A story in Sunday’s New York Times about elevator operators in New York prompted some memories I’ll share here. I think it makes for a welcome change from my usual marketing-related posts peppered with posts complaining about what’s happening with our government these days.
The Times article says out of 69,381 passenger elevators in the five boroughs, probably fewer than 200 are the old-fashioned manually operated kind. Years ago, there were probably thousands.
I have two memories of those manual elevators, usually run by uniform-clad operators.
First memory… I was one of those uniform-clad elevator operators.
One summer during college, I worked as a doorman/elevator operator at the Parc Vendome, a beautiful old complex of four apartment buildings surrounding an interior courtyard on 57th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. I had a uniform, complete with a hat, and among tenants who were my passengers were gossip columnist Earl Wilson, the acerbic comedian Jack E. Leonard, a couple of long-ago movie actresses whose names I can’t remember now, and the grandmother of one of the Monkees – Michael Nesmith, I think – who used to visit her occasionally.
It wasn’t a bad job. When I worked the elevator, I was able to sit and read while waiting for calls. Working as the doorman, I had to stand outside, so I couldn’t read, although I did enjoy people-watching, especially the pretty young actresses who worked on the soap operas then taped at the CBS Broadcast Center on the next block.
The Parc Vendome had elegant wood-paneled Otis elevators, run by a throttle with two speeds up and two speeds down. No inside door, just a metal gate I’d open and close by hand. On my first day on the job, one of the regulars took me on some training runs, teaching me how to get the floor of the car exactly lined up so passengers wouldn’t trip as they stepped in or out. Early on, I’d get to the floor and then have to make a few little ups and downs to get the cab lined up properly with the floor.
The buildings had 19 or 20 floors and the guy training me said I needed to keep count of what floor I was on so I’d know when to slow down for a stop. And, he said, be especially careful when you’re getting to the top or bottom of the elevator shaft, because “you don’t want to crash through the roof or slam into the basement.”
What?! For the first day, I was terrified, with visions of crashing into the basement, injuring or killing myself and my passengers. I’d be focused on the floor numbers painted on the elevator shaft as they’d whiz by past the metal gate, praying I didn’t lose count. After a day or so, I asked one of the other operators if he’d ever lost count. He said, yes, all the time, but then he explained that the elevators had safety devices so if you got too close to the top or bottom at full speed, the cab would automatically slow down and stop before hitting anything.
I had fallen for the rookie elevator operator prank.
My other memory of manual elevators was from several years later, when I worked at a PR agency in Rockefeller Center – 630 Fifth Avenue. Back then, all the Rock Center buildings had uniformed elevator operators, although I think those machines were just two speed jobs – one speed up and one down. They were more modern than the ones I ran at the Parc Vendome, and much easier to operate and get a smooth landing with the cab level with the floor.
One of the operators on the elevator bank going to my office was a guy named Spencer. He was a short, older black gentleman with short white hair and a wonderful smile. The amazing thing about Spencer was he knew the name of everyone on his elevator bank. There had to be a few hundred people or more who took Spencer’s elevator every day, and he would warmly greet everyone by name. If, during the brief exchanges that could take place between the lobby and your floor, you mentioned something about your family or about something you were doing, he’d remember and ask about it on the trip up or down the next day.
Spencer made the start of each day a good one. It was sad to see progress come in and replace the manual elevators with automatic ones that no longer required an operator. Spencer was put on one of the freight elevators, so I didn’t see him much after that except when I sought him out.
Going to and from work just wasn’t the same, though.