Stuck in an Elevator

Heather and I live next to a construction site. They’re building a very large condominium building right next door to us. Since our unit is slightly below ground level, we’ve grown accustomed to the rumble of diesel engines and the clatter of hand-carts and the incessant beeping of a semi-trailer backing down the alley onto which our windows look - all beginning precisely at 7:00, as permitted by DC law.

This morning, there were a large number of trucks idling around the construction site. All up and down the block, the air was hazey with diesel fumes - and inevitably some of these fumes found their way into our flat. It wasn’t extremely strong, but the stench of half-burnt diesel was starting to make me sick to my stomach.

As I so often do, I retreated from my home office, with Murky Coffee in Arlington my chosen destination. I jumped on the Orange Line and got off at the Clarendon station. As I came away from the gates, I made my way to the elevator to head up to street level.

(As an aside, you may be asking yourself why I choose to take the elevator? It’s all about time - the elevator comes up a half block closer to my destination than the escalators, and the escalators require me to walk in the opposite direction. So I save a block of walking if I take the elevator.)

I got on the elevator by myself, turned around, and hit the “Street” button - and the doors slammed shut. I don’t mean they closed gently - I mean they slammed shut. You’ve probably never thought about it, but the slow, measured precision with which elevator doors normally shut is very important to the impression of an elevator’s safety, and the confidence any particular rider may have in the safety of the device. So when the portal snapped closed like the maw of steel bear trap, enough to perceptibly shake the entire car, I stated aloud to the empty room, “I’m not sure what to think of that.”

But then the elevator started moving. It moved up, up, up to the street level, and everything seemed to be okay. It reached the top, paused for a moment longer than it should have, and then started back down. I realize in retrospect that the doors had simply not opened at the top, and that somebody at the bottom had pushed the button.

So it moved down, down, down back to the bottom - back down to the largish gentleman in the tan suede coat who had pushed the button. When it reached the bottom, the doors didn’t open. I stood there for a moment, and then pushed the “Call” button. The gentleman in the Metro station booth answered my call, and I calmly explained that I was in the elevator and that the doors didn’t open. Curious as to why the doors weren’t opening, Suede-Jacket man peered through the windows of the car to find out what was going on. I waved at him.

I think the Metro station manager thought that perhaps it was a problem with the lower level doors, and so sent me back up to the top. “You’ll be alright - it’s going back up,” he said as the car started moving again. When I reached the top, his voice came back again, “They’re not opening, huh?” The doors indeed remained shut. He brought me back down to the bottom, where the Suede-Jacket man was still peering through the window to the elevator car.

“Can you pull them open? It’s only 35 pounds of force.” Ah-ha! The low-tech solution! I squeezed my fingers between the elevator doors and pulled, and sure enough they opened, with no hurculean effort required. I was free!

And then Suede-Jacket guy tried to get on the elevator! I stop him, and explain that that’s probably not a good idea - that he should take the escalators because the doors aren’t opening. I’m not sure if he was stupid, or just couldn’t understand me through the music blaring into his ears from the tell-tale iPod earbuds, but he looked confused.

I talked to the station managers for a bit, and explained to them what had happened, and they said they would be taking the elevator out of service. Only when the uniformed Metro employee took up station in front of the door to prevent anybody else boarding while they disabled it did Suede-Jacket guy seem to get the idea that the elevator was out-of-order.

So I took the escalators and walked the extra block. This is my first time ever stuck in an elevator for any amount of time. I’m not claustrophobic, and I have great faith in engineers to build machines that operate safely, and I take great comfort in the knowledge that, at least statstically, I know how I’m going to die - but I’ll be dammed if there wasn’t just a little bit of panic creeping up in my throat that I had to force down.

There’s a first time for everything, I guess.