Local Dispatch: Of all the things, elevators always gave him a big lift
May 21, 2014 12:44 AM
Getty Images/Dynamic Graphics
By Dale Abraham
It's easy to wax nostalgic about certain things. It could be cars, neighborhoods or retail stores.
However, let me tell you what sends me from yesteryear: elevators.
I've always had a child-like fascination with elevators. Maybe it was the doors, the floor buttons or the sometimes bumpy ride, but elevators excited me as long as I can remember.
As a child, I was jealous of the elevator operator at the Woolworth Building at Sixth and Penn, Downtown. To take us to our third-floor dentist, she'd pull the chain door closed, shut the solid door, turn the wheel and take us up three floors. It was magic. And she did all that sitting on a stool.
The Jenkins Arcade, where my dentist moved his office to the eighth (also the top) floor after the Woolworth Building was torn down, had intriguing elevator floor buttons. In a crowded car, several floor buttons would be pushed. When we reached the eighth floor, all the floor buttons would pop out like a car's cigarette lighter. Cool! No one who alighted the car on lower floors could experience this admittedly strange thrill.
Joseph Horne department store had a hidden set of elevators. The regular cars with the gold trim and chandeliers overhead were elegant, but if you took the steps to the balcony above the main floor and went around a corner, you'd find a hidden gem: a bank of unused lifts. The doors were glass, and I could only imagine the carriage trade using these elevators to reach their floors.
A night watchman once told me these Horne's elevators moved up and down by themselves at night. I doubt that was true, but it remains a delicious possibility.
My fetish with elevators has not been limited to passenger lifts. Certain freight elevators remain embedded in my memory, like the gargantuan ones in Kaufmann's warehouse on the North Side. The doors opened like a kaleidoscope: The outer doors slid horizontally, while the inner doors yawned vertically. It was like the 1970s opening credits of "The Wonderful World of Disney."
The freight elevators in Gateway Towers are especially memorable. I spent many nights in that building as a security guard in 1983. Their speed was incredible. Press your destination, and the overhead floor indicators would whiz by. Some residents preferred the freight cars to the regular ones, which were agonizingly slow in comparison.
The Standard Life Building at Fourth and Smithfield had the smallest elevator cars on Earth. Three people were a crowd in these lifts. The doors only opened half the width of the miniature cars. How office furniture ever reached the upper floors puzzles me.
In college we played a game called "Molecules" in my dormitory elevators. This pastime was taught to us by our resident assistant, who was ostensibly charged with maintaining good behavior. (He later redeemed himself by becoming a Pennsylvania state trooper).
We'd pile as many people as possible into the elevator. Then, while the car was ascending, someone would flip the lever to turn out the light and we'd bounce off each other like molecules in a centrifugal frenzy. This would cause the bouncing car to stop between floors and we'd all declare riotous victory. Jiggle the power switch and the car would resume its journey. We did this regularly after our evening dining hall meal, with never a casualty.
Though I have many other elevator memories, nothing compares to one experience in New York City.
In 1971, my father attended a convention there, and the host hotel was the Plaza. Don't ask how we afforded it. We ate breakfast at a dive next door called Prexy's, which offered eggs and toast for 89 cents. I remember my mother calling Trader Vic's in the lower lobby of the hotel, asking how much dinner would cost. When the reply was "about $15," my mother said "We'll be right down." She then hung up and we all laughed convulsively.
Anyway, as a 9-year-old, I was allowed to run the elevator at the Plaza. The nice gentleman operator instructed me on the three buttons that took the car up and the three buttons that took the car down. When I evened out the car to the floor, he would open the doors to let us out.
A life-changing thrill! Elevators! Such mundane, memorable contraptions.
Dale Abraham of the Central North Side, a Port Authority bus driver, can be reached at email@example.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes “Local Dispatch” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.
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