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By Herman Sillas
When I enter an elevator, I think of cavemen. I envision them using ropes to pull their families up to caves in the mountains free from danger. Moving people in a vertical manner advanced to such an extent that when King Louis XV of France reigned (1715 to 1774) he had an elevator built to transport him from his quarters to his mistresses’ rooms. By 1857, an elevator had been installed in a New York department store. Then in 1887, an electric elevator, with multi-speed motors for service in high-rise buildings, was developed in Baltimore.
Today we aren’t very impressed about a ride through a tube that takes us up and down floors in a high-rise structure. It’s not the function or speed of the elevator that draws my attention; it’s the conduct of elevator passengers.
See, the first time I noticed these silent interactions was when I worked in Sacramento in the late 1970s. I’d visit the State Capitol building that had numerous elevators. Each had an operator who transported us vertically, announcing the floor number and opening the doors. The courteous operators addressed us as we entered, asking us the floor we sought. In between calling out the floors were short conversations with passengers. Frequent users knew the operators by name.
When I left government in 1980, I joined a law firm with offices at the Oviatt Building in Los Angeles. It was a well-kept, old downtown building with old elevators and their operators. They controlled the speed of the cabin and opened and closed the doors of their cabins at each floor. They knew the name of all the occupants of the building. These operators would be the last of their kind. Their skills would no longer be needed in the new high-rise buildings of Los Angeles. Floor selection is now in the hands of passengers, thanks to automation.
But I miss the old operators and our banter. I’d ask, “How’s life?”
They’d answer with a smile, “It has its ups and downs.”
Now, at my age, I visit doctors. Most have offices in high-rise buildings, so I make use of elevators that every passenger and I can operate. I examine how we interact with each other. The truth of the matter is that we don’t. Why bother talking to someone that you won’t see again? Consequently, most passengers step into the elevator, punch the floor button they desire, turn and face the doors and don’t say a word. In fact we don’t like to be with unknowns so much that there are express elevators that allow us to skip the first twenty or twenty-five floors so we minimize our time with strangers.
If you are boarding an elevator, courtesy dictates that you let the passengers out first before entering. Some hesitate before entering, making sure they will be safe in this group of strangers. If not, they pass. Once in the elevator, people don’t speak, even if they entered conversing with someone. The elevator cabin becomes like a library without books.
So my New Year’s resolution is that I will go out of my way to speak to my elevator passengers. What the heck? Why not? What’s to lose? The first ones I talked to were a young boy and his mother. He was with a book. I asked him if he was going to school. He nodded his head.
I told him, “You will be one smart fellow.” He and his mother smiled as they exited. A new passenger entered.
“What floor?” I asked.
“Fifth floor,” she answered.
“You’re covered,” I said as I punched the fifth floor button. She smiled.
Holy moley! I think I’ve become an elevator operator. That’s the view from the pier.
Herman Sillas, a San Clemente attorney and resident, can be found most Saturday mornings fishing at the San Clemente Pier. He may reached at email@example.com.