“Shit!” I had said to myself when I cut my hand on the rickety ventilation fan that cooled the elevator components. It had to be cleaned every day before my shift started, otherwise it would overheat more than the usual once or twice a night. It was a machine on its last legs, and I was its personal trainer.
I had told my boss that we needed to install a dedicated cooling system so the elevator would run properly, but he was a penny pincher and wouldn’t invest in such “frivolous things.” He wasn’t the one who had to entertain the tenants when the drive and control system shut off due to the heat. We had the only manual elevator left in town, because the building owner spent more money on his drug habit than he spent on the apartment complex. He would show up itching his nose, and smelling of booze. The deep wrinkles in his skin resembled poorly kneaded bread dough.
There were two elevators in the building, 16 stories, one for the day shift, and the night elevator which I operated. This way we could be sure if one was heavily used, the other could pick up the slack later after we shut it off. The job didn’t pay well, but I didn’t have any options. With a resume that included everything from hotel handyman, to night security, to elevator operator, I hadn’t always been the most employable stiff.
I finished cleaning the fan with the only rag I could find in the building, and I started the machine. It hummed like a car engine that hadn’t seen oil in years. It was almost 9:00PM so my claustrophobic metallic office had to open up shop. I took a deep breath and collected myself to start the shift. I worked as an elevator operator four nights a week, 9:00PM to 9:00AM, with no scheduled break. “Your job is a break!” my boss would say.
With the smooth twist of a key, followed by several jerking motions as if I was starting a motor boat, the door had opened and my cubicle was ready to bring people home. The inside of the elevator was dimly lit, and the walls were covered with cheap floral wallpaper that was faded and peeling.
The apartment building was filled with visual artists, musicians, and writers, as well as bartenders, waitresses, and baristas. Each tenant had at least two of these jobs. The rent was unnaturally affordable, which made it a haven for struggling creative types, until they realized it was a shit hole.
They all got off on the fact their building had an elevator operator; it was so retro to them, so ironic. The thing about these artists is they’re not all as laid back and free spirited as they seem, but they do a bang up job making a show of it. To my dismay, I’ve always been a musician myself. When I was twelve I was diagnosed with Marfan’s Syndrome, and they told me it would make me a great piano player.
Marfan’s Syndrome makes you lanky, tall, and gives you very long, grasping fingers. Imagine Abraham Lincoln. The long fingers also make you great at reaching through elevator gates, a true blessing. There are also a whole slew of health issues it can present, but it hadn’t killed me yet, so I wasn’t too concerned. I’m not so sure death would have been an unwelcomed guest at that point.
Being an elevator operator was a monotonous job of course, but since I got three nights off a week and my sleep schedule favored staying up late, it allowed me to pursue my glorious dream of being the ignored piano player at sleazy jazz bars.
“Oh my god, what happened to your hand!?” floor 10 would say.
“I cut it,” I told the guy, looking at my toilet paper and masking tape bandage.
Failing to explain how I cut it, and that I had not chosen to cut it, was probably not the best decision on my part. To the contrary, there was nothing comforting about telling them I was cleaning the rickety, rusted old fan which keeps the tin can they were in from stalling, or worse. I had decided I would let their imaginations wander. Let them tell stories about their insane, depressed, masochistic elevator operator, who performs scarification on his body, to their hip friends.
I just had one more shift to go for that week and then I was looking forward to having a couple days off to enjoy some freedom, for about as long (and as much) as an overzealous man enjoys sex. I had my usual Thursday gig lined up at the “Beat Bar”, and as usual I would sleep long enough after my shift to almost entirely dodge the sun.
“Hello Yann,” the only tenant I enjoyed said around 5:00AM, just arriving home.
“Hello Andrea,” I replied.
“What’s new, going up and down as usual?”
“Not as much as I would—Yes, yes I have been.”
“Haha! You’re awesome man. I love you Yann. What happened to your hand!?”
“Eh, I just cut it doing some maintenance.”
“Ah, well, look at you, dedicated to your job….Ok, well, this is my stop, as you know, have a good night.”
She arrived around the same time every night, except Tuesdays. She always had a guitar strapped on her back, in bit of a stupor. She was covered in tattoos, and the loveliest girl I had ever met. She had a thin frame, like me, and was almost my height. She had tight angular features, and always a spark of surprise in her smile. It was her smile and small talk that kept me from locking the doors up and walking out, never to come back again. I had often fantasized about shutting the elevator off at her floor, and following her to her room. However, I knew she had no interest in such a desperate man.
The elevator ran smoothly all night, to my surprise, until about 8:40AM. I was going down to the first floor, assumingly to get someone, and there was a loud moan like the aching from the inside of a cargo ship. With that, the elevator jolted to a stop, and I all I could do was wait for it to start running again. Sometimes it would take 30 seconds, other times it cost me 30 minutes.
This time the lights even shut off and I stood alone in the dark, hanging from a wire. It lasted around five minutes, and I was greeted by an empty lobby on the first floor. I could hear the clacking of angry steps in the stairwell by an impatient tenant echoing in my skull. I almost lost my job at one point when someone complained about the elevator not coming, but the owner wouldn’t fix the problems.
After that incident I decided to lock up and go home. There was still about ten minutes left in my shift, but I had a feeling no one would notice I was gone. A good hike up 16 floors never killed anyone, and there wasn’t a tenant in the building over 40.
I stepped outside and the warm air fogged my glasses. I wiped them clean with my thin cotton shirt, and commenced my two mile walk home. The streets were empty, and the only audible noises were the barks of paranoid canines. Upon arriving at my second floor apartment, which I took the stairs to instead of the elevator; I downed a few glasses of red wine and collapsed onto the couch. I had a perfectly good bed, but the extra steps to make it there felt like a journey.
I slept for about 8 hours and woke up to the sounds of my Russian neighbors arguing in the hallway. I had been dreaming about floor 6, Andrea. I got off the couch and prepared myself some breakfast, if you can call it that. I had lost track of meal schedules due to my strange work hours. After engorging myself with nearly an entire box of farfalle pasta with parmesan and butter I turned on my Casio keyboard to tune up a bit.
I played 1940’s bebop-style jazz for an hour or so, closing my eyes to pretend I was playing at the Apollo Theater for hundreds of lively spectators, and then I began preparing myself for the night out. My hands still felt tight, but I did my best to stretch them out as I exited my complex. The Beat Bar was only 10 blocks away or so, thus I pretty much had to be ready to perform the second I left the door. It was a sad, lonely bar. The bartender had made a career out of his job there, and the customers were booze hounds who either worked in a cubicle or a factory.
I rolled a cigarette on the way there with my probing antenna-like appendages and relaxed myself before the show. It may have been a dive bar with few inhabitants who were aware of my existence, but it still made me tense to play in public. I had always wondered if they recognized the melodies I was performing, or if they were just waiting for me to play some fucking Frank Sinatra.
The bartender nodded as I entered the drinkery, and I sat down at my worn black bench. The seat was indented right where I always placed myself. The bartender approached me, and handed me my usual whiskey on the rocks. The A/C kicked on behind me, like a whispering jet engine. As I began to play, unwilling to wait for a larger crowd, I thought of Andrea. The pain of the sixth floor.
I reminisced on the time she and I were stuck in the elevator together for 45 minutes, and a few minutes in she removed her guitar from its holster and sang me a song she had just written. The claustrophobic box like an anechoic chamber. Her voice was like the cry of a siren, and my elevator was a ship marooned on the rocks. I imagined she was there, leaning at the edge of the piano in a beautiful silk dress, belting out verses like a blossoming Nina Simone. “Bring over a drink for the lady!” I yelled to the bartender, “tonight shall be our best show yet!”
Thor Benson is a traveling writer currently located in Portland, Oregon. Benson wrote his first novel in Puerto Rico, and now uses it as a paper weight. He also writes political journalism pieces for online markets. Benson can be found at a run down whiskey bar somewhere in Portland. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or through his Facebook page at Facebook.com/AuthorThorBenson.