boring her.

 At first, being in New York put the wind in Violet's sails. She auditioned for three different companies, and two of them called back a few days later to offer her a part. She was having the newcomer's good luck: the results one gets in New York when one is new to the place, and full of delight at just being there, as opposed to where one used to be, and consequently full of enthusiasm and fresh insights. This produces a sense of boundless opportunity, and an irresistible momentum of success. The newcomer's amazement with the city helped her get up in the morning, although their apartment was dark and got no direct sunlight. Bill's fascination with its ancient fabric
fitted into her adventure of discovery.

One night Violet went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and saw a cockroach the size of a Buick nibbling at the blue crust around the rim of her toothpaste tube. She came to realise -- to her horror -- that if you let your gaze come to rest anywhere in the apartment, after a few minutes one of these translucent leathery monsters would scuttle into view. She mentioned it to Bill. He just shrugged. A side of him she hadn't known before was coming into view. Normally he would have sought to comfort her. Now he seemed not to care.
'This is New York,' he explained. 'There are cockroaches here. You just get used to it. Every couple of months the exterminator will come and blast the whole building with poisonous smoke. The bugs go away for a while, and then they come back, and that's how it is. You just accept it.'

'But they're filthy and they carry diseases!' Violet said.

'That's true,' Bill allowed, with a curious blankness. This was a shock to Violet, because Bill had always been so fastidious about keeping things clean. Now he was accepting something he would never have accepted before. He seemed practically to like the damn cockroaches.

All she could think of saying was, 'I don't understand you,' and turned over and went to sleep.

A few days later, Bill came home from work, got into the elevator, and finding himself alone inside it, instead of getting out at the tenth floor, rode all the way to the top of the building. There were no apartments on the eighteenth floor, only a small landing with a door that led out on to the roof. The steel door was not locked, but it was stiff. He pushed hard against it with his shoulder, and it opened with a loud creak against a wedge of snow. The action felt magical and transgressive. Going out on to the roof was something he remembered being forbidden to do as a child.

The snow on the roof was hard and pristine and glowed a twilit blue. He trod slowly across it, savouring the crunching sound of each step. The dark grey winter sky was heavy with the potential of another snowfall. No stars were visible, not a single heavenly body, but it was dimly suffused with the light it had absorbed from the city. The roar of the city, of furnaces, trains, and distant sirens, rose up all around him. Bill could see the looming silhouette of the building's water tower ahead of him to his left. He approached it and stood under it for a few minutes, until the cold penetrated his overcoat and scarf and forced him to move. He looked down over the low wall that surrounded the roof, defying his feeling of vertigo, and watched the traffic streaming up and down Broadway. He felt himself spreading through the city like a mist.

The steel door was still open. He shut it behind him and pressed the button for the elevator, and waited for it on the small landing. It seemed to take forever to arrive, although he could hear it wheezing and grinding down below, moving up and down between the lower floors.

When the elevator at last arrived, and the doors opened, Bill stepped inside and pressed the button for the tenth floor. The doors closed behind him, but the elevator did not move. He pressed the button again, harder this time, but there was still no response. He leaned into it, feeling with his fingertip for a connection that might make the car obey his wishes, and when that didn't work either, he stabbed at the button half a dozen times. Having exhausted all the possible ways of pressing the button, without success, he leaned his back against the wall, slid down to the floor, and sat.
It was not an unpleasant way to pass the time, so he settled down to wait. Bill noticed the emergency intercom in its framed box on the wall above the operating panel, but it never occurred to him to use it. Rescue would come in due course, he thought. There was no point rushing things. He had been here before. He remembered the building his grandmother had lived in on the East Side. It was a very old, very grand building, and there had been an elevator man named Arnold who wore a peaked cap and a uniform, and operated the elevator using a handle that moved in a curved slot. It was unlike modem elevators in that you could actually control it, that is, make it go faster and slower. Arnold's skill, when conveying passengers to their destination floors, was to be able to go up fast, and then decelerate gently and evenly to align the floor of the elevator car with the floor on to which the passenger would step. Then he would rattle open an inner gate, and close it behind him after the passengers had disembarked. His grandmother used to send Arnold on errands, to deliver her used detective novels to a friend, a retired humourist, on the sixth floor. She used to play cards with a group of old ladies on Tuesday nights, one of whom was called Bobby and wore a visor. Bill smiled as he remembered how his grandmother loved sports and gambling, and would regularly go to the races at Aqueduct until she got too old to do so, after which she would place her bets by telephone with a bookie, which was illegal. She wept when the boxer Rocky Marciano died, and still called Kennedy Airport Idlewild.

The time passed blissfully. Bill may have fallen asleep for a while, because this reverie was followed by a kind of vision, in which he felt himself bodily transported to a large, crowded banqueting room in the nineteenth century. Its dark mahogany walls, embellished with a carved classical frieze around the ceiling, resembled the dark walls of the elevator that enclosed him. The room was full of men, dining fabulously, making a mirthful racket of booming talk and raucous laughter. The long table was covered with dishes and glasses, and decorated with little American flags. In the centre was a mass of orchids and lilies.

The clamour was pierced by the clink of a knife against a wine glass, persistently seeking to make itself heard. The hubbub subsided, and a bearded man in formal attire stood up and began to speak. He held in his hand a telegram; it was from, he boomed, the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, conveying his congratulations and good wishes and sending his regrets at his being unable to attend its annual dinner. He then offered a toast, in honour of a distinguished secretary of the society who was lately deceased. The address was fulsome and florid. He was truly one of nature's noblemen -and a brilliant luminary in the constellation of his country, the speaker declaimed. He was a man of sound comprehension, fruitful mind, and high- toned feeling -and his whole career is an excellent example of the intense per sonal efforts of members of the Friendly Sons to aid their suffering countrymen. We hail him with triumph... As the speech proceeded, Bill felt the vinous warmth of the attentive, convivial gathering. The words blurred, with only the cadences sounding in Bill's mind, yet he felt moved to tears by the rhetoric.

When the superintendent arrived and forced open the doors, and found Bill inside, with tears streaming down his face, he was purple with anger. 'What you been doing?' he demanded, blaming Bill for the elevator's malfunction. Of course, Bill had done nothing, and protested his innocence, but the super blamed him anyway. Bill was disoriented by this: it wasn't in the script. He stood up, composed himself, stretched, and stammered out an incoherent explanation to Violet about what had happened. He had been in the elevator for two hours. They went out to an Italian restaurant in the neighbourhood and had linguini with red clam sauce.

In the restaurant, Bill was in good spirits, elated to the point of being a bit manic, Violet thought.

'What happened to you?' she asked, in a pointed, puzzled tone. 'It got stuck. So I waited,' he said; but Violet was still waiting for an answer. 'I had a kind of vision. First I was in my grandmother's apartment on the East Side. Then I was at a dinner of the society my great-grandfather belonged to. It was like walking into the past. It all felt completely real.' He shivered. They finished a bottle of chianti and walked home in a relaxed and cheerful mood.

That night he dreamed that he was alone in a cabin in Alaska in winter, snowed in with a stock of supplies: a drum of Quaker Oats, a can of coffee, and piles of canned food. He felt confined, enclosed, but somehow, the next day, at peace. It was a strange dream: the sense of confinement was accompanied by an equal sensation of abundance. At work the next day, he daydreamed of hermits' cells in desert caves, or on inaccessible mountain crags in Tibet.

A few days later, Bill came home from work, skipping about with excitement. He had found a book in a secondhand bookstore, a thick frayed volume entitled Elevator Engineering: Maintenance and Design. He waved it like a trophy. 'This book is the bible of vertical transportation,' he said proudly, holding it with two hands. Violet picked it up and flicked through it. To her dismay, she saw that it was an engineering manual, full of tables of numbers and mathematical formulae.

That Saturday, the elevator broke again, and Bill was again trapped inside it. This time it clearly wasn't an accident. He had somehow managed to disable the mechanism, and stall the elevator between floors, provoking four hours of angry complaints from other residents of the building. The superintendent was unable to open the doors of the elevator, and had to call the Fire Department. The firemen found Bill curled up asleep on the floor, wearing Otis Elevator Company overalls. They mistook him for an engineer who had fallen asleep on the job.