by Nick Paumgarten
OCTOBER 17, 2005
No one much likes it when something—an empty cab, an out-of-service subway train, summer—goes by without stopping. It’s like a tiny taste of death. This thought came to mind recently when a rumor surfaced about a clever elevator trick. Supposedly, if an elevator passenger simultaneously presses the “door close” button and the button for the floor he is trying to reach, he can override the requests of other passengers and of people waiting for the elevator on other floors. The elevator shifts into express mode, racing directly to the floor of his choosing—becoming, in essence, a private lift. Apparently (that is, according to Internet chatter and what you might call secondhand anecdotal evidence), people (pizza men, college students, hotel guests) have been doing this for years, which might explain why the rest of us have occasionally had the feeling that elevators were passing us by.
The experts, however, say that the idea is nonsense, that elevators are not designed to do this, that people are talking crazy. “It’s just not so,” Charles Buckman, an elevator and escalator consultant in North Carolina, said the other day. “If it happens, it’s just happenstance.” He went on, “There’s no linkage in the control system between the door-control system and the floor-call system. Saying that one affects the other, that’s like saying people in America eat hot dogs, so therefore people in Africa eat hot dogs.”
Richard Gladitz, a service manager at Century Elevator, an elevator-maintenance company in Long Island City, concurred. “It really shouldn’t operate like that, unless there’s something wrong with it,” he said. “People will think that someone did something to make it pass by, but it might have something to do with the dispatcher, various elevator-bank issues, something of that nature.”
He was apprised of a case involving a woman in an elevator (manufactured by Gurney and serviced by Century) in a prewar apartment building on the Upper East Side who found that she could override the requests from other floors by holding the “door close” button as the elevator passed those floors, the fleetingly perplexed faces of spurned neighbors visible through a window in the door. Gladitz sighed and said, “There’s so many misconceptions about elevators.” Could it be that engineers had designed elevators to have this door/floor feature but, for the common good, didn’t want civilians to know about it? Might there be an elevator conspiracy? Gladitz laughed and said, “You know what? As you’re passing through buildings, going about your daily business, give it a shot.”
What with daily business usually restricted to only two buildings, special business was devised, starting with a midmorning visit to Bloomingdale’s: six elevators, controlled by a vintage Westinghouse Selectomatic Mark IV call system. A few preliminary rides proved unsuccessful; people got on and off, regardless of attempts to override them. But then suddenly the overrider found himself hurtling up and down from the ninth floor to the lower level, repeatedly, without being stopped in between. Success? It was hard to know. How could a man be sure that other passengers were even there? From the ratio of shoppers to elevators, he might conclude that they were not. The same epistemological problem persisted at the next test site, the Peninsula hotel, where elevator abundance and guest scarcity made it possible to race up and down without interruption.
To the office, then. A desultory last-ditch attempt to hijack the ride up failed, but at lunchtime, just for kicks, the overrider, boarding a downbound elevator occupied by three other passengers, who had pressed a couple of buttons, tried again, pressing “door close” and “16.” The illuminated buttons all went dark. For a few seconds, the elevator didn’t move. It had been reset. It was there for the taking, but, amid hijacker indecision, the elevator took control of itself, and started going up instead of down.
The passengers were alarmed. “What’s going on? Are we going up?”
“Don’t worry,” they were told. “This is research.”
“How about doing it after hours?” one said.
“I’m really hungry,” another said.
“Research?” said a third. “O.K., I’m doing research on breasts. Take off your shirts.”
More passengers boarded on twenty-three. Buttons were pressed, but the overrider struck again, and again the panel went blank. The maneuver was executed a few more times, until mutiny seemed imminent. (“I want to get off right now.”)
These findings were put to the experts. “That shouldn’t have happened,” Gladitz said, evenly. “That’s kind of an oddball thing.”
“There’s something wrong with the elevator,” Buckman said.
Sure there is.