Being trapped in an elevator is one of my fears. Not a phobia, I have enough issues but no phobias, unless I’m so far gone I don’t recognize them. In elevators, I’m vigilant. Today, taking this huge boxy car down to the subway platform fourteen flights below, I am not alone, just one of many passengers, young, old, Dominican, Jewish, Brits, many ethnicities. A child holds a Mylar balloon that states, Happy Birthday. If the elevator gets stuck, the authorities can take the wall right off the side of the car, unscrewing it from the other side. In my local station, located so far uptown that the rest of Manhattan seems to drop like a cliff into Broadway valleys, the elevators descend alongside dark interior stairs, usually locked. My husband, trapped below ground last year when electrical wiring for the city failed, was led from the tracks and up those grimy, slimy flights, a challenge to knees. I listened to his description. I pay attention to details. Life is an accumulation of details.
The elevator operator wears a red blazer. She sits on a stool behind a low yellow-painted fence. I stand by the door, which opens on the opposite side at subway level, then scrutinize the others, a mom with a boy named Bobby, wearing a nametag, excited about his day in school, three tall dark, shorn guys with briefcases, friends, prosperous, jokey, a woman from the Islands with long silver dreadlocks, and others. It doesn’t feel dangerous. It feels bland. Homogenized diversity. In the old days operators decorated their interiors with snapshots of neighborhood children and pets, posted gaily with dogs and cats, one rooster. We knew the operators by name back then, and they knew us, they were proud of their roles as helpful conveyors of the neighborhood, proud of their individualized cars, proud of the ability to deliver us, of all their connections and of the people they carried. They decorated their cars as if they’d invited us to their living rooms, some cars themed with music. My favorite was Jazz. Jazz was an operator and that’s all he played. He grew a long white beard and pretending to be Santa Claus at Xmas, always welcoming, jolly, lively with New Orleans sounds, until the anonymous Authority stepped in to ban operator-decorated cars. In the old days, each space reflected the operator’s sense of self and welcome. Then one day everything changed. The TA deemed the overlapping photos “sloppy,” and cars with holly boughs left messy needles and tinsel at Xmas—“possibly discriminatory.” The orange plastic Jack o’lanterns for Halloween were “tacky.” I don’t know what ever happened to Jazz. Elevator operators were shifted around, randomizing locations. No one knows anyone anymore. Now each car ride ups and down all day and night in standardized fashion, each with matching so-so posters, and identical spacing. Often there are no operators—out to lunch, absent from duty, or mysteriously disappeared. We passengers wait in the elevator lobbies and step behind the familiar yellow gate, still in place, and push our own buttons.
I’m always late, so I always want to be first to exit. The car fills, the door closes but there is no sense of movement. A small chicken wire encased glass window in one corner allows me to see ascent and descent, a thicket of cables supporting, but now there are no signs of passage. The window is dark. The elevator is static. Some passengers look at watches. Static, static, then a slow, gentle shift of movement.
But something is wrong. We are traveling up, the opposite direction from the subway platform. Up? How can that be? Up above the elevator is only a low brick building housing elevator circuitry and equipment. The elevator is mistaken. Am I the only one who notices? I’m impatient, worried, and I try to catch this operator’s eye. But after a perfunctory smile, perhaps intended to be reassuring, she falls into mid-distance gaze, the gaze of just doing my job.
I look around, try to catch the recognition of anyone, but meet no answering glances, no other acknowledgements, and soon iron my expression as if I too am ignoring this odd phenomenon, what if I’m wrong? I do detect unease. A small sharp reek of unease. Maybe no one wants to make a fuss, or to appear discombobulated. The dark–haired boy named Bobby chats excitedly to his mommy about his new teacher and twin girls, listening, giggle, clutch their nannies, and duck their heads. A man in a watch-cap checks his feet, a young Hasid stares straight ahead, an attractive woman adjusts her posture. And up, up, up we go, the pace slow, inexorable. But climbing, climbing. How come we haven’t run into ceilings by now or crashed through brickwork and tiles of the roof? This is a smooth ride, and it feels inevitable.
I don’t want to panic and make a fool of myself, if there’s a real problem in the machinery who knows how long I’ll be stuck in this car with them. Hours maybe. But what’s going on?
An eruption of voices. A man swings his briefcase, aggressive. “What is this? Hey, hey! This is the wrong direction!” “Indeed,” says a Brit-inflected voice from the back, and the silver dreadlock lady shouts, “Can’t you control this elevator? I have to catch the 3:32 A train. I’m already late.”
“Sir!” snaps the operator. “And Madam. Mind your manners, there are only two directions I’m programmed to go.”
“Are we trapped?” “How can this be happening?” Cell phones emerge. “No reception.” The mother of Bobby speaks: “Is there an emergency button in this car?” No. A gust of fear riles the passengers, contagious. I could have told them cell phones don’t work in here, but I don’t want to call attention to myself.
Naturally, I’m scared, and huddling, but more than scared, I’m afraid of having a urinary accident in front of the other passengers. How long will this take? Oy, oy, oy, how long must we be gathered together? The elevator continues to climb.
Suddenly darkness turns to light through the chicken-wire window. The car stops, the operator opens the door, and I see—we all see—we are anchored in sky, sky that looks like a blue pasture, common and boundaryless. Bobby grabs my hand at the same time he grabs his mother’s hand. She drops her purse, and it falls down, down, down, out of sight. An elderly woman screams, maybe it’s me, but other passengers exit in clumps, eager, and stand suspended in clear blue. Reconnoitering?
“I don’t want to get out,” cries Bobby, but his mother leads him forward, explaining they would have to find their way. I try to hold onto him but she yanks. His hand slips from mine, which is growing sweaty.
“Out, out!” calls the operator.
Still, I hang back, lingering. What now? What can be done? Another scream. Inappropriate, I now think. Avoid premature conclusions. This situation might not be necessarily bad, just unexpected. What if my cell phone works in the sky. I’ll call my husband. I stick my arm out of the car, stretching to push tiny buttons with one hand, but I can’t.
And anyway, No. No coverage. Nobody knows what to do. One by one we take tentative steps, then strides, and I can’t help noticing how each person dissolves slowly in the air as they step, at first just blurry, then granular, soon powdery. They, we, are like motes, swirling in the sunlight, dispersing slowly, each step of dissolution as slow and gentle as our elevator ride.
Does everything new and unexpected have to be bad? Continue vigilance, I caution myself as my skin container, my human envelope grows thin, spills open as I step forward unwillingly—a current of air is pulling me out and when I open my mouth to exclaim, air blows down my throat and then I have no throat, no mouth—and looking down, no arms either. But I’m soaring now and still sentient, and even without my corporeal form I can see the city, its tall jutting buildings, and the grid of well-known streets below, until the ground grows nubby and textured. I’m soaring higher. It’s kind of a marvelous feeling. I can even direct myself to go higher or lower. Exultation. Look, Ma! No hands!
I am surprisingly brave, is that the right word?, about losing my well-known form. My body, myself? I have no answers. I have no questions. I ride the air and no winds buffet me. I see young Bobby and his mother and the man who yelled at the elevator operator sweeping this way and that. And I too lack containment and mingle with others’ particles. Perhaps some are heavier than others and float back to earth, amassing the granules, perhaps taking new forms?
But I am rising. Higher and higher. Far out, I think, and note this is literal. Will I reassemble or is this death? Can I really direct my own buoyancy? Rise or fall. What might I mean by my own? I’m already gone, gone, gone in every sense, scattered, free, drifting.