Perhaps it was an omen. The elevator in my building was broken the day I moved in. When I shared the news with the movers, they sweatily shrugged it off, noting that they had been through worse situations in downtown high rises. Navigating two flights of stairs was child’s play for them. I responded by doubling their tips.
The machine was repaired a day later, but I had a bad feeling, as it had also been broken a few days earlier, when I arrived to complete the follow-up inspection before moving in. I wondered how the other residents managed this disruption, as most of them are a bit older and likely dependent on this service. It’s a small building, and I may be the youngest resident. I reasoned that I was able-bodied and could easily use the stairs. This would contribute to my fitness. And it would enrich my self-image.
The elevator broke again later that week. My call to the building management office was received with a bemused comment about that “finicky elevator.” My response, re-framing the problem as a safety issue which could result in a potential coronary event, prompted a testy, “We’ll get someone out there today” answer.
So the elevator was repaired. But it wasn’t well. It hesitated several seconds before grudgingly opening its doors and daring me to board. Sometimes it began its ascent gently, while on other occasions it jerked into action, forcing my arms to splay in defensive clutches. Several times only the inner compartment door opened, revealing the outer door, stuck fast. It was during such incidents when the tidal wave of panic rose in my throat and my clothes were drenched in flop sweat. My clammy fingertips pressed the button several times until the door silently opened and I leapt out.
That was it. My fear of this machine was complete. The fear was accompanied by hatred. I felt fatred for the Frankenvator.
You know the kind of elevator I mean. It’s the tiny ’60s-era machine with paneled walls and yellowed plastic signage. This one holds two people comfortably but would be crowded with 4. The inspection sign reads a 2,000 pound capacity which I believe to be hooey. Get this: the condition reads “Good.” Good. That’s a B in the academic world. I want my elevators to be in Excellent condition at all times.
This elevator attitude of mine is limited to small elevators. It comes with a little history and some moderate claustrophobia. As I am a walking bundle of recessive genes, I am not surprised by it.
The summer after I graduated from college, I lived with my sister and her family in their condo. One morning on the way to work, I was trapped in the elevator when it stopped between floors. I can’t recall now how the I was discovered, and I don’t think I was in there more than a half hour or so. The building superintendent was able to open the door eventually and help me climb out, but it wasn’t pretty. I was in a tight skirt, which made swinging my leg up impossible. Instead, I used my arms to hoist myself up, dragging myself combat-style along the carpeting and rolling myself to the side. My dislike for small elevators was born.
Yet there was also the contributing claustrophobia factor.
Having never been fond of tight places, this is not an unusual situation. As a child, I didn’t enjoy hide-and-seek games that involved hiding in boxes or trunks. Stories about children asphyxiating in abandoned refrigerators or people being stuffed in car trunks haunted me. Cave exploration will never be a vacation destination. I have full respect for deep sea divers who explore ship wrecks, squeezing their wet-suited bodies through tiny portholes to find stacks of 200-year-old china.
No I don’t. They’re nuts.
OK, so this could be a phobia — a morbid, compulsive, persistent fear of an object, stimulus, or situation (Funk and Wagnalls). Lots of us have them, or at least know someone who has one. One of my sisters will not drive on snow-covered roads any longer. My mother hated riding on escalators, and when we went shopping together when I was I child, she would stand behind me, especially when we were descending. John Madden, the retired football coach, is famous for his fear of flying.
The National Institutes of Health publish a list of top ten phobias for Americans. My distaste for tight spaces is number 3 on the list, following “critters” in the number 1 position and heights in the number 2 position (good grief, I’ve got some of that one too), and preceding flying (sweet Lord, I’ve already written about this) in the number 4 position, and water in the number 5 position.
The nagging factor about phobias, though, is how they impact our lives. In a recent Ask Amy column published in the Chicago Tribune, Amy Dickinson described a phobia as “an aversion that ruins your life and controls your choices.” Well, I don’t think the Frankenvator has ruined my life, but it has certainly controlled my choices.
Taking the stairs to avoid the elevator works most of the time. In my situation, only two flights of stairs are involved in the general coming and going from the building, and three flights when I am doing laundry. It can get a bit old, of course, when I am dragging work items or grocery bags. I tell myself that this is good for my arms and legs and is another kind of physical workout. Over time, however, it takes a toll. I have noted that while my legs can hack it, my hands and arms have sufferered over the months. Typically, upon reaching my door, my arms have stretched out like garden hoses, and I have cement burns on my knuckles from my hands slamming against the steps as I grunt my way up the two flights. My arms snake over every square inch of carpeting in the hallway, so after I set my belongings down inside, I must roll them up neatly on the kitchen counter. I have learned to sit quietly in a chair for a few minutes until they recoil to their original length.
On the days I teach, I descend the stairs with two very heavy bags. I have taught myself to take each step slowly, at an angle, to avoid pitching forward and landing in a heap on the landing. This became particularly challenging after a recent foot injury that has resulted in some limping and a longer-than-anticipated healing process.
So maybe this has to stop. Sometimes you really make some phenomenally bone-headed choices. I am setting myself up for bodily injury here.
I have indeed taken the elevator on days when my logic is clearer. But I have also entered the machine while it sat there, unmoving, the door open, and have exited nonetheless, sweat squirting from my forehead.
On occasion I ask myself what I would do if I were ever trapped in the Frankenvator. I have noted the emergency phone in its ancient compartment. I consider that I could use my cell phone to call someone but presume there would be no signal. I envision myself opening the stuck door by sheer will and desperation. I imagine myself calling out to whomever might hear me, my voice initially sounding practical and concerned, only to turn shrill as the moments turn to hours, then, diminishing to a raspy whisper of hyperventilation, until it disappears entirely. By the time I am discovered, I have curled up into a fetal position, rocking, my hands over my ears.
The point is, I do escape the Frankenvator.
I believe I am not alone in my elevator challenge. And I’ll keep working on using it more often. I’ll start with one day, and then two days, and then three days, and before I know it, I’ll have ridden it a full week. I’ll purchase an Elevator Calendar to track my progress.
To prove it, I’ll track my progress and report it in a future post. I will begin tomorrow morning, December 1 and will run the experiment for two weeks, through December 14. Please watch for the update.
I can do this.
OK, Dear Readers, here is where you come in. Do you have any phobias you’re willing to share? That’s the first step in overcoming them, right? C’mon!
I’ll conclude with a challenge. If you can name the other 5 phobias from the NIH phobia list — without cheating — I’ll let you take me to dinner. You need not even rank them in the correctly. And we can meet somewhere so you won’t have to take the Frankenvator.