by GUY HALFERTY
IF YOU are ever buttonholed by a perfect stranger who wants you to sit down and have a good, four-hour chat, do not be surprised or disturbed. It is probably just an elevator operator on his day off.
The fact is overlooked by most people, but elevator operators suffer from their own form of occupational tic, just as do businessmen and rug weavers. The elevator operator makes his living in a confusing world of incomplete conversations. He needs, most experts agree, at least four offduty hours of continuous talk and four of continuous listening each week; otherwise he may break down from exhaustion brought on by jumping at too many conclusions.
Scientific tests prove that the elevator operator knows more about less, or less about more — or anyway that he collects more useless and disconnected information — than any other employed person. For eight grueling hours each day, he hears practically nothing but middles. He hears an occasional beginning, or now and then an answer to which he doesn’t know the question; but on the whole he hears only the middles of other people’s conversations. And experts warn that a steady diet of middles will eventually damage the delicate nerves that enable the operator to distinguish between up and down. When that happens, it may be curtains. Or, in this case, sliding doors.
Let us take a ride with Operator A. If he is straining his ears, it is not visible to us. He appears disinterested, as he should. Two women in the car are discussing something in a stage whisper.
FIRST: Cyrus said he’d beat her.
SECOND: What did she say?
FIRST: She dared him to try it. He told her he could do it with one hand tied behind his back.
SECOND: And did he? — Five, please.
Fifth floor. Doors bang open, the women get out, the doors bang shut. Operator A, his stomach muscles knotted, will never know whether the conversation was about a sash weight murder or a game of twohanded canasta.
On the way down, two men get into our car, talking earnestly.
FIRST: I told Joe to get rid of the stuff before it was too late. But he wouldn’t listen. You know Joe.
SECOND: Yeh, poor Joe. What happened?
FIRST: The worst, naturally.
SECOND: Naturally. No hope, I suppose?
FIRST: There’s one hope. If we can only —
At this point the car reaches the ground floor, and the two men leave. Operator A, with one of the worst middles he has had all week, is in a fine pickle. Who is Joe, and what should he have got rid of? Is he a stock market plunger, a grass seed salesman, or a hub cap thief? Is there any hope for him, and if so what is it — and why wouldn’t he listen, the poor sap?
We leave Operator A talking to himself and go up with Operator B. At the third floor two youths get off in the middle of telling a joke. At the fifth floor a seandal gets off before we catch the names, and this leaves a man and a woman in our car, engaged in serious conversation.
HE: If they’re right, this is certainly serious.
SHE: HOW much did Henry tell them?
HE: He told them everything.
SHE: Well, there’s nothing to do but wait.
HE: Yes. It all depends on — Ten, please.
Tenth floor. They get off and walk down the corridor, the answer with them. All Operator B knows for sure is that Henry told them everything. Why did Henry do it? Do what? Who is Henry, anyway? It all depends on — on what?
Operator B’s curiosity may be killing him but, true to his Otis Oath, the elevator pilot’s finest tradition, he dare not even whimper, let alone curse under his breath.
If he were of weaker stuff, he might throw in his lot with a group of militant subversives who often resort to fudging when a good story is pending. These outlaws, who do not represent the rank and file of loyal elevator men and women, willrather than miss hearing the wind-up of a story—"accidentally" sail past the correct floor and waste a few precious moments making a landing. But the great majority of operators would rather never hear an ending than stoop so low. Besides, the newer automatic elevators are making this pretty tough to get away with.
There are innocent neophytes, of course, and some case-hardened veterans, who will commit the worst violation of all, that of actually joining in the Conversation. Had Operator B been in this class, be might have turned casually to his passengers and remarked, “What the devil is this about Henry, anyway? I thought I told him to keep his big mouth shut.”This maneuver usually rattles the passengers enough so that they go on and explain all about Henry; and by the time they figure out that Operator B doesn’t know Henry from former Senator Claude Pepper, the operator has disappeared behind clanging doors and has scored a triumph of a low sort.
But for the dedicated operator, such tactics are anathema. He must go on, in strict adherence to the code, keeping a steady hand on the lever and a resolute face to the wall. He must go on hearing hot market tips without the name of the stock. He must go on hearing screamingly funny jokes minus the punch lines. He must go on, day after day, hearing only the disconnected remnants of other people’s conversations and gossip, while the only remarks that are ever directed strictly to him are requests, such as “Is there a good, cheap divorce lawyer in this building?” and unfunny bromides such as “You sure do have your ups and downs.” The elevator operator rarely gets to tell a whole joke or story of his own, unless he works in a high buildingor a low building with a slow elevator.
Just what can be done to help elevator operators, in the way of a long-range program, is not yet clear. In the meantime, however, elevator passengers can aid in certain small but practical ways. It is thoughtful and friendly to cultivate a few one-ortwo-line items, such as “Up in our office there was a juicy scandal today. The boss’s wife stole a gross of typewriter erasers.” And give your name and office number. Anything that both starts and ends in a few seconds’ time is generally acceptable and will BE received with humble gratitude by tliese silent public servants. They are worth saving in this critical hour of our nation’s history.