What would you do?
I have to set the scene for you; although this happened 46 years ago, the experience is as fresh in my mind as it was the day it happened. I apology in advance for downplaying the fear I experienced then and continues to resonate. This is the first time I am retelling this story.
Like many teenagers in Brooklyn, I worked at a grocery store. It was a good job for a 16 year old; it taught me many lessons about life I might not have learned otherwise. Little did I know, that on one particular brutally hot summer day, I would learn a lesson of survival.
Delivering groceries to neighborhood people was hard work, but when I laid on the charm and kept my clients happy, I could do pretty well financially. My earnings paid for room and board, clothing, and my education — we paid our own way in my house as soon as we were able. I either hustled or listened to my mother piss and moan about poverty and what it was like to raise seven kids on her own. She had a point.
My siblings would argue this self-assessment, but I recollect that I was a fairly happy-go-lucky teenager — especially when I was flush with cash. Tips were a good way for me to make money because I could hide a lot of it from my mother. I figure she was a waitress and practiced similar deception. That late morning in August, I was rode my delivery bike about two streets east to an old building I had visited often; truth be told, every building was old in Ditmas Park. When you’re sixteen and you think you know it all, old and rundown is not cool. I took the elevator to the 8th floor and dropped off the groceries; after awhile, you spend your time thinking about everything else than what you’re actually doing; I believe she was a regular customer, a detail that’s fuzzy.
I recall it was so humid, my clothing was soaked through and I was lethargic from the heat. I entered the noisy old elevator; you know, the ones that go clunk, clunk, clunk when they move. I pressed the button for the first floor. The door slammed closed and the elevator descended a few feet and stopped abruptly. I did what any human would do, I pressed all the buttons, I pressed them over and over again, thinking somehow, my persistence would restart the lift. There was an alarm button, a rather loud alarm I might add, but it felt like I was screaming help in a padded prison cell and no one was listening.
Thinking, this can’t be happening, doesn’t make it go away — this was a living nightmare. I took a deep breath and felt like I might cry. Perhaps my brain knew that crying would use up too much of my water supply, instead I stomped my feet and banged the walls. Clearly, there was no one anywhere near this piece of shit machinery. I sat down on the dirty elevator floor hoping an escape plan would come. I’m pretty sure I was close to panicking by this point. I’ve never been fond of small spaces; this elevator was tiny. In addition to that foul odors easily make me nauseous. This particular building had a gag inducing stench. I screamed “help” as loud as I could. I screamed repeatedly hoping someone in the building would come to my rescue. Could it be possible that the entire building was empty? And where was the lady I just delivered groceries to? I had watched way too much Twilight Zone for my own good. In my mind one of two things was going to happen: the elevator was either going to crash to the ground or I would die of heat exhaustion; neither would be a good way to go.
A good chunk of time passed before I starting screaming again. I was convinced my co-workers would miss me and someone was being sent to check what had happened. I would alternate between stomping and screaming and bargaining with God — whom I don’t believe exists by the way. Funny how that happens when you’re in a life threatening situation. You go through this, if you really do exist please help me — I’ll do anything, I promise, dialog in your head.
Dripping wet, long past the point of heat exhaustion, seeing double through pools of sweat, no voice, no help, and no hope; I recall at a certain point I began to enter the acceptance phase of my own impending death. At some point, I made the decision that being horizontal might save me some energy. The elevator floor was dirty and sticky, but I’m not sure it mattered much at that moment. Flat on the ground and feeling defeated, I believe I closed my eyes for a few minutes, the silence was deafening and my heartbeat was finally slowing a bit. I glanced at the ceiling and noticed an exhaust fan that wasn’t moving. Next to the fan was a panel. It was too high up for me, but offered new hope. I stood up in order to assess the situation and realized that I might be able to step onto the side rail and push on the panel. Desperation fuels hope — there were not many other options to choose from.
I jumped up with one foot on the rail and was able to touch the top of the elevator car. After a number of tries, I was dislodged the panel; quite relieved that it was not bolted down. I was able to eventually pop the panel off and push it over to the side, allowing me to see that I was only feet away from the elevator doors on the floor above the car.
It might have been more than an hour or perhaps only minutes; at this point I was pretty delirious. I faintly heard someone walking on the floor above and I shouted for help. The man walked up to the doors and called down to me.
“Is someone in there?”
I sunk down to the ground and responded with tremendous relief. Yes, I’m here, please help me get out.
“It’s the super, I’m going to shut the elevator down and start it back up.”
I don’t think I answered him. I may have thought it was in my head.
An eternity passed and the lift gave a jolt. It started moving but only about four feet. At this point the car was partially on the fifth floor.
“Give me a minute, I think I can pry the doors open.”
The super pushed the doors open and I could see him; I could breathe again. I expressed my gratitude and I told him I’d been there a long time. He apologized, his thick Spanish accent, more a part of my consciousness than earlier. He said something about being out of the building all morning. He asked for my hand, hauled me up, and I quickly crawled out onto the fifth floor. I don’t think either of us was thinking about the danger of what we were doing at the time. He could see I was dripping wet and he asked me if I wanted some water.
Please, I said and leaned my body against the wall.
He told me that his apartment was in the basement. He asked me if I could walk down the steps and I told him that I could. When we got down to the first floor he asked me to wait while he went to get some water. I thought he was kind. He returned with a tall glass and I drank the water in one gulp. I thanked him and left.
When I got back to the grocery store, I realized I had been gone three hours. None of my co-workers seemed to notice that I’d been missing. I walked over to Bob, the owner of the store, and found words almost impossible. He asked me where I’d been and I shared what had happened. He shrugged and told me he was glad I made it out of the lift. I thought he was matter-of-fact about the whole thing, but how could he know what I’d been through.
Years later I was watching the news and there was a story about a woman who was on an elevator in a Manhattan hi-rise. The elevator stopped a few feet below the floor she had entered on. The elevator door and the door to the floor opened, she panicked and hoisted herself up. As she was crawling out of the elevator, it started back up and cut her in half. When the door opened to some people who had called the lift, they saw the severed lower half of her body. The news only showed the bloody car, but it didn’t take much imagination to see the gruesome scene in your mind’s eye. Apparently, there was some sort of glitch in the system that caused the lift to malfunction. I believe they have put new measures in place to ensure an elevator car could never move if any of the floor doors are even partially opened.
I will never shake the image of that woman’s severed torso and what her final moments must have been like. I’ve also thought about my own situation and how I was fortunate to get out of the lift I was trapped in. I should have asked the super to call the fire department; I wasn’t thinking. The events that took place that day in my 16th year, taught me a great deal about who I am and how fortunate I have been. I treat elevators with great respect and carry water with me whenever possible; you never know when you might need it.
I still wonder where all the residents of that building were that day? Why didn’t the woman I had just delivered groceries to, hear me? And why didn’t my co-workers notice how long I’d been gone?
Hot dogs are one of my favorite foods and until recently I was convinced that a good, natural casing frankfurter, did not exist in Portugal. I was happily wrong — they sell them frozen at IKEA and I’m good now.