Sometime in the early 1950s, in Seattle’s swanky Fredrick And Nelson’s department store that has long since folded, a Chicago transplant waited for an elevator. She’d moved to Seattle with her vet husband to escape Chicago’s postwar housing shortage, and the competition for jobs with other returning soldiers whose employers were welcoming them back. On her shoulder she held me, a little blond boy.
The elevator doors opened. Mom carried me into a strange, small room; and for some reason a lot of people crowded into it with us. From her height I had a good view of the proceedings. The elevator operator sat on a little stool that folded out from the wall to the right of the door. She pushed up a hinged lever to close the solid outer doors. She unfolded an inner cage door in front of them. Then the doors slid down into the floor, and in my stomach something creepy started to happen. I yelled. This was the start of my fear of elevators. For a year or so afterward, on subsequent visits to Fredrick and Nelson’s my patient mother brought me up flight after flight of escalators to the eighth floor.
The next step in my elevator education was in another swanky 1950s Seattle institution, the Washington Athletic Club. My parents sent me there regularly for swimming lessons, and other boys were there for the same purpose. They would torment me by taking advantage of a peculiar feature of the club’s elevators; if one pulled a depressed floor-button back out, the elevator would skip that floor. I had to ride the elevator until the boys got tired of the game, or else get off on a strange floor where children weren’t welcome and look for the stairs.
Maybe there were intermediate steps in the progress of this phobia. But the next that I remember was, as an adult, working in the United Pacific Building, a decrepit pile on Second Avenue and Madison Street that had once belonged to the United Pacific Fruit Company. The two elevators in this building were prone to getting stuck; several times I spent a claustrophobic 20 minutes or so inside one, waiting for the custodian to rescue me. I began using the stairs religiously.
My employer liked the doddering old office buildings in the south end of downtown. So in due course we moved to the Arctic Building, once the province of Seattle’s Arctic Club. Its two elevators were the tiniest I’d ever seen. Later we moved to the Dexter Horton Building, Seattle First National Bank’s mouldering birthplace. Here an elevator boarded at street level would occasionally mutiny, taking its captives on a slow descent to the sub-basement.
This is when the elevator dreams began. I relived that descent at night, with exaggerated shudders and stomach-lurches, and a dismal world of junk at the end. By day, I never hesitated to board an elevator. I knew perfectly well that it was safe, and that its braking system wouldn’t let it fall. But whatever part of my unconscious decides that in the next dream I won’t be wearing pants returned to the elevator theme often, perhaps to torment the part of me that’s still a little blond boy.
I approach the lobby. Columns of fire are spouting from grates in the wall. Here is a row of normal elevators, and at its end one small, old, untrustworthy elevator. That one, for some reason, I must ride. Its call button is dirty and worn. It opens to reveal a car that’s narrow, shabby and dark. The panel of floor buttons is high up on the wall, almost out of reach, as they would be to a young boy. I push one. It climbs dizzily, pauses, lurches, shudders; or perhaps it droops down to sub-basement hell. At last it opens, sagging below the floor as I scramble out.
Lately I’ve been working as a barista in an old building. Each day when I open the coffee shop I need to fill a cooler with ice from the cafeteria kitchen upstairs. I used to use a public elevator. But one day a coworker told me that the kitchen had its own elevator; so I tried it. It’s a tiny, grubby little thing with cage doors front and back, a tight fit for a serving cart and a person. And it’s utterly reliable. Now I use it at every opportunity. It’s closer to the coffee shop than the public elevator, and I’m hoping it’s therapeutic.
Now and then, I’m blessed with a lucid dream. They’re a rare treat, and I quite enjoy them. I usually use the time flying. Or I push the bounds of the dream-universe, grabbing control of the story from that cretinish dream-weaver who’s never bored with making me pantless. Lately I decided that, whenever I had a lucid dream, I would use it to face down my personal dream-monsters.
Someone has a lot of kittens, all black. He hands one to me. While we’re talking, I pet it. Things go along smoothly at first. But then the kitten turns into a gargoyle, latching onto my hand with teeth and claws. I pull on it, swing my arm, smash it against a wall. But the little monster is impossible to get off my hand.
A lucid dream occurred; I demanded the kitten. I petted it. It remained a cute kitten, and did not attack.
So far, so good. Some time later, I had another lucid dream. I rushed into the lobby of an office building (these dreams don’t last very long) to a bank of elevators. i went to the end, confronted a narrow door and pushed its call button. The door opened; the dim, shabby elevator-car demon I had summoned awaited.
Even knowing that it was a dream, I couldn’t nerve myself to step inside. I turned my back on the elevator monster, and that was the end of the dream.
A few days ago I shared an elevator with a new mother who was carrying a little girl on her shoulder. The door closed; the car rose. The little girl went on smiling as if nothing were happening at all.