There’s a saying that anyone who wears a necktie is untrustworthy because they start every day by tying a noose around their neck. And don’t get me started on neckties which are just the right size for a garroting, but that’s another story. It’s a little known fact that neckties were invented when a company boss who was waiting for his dresses to come back from the cleaners decided a small strip of fabric would be the ideal way to hide the fact that he was wearing the same suit he’d had on yesterday, and his employees just followed suit. I’m lucky to be in a job where I haven’t had to wear a necktie since the initial interview, but it occurred to me that I start most days by stepping into a small metal box. It doesn’t matter that it’s a small metal box that moves. A lot of people are going to make their final exit in a small metal box that’s moved by a hearse and their pall bearers, and, let’s face it, most elevators aren’t that much bigger. I’m not claustrophobic, but I do get elevator anxiety. It’s not just that they make me think of coffins. I plan to be cremated not because being in a little box bothers me, but because I’ve already made very specific plans about what I’d like done with my mortal remains, and ashes will disperse nicely while a bloated rotting corpse floating down the middle of a mountain lake is likely to freak out the tourists.
I did once meet a woman who had claustrophobia. Or maybe it was just a fear of elevators since that’s what she told me she had. She came into the office where I work sweaty and panting because she’d just ridden the elevator up to my floor and it was too much for her. A friend-not much of a friend, really-had given her the job of delivering a packet to an office in my building. She just couldn’t remember which office. She couldn’t even remember which floor, just that it was higher than the floor where she’d stopped. I’m still not sure why she hadn’t written any of this down. She’d gotten off because mine was the lowest floor that had offices-everything below was the parking garage-so it was the only place where she felt comfortable getting out. I tried to help as best I could. She didn’t know the name of anyone in the place she was trying to get to. I’m not sure she even remembered the name of the friend who sent her on this mission. Since this was before cell phone became more common than neckties I let her borrow the office phone and somehow she got in touch with someone who could help. I think they came to get the packet, and they were smart-they used the stairs.
My own elevator anxiety isn’t anywhere near that level. It’s just more of a general discomfort, and it’s not really elevators themselves that bother me. It’s other people in elevators. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s a little known fact that the full Sartre quote is “Hell is other people in elevators”. Most of the time when it’s me and only one or two other people we all stand around and pretend the others don’t exist, which makes it a little easier but still makes me strangely uncomfortable. Or sometimes people want to chat. And I don’t mind small talk but it seems like the conversation only gets interesting when we get to my floor and I have to end up cutting things short. It’s like the farewells between people being rescued from a sinking ship. Not that I’ve ever been rescued from a sinking ship, but I imagine that’s how it would feel, only more uncomfortable because you’re not being lifted out of the elevator into a helicopter. The worst thing is having to ride the elevator with a huge number of people. Most elevators say the maximum capacity is twenty-three people, but my maximum capacity is about three. Any more than that and the stairs start to look like the best option, but if there’s a big crowd already in the elevator I feel uncomfortable saying, “I’ll take the next one, thanks” because I’m afraid the people already in there will take it personally. And you always get that one big guy with a bad combover who yells, “Come on! I won’t bite!” which just draws attention to how he’s foaming at the mouth. Or if it stops before the floor I’m going to and a bunch of people file in if I step out they might to think I’m some kind of weird racist and they’re going to be in there wondering what I have against Belgians. But I’m not really any more comfortable riding the elevator alone either. What if I fart and then right at the next floor someone gets on? Or maybe there’s something wrong with the building’s plumbing so it seems like I have, and “Boy, I wonder if they’ll ever get the pipes fixed” is not a great conversation starter with a complete stranger. It’s not going to pass muster when they think I’ve passed muster gas.
Also I have this weird habit. You know that funny feeling you get when an elevator comes to a stop and it sort of feels like the bottom has dropped out of your stomach? I really love that and I’ve found that if I jump up in the air right as the elevator is stopping it’s even better. It’s almost a compulsion, but I’ve found that if you’re in an elevator with other people and you suddenly jump up in the air it kind of freaks them out.