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“Why’s this so good?” No. 25: Nick Paumgarten’s tower of terror

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A few days ago I stepped onto an elevator, heading out for an afternoon coffee. The repairman was there, his tools spread out on the floor. Come on in, he said, pressing the “door close” button and whistling a short tweet. Somewhere above us, a whistle back, and we started to move. Hey-yo! Someone shouted. The voice was came from above, and it didn’t fade away. Hey-yo! the repairman shouted back. He’s up top, he said, pointing to the ceiling, where his partner was riding on the outside of the elevator. They shouted a few pleasantries back and forth. They seemed to be having fun.

At about 10am on the same day, a woman stepped into an elevator at 285 Madison Avenue. Halfway in, on the threshold where most people stop to hold the door open, the car shot up and pinned her to the roof. The two passengers were trapped with her body for over an hour.

That night I sat down again with one of the most frightening, banal, effed-up, claustrophobic, and crazy-good pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever read: “Up and Then Down,” Nick Paumgarten’s 2008 history of elevators from The New Yorker. If you’ve never read it, perhaps you’ve heard about the story, another it-will-never-happen-to-me urban legend turned reality: In the fall of 1999, Nicholas White, a production editor at Business Week, enters an elevator at the McGraw-Hill building to go out for an evening smoke and leaves it 41 hours later.

Elevators are the most horrible places imaginable about two percent of their time. For the other ninety-eight percent of the time, elevators have little sex appeal, and so do 8,000-word features on them. It’s a New Yorker staple, these masterworks that reveal the sudden canonical purpose of leaf blowers, or coffee beans, or online dating, or pencil erasers. On a recent episode of “Parks and Recreation,” a character uses a (fake) New Yorker article about the history of ladders to neutralize the sexual tension between coworkers. It works.

Then again, the banality of the thing is often the best challenge there is. Hey journalist, you want a good opening? Start with a man getting into an elevator alone. The elevator stops. Now go:

He occupied himself with thoughts of remaining calm and decided that he’d better not do anything drastic, because, whatever the malfunction, he thought it unwise to jostle the car, and because he wanted to be (as he thought, chuckling to himself) a model trapped employee. He hoped, once someone came to get him, to appear calm and collected. He did not want to be scolded for endangering himself or harming company property. Nor did he want to be caught smoking, should the doors suddenly open, so he didn’t touch his cigarettes. He still had three, plus two Rolaids, which he worried might dehydrate him, so he left them alone. As the emergency bell rang and rang, he began to fear that it might somehow—electricity? friction? heat?—start a fire. Recently, there had been a small fire in the building, rendering the elevators unusable. The Business Week staff had walked down forty-three stories. He also began hearing unlikely oscillations in the ringing: aural hallucinations. Before long, he began to contemplate death.

It’s clear that Paumgarten sat down for an extensive talk with Nicholas White, but there’s hardly a word from him here: it’s all in his head. This is a curious and tricky point of view for a writer. These aren’t the actual thoughts of a person in this situation, there’s no real panic, it’s all ice cold third person, and somehow that’s what chills. “He began to contemplate death.” It’s the kind of spectacular understatement that any good writer would love to pull off.

White’s story is woven through the feature in short episodes, between the “bring sprawling New Yorker stuff” that pads out the canon of elevator lore: the elevator in free-fall, the first elevator demonstration, the elevator’s effect on the skyline, the high-tech elevators in the world’s tallest buildings, the strange mathematics of elevatoring (it’s a science, this up and down).

But it’s the psychological toll on a simple elevator rider that makes this piece so good. And the precision with which that toll is meted out. There’s a detachment to the proceedings, an almost mechanical breakdown in the way Paumgarten gets to our addled hero.

He started to call out “Hello?” He tried cupping his hand to his mouth and yelled out some more. “Help! Is anybody there? I’m stuck in an elevator!” He kept at it a while.

There it is again, that frightening understatement. Could be five minutes, could be five hours.

Not a banality of evil, but perhaps fear—or rather, the possibility of fear? Yes, that’s what it is. “Elevatorphobia is a kind of claustrophobia,” Paumgarten writes, “and as such the fear is as much of experiencing fear—of having a panic attack in an enclosed space—as it is of the thing itself.”

It’s easy to think of writing itself as panic attack in an enclosed space, and the real work of writers is overcoming the fear of that panic attack. Maybe that’s another reason why this is so good: it feels like Paumgarten has complete control over what is basically the mental breakdown of a man in an enclosed space.

For our man on the ground, it only got worse. After White got out of the elevator and found himself at the center of all kinds of attention, he fell apart. He shrunk from the press, he sued the building, he settled for peanuts, and he disappeared to Anguilla for two months, effectively quitting his job at the magazine.

Paumgarten reveals in his closing paragraphs that in the spring of 2008 White still didn’t have steady work, living with almost ten years of grief after 41 hours of loss. He carefully keeps White’s true feelings at the edge of the page, and in the end, we find out we didn’t know White at all, couldn’t possibly understand what he went through. It’s a traumatic realization, how the elevator changes you.

Michelle Legro (@michellelegro) is an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.




One comment

  1. Mike H.
    posted December 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm | permalink

    Very insightful story about a story. Now I want to read Paumgarten’s book!

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