Elevators of My Youth
In the rear lobby of the old, gray bank building, there was a glass encased marquee that listed the floors and office numbers for the professionals who worked in offices above. Looking through the glass front of the case, we could locate the office of the person that we sought. My mother ran her finger down the list until she saw the floor and room number of Dr. Stone, the EENT specialist. Turning, we walked across the white and gray marble floor to stand outside the elevator door.
The elevator was located at one side of the lobby. The car wasn’t on the lobby floor. I could see the darkness of the shaft through the small diamond shaped window in the door. There was enough light from the frosted globe chandeliers hanging from the plaster fluted ceiling of the lobby that I could see the metal bars of the accordion gate located on the other side of the thick window impregnated with chicken wire.
I glanced at my mom and she nodded. I reached out to press the black button with the ivory colored up arrow near the top of a shiny brass plate. This was the ground floor, but there must have been a basement because there was a similar down arrowed button.
Somewhere above in the blackened elevator shaft, a bell sounded. “Br-rin-ng.” In response to our call, the rumble of something heavy being closed, then the squeak and rattle of something lighter being closed in the darkness above. It was a time when the elevators had an operator who controlled the car. They would open and close the doors, then deliver the rider to the requested floor.
The noise continued to grow in the shaft. I heard the snap of a spark, then the thrum of an electric motor starting. It was replaced with the shush of the car as it started to descend.
Through the door’s small window I could see the thick dirt and grease coated electric cables loop into view into view, then droop lower as a pale light in the shaft grew stronger. The humming of the motor and the clicking of the elevator car intensified as it dropped into the lobby where my mother and I stood waiting. The soft swoosh pushed the smell of electric ozone from the motor out of the shaft and into the air to surround us.
Slowly the thick, dark platform of the car appeared in the window as the floor of the elevator eased by the window. The hum of the elevator became louder as it neared its stop. A gentle jiggle of the controls leveled the car with the lobby floor.
I could see a smooth mahogany colored hand reach across the now lighted window to unlatch the accordion metal safety gate. The hand pulled the gate to scissor to one side. The hand reappeared and I heard the rasp of metal and the elevator door slid open with a heavy metallic grumble.
As I stepped inside, I saw a much polished oak seat attached to the wall. It folded down for the operator to ride. The operator was a middle aged black woman who smiled as we entered. Her smile revealed a set of dazzling white teeth that was enhanced by her dark skin. She wore a white button down blouse and white socks, a black skirt and black tie-on shoes.
“What floor, please?” she asked.
My mom gave her the floor that we wanted. The woman smiled again as she reached for the hinged, metal handle that levered the car door closed. Giving it a pull, the door shut. The operator with a push closed the accordion gate before settling back onto the seat.
Grasping the handle of the dial on the green painted metal wall at her side, she pushed it forward and the elevator car started its slow ascent up the dark shaft. There was a small bump then I felt the vibrations of the motor through the hard soles of my dress shoes. Several floors passed by the window, showing a large white painted numbers on the thick concrete floors. The numbers designated the level of the building.
I saw 2, 3, and 4 came into view. The operator twisted the dial and the elevator slowed as the floor we needed approached. With a small adjustment that made the car jiggle, she stopped the car. With a practiced tug, the accordion gate opened, then she opened the outer door by tugging a long metal handle.
As we moved toward the door, she gave us a dazzling smile and said, “Have a good day.”
“Thank you,” I replied and exited the elevator.