If I could ride in an elevator with anyone, either living or dead, I would most definitely pick Sigmund Freud.
Not because a 30-seconds-long vertical journey would be time enough to permit any kind of meaningful psychological exchange between the Good Herr Doktor and I – it’d be time enough to summon a pithy, off-cuff interpretation of last night’s bad dream, perhaps, or if he had his pocket watch on hand, to flirt with the stirrings of hypnotic stupor, but then it’d be time’s up.
And not because I have Daddy issues (Hi, Dad!), or because I enjoy ingesting the stink of stale cigar smoke within an enclosed space (which is always how I imagined Freud to smell, based on what he looks like in photographs).
Nay. I pick Freud because, if the events of the past two weeks are any indication, elevator shafts are unpredictable kinds of places in which some pretty awful tomfoolery is regularly afoot. And, when things get strange, who need on your side, more than a CEO or a beefcake or an entertainer, is a sage guide.
To what special tomfoolery do I refer? In case you’ve been summering either in an off-grid yurt in your parent’s backyard or beneath the mossy underside of a large rock, let’s review the sad facts.
Animal-rights activists (as well as anyone in possession of anything besides a gaping, cavernous maw beneath his or her sternum) went wild last week when a video surfaced depicting a prominent Connecticut-based businessman man savagely abusing a dog in an otherwise-empty elevator car. In the video, Desmond “Des” Hague, the now-deposed-CEO of arena concessions company Centerplate, appears to loose a little pent-up rage by wailing on the cowering young Doberman pinscher in his care. He kicks her – hard – then uses the dog’s own leash to lift her into the air.
And, just in the past few days, Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice has come under fire for his own despicable elevator antics: a surveillance video dated from February and making its way around the Internet purports to depict him engaged in a late-night hitting match with then-fiancée and now-wife Janay Rice (Palmer). Unsurprisingly, the 212-pound powerhouse football player wins the contest with a brutal left hook that sends Palmer flying into an elevator handrail before she topples to the ground. The punch knocks her out, and he drags her from the elevator in rag doll fashion.
Oh, these bad actors got their comeuppances: Hague resigned from his post and Rice has been suspended indefinitely from the NFL. But there’s a bigger question tucked away in all the sad and bad and mad: what is it about the space of an elevator car that so emboldens a person to behave so terribly? Might my theoretical elevator buddy Dr. Freud have any light to shed?
Modern passenger elevators predate Freud by 100 years, and were originally conceived as a stairs- and exertion-free means of hoisting fat French kings up to the chambers of their waiting mistresses.
Their ripe symbology didn’t escape Freud’s notice. Herr Doktor’s writings include notes on a long-suffering patient, “Frau Emmy,” who was overcome by an irrational terror that the elevator at the hotel in which she and her children were staying was faulty and thus might send them plummeting to their death. Freud hypnotized the poor, blithering Emmy and soon determined the real cause of her anxiety: lady problems. The onset of Frau Emmy’s own menstrual period had coincided with an older daughter’s bout of something called “ovarian neuralgia” (not sure what that is, but it sounds awful), which made it hard for the girl to navigate stairs, hence Frau Emmy’s suggestion that the children make use of the hotel elevator, and hence her resulting agitation.
Confused? Me, too.
Let’s time-travel forward, shall we, to modern-day Hollywood. Perhaps Tinseltown has a better patch on the surprising sway this strange machine holds over us. If the plotlines of our favorite media diversions are any indication, an elevator is certainly a place where just about anything can and does happen.
You might encounter a beautiful new neighbor with copious, spilling décolletage, whom you will instantly charm and then just-as-quickly infuriate when you gaze into her vacant eyes and explain that everybody in the building’s only been nice her because her boobies are humongous. It’s not your fault – your long-suffering son has placed a birthday curse on you that acts as a much-needed truth serum – and it’s causing all sorts of antics to ensue (“Liar Liar”).
Or you might recover the mangled, dripping corpse of a flesh-chomping cannibal’s latest murder victim when his vital fluids drip down from a crack in a paneled elevator ceiling and thus begin to unravel the murderer’s sinister plot to switch out his own body with the body of said murder victim, which has handily enabled him him to escape in an ambulance (“Silence of the Lambs”).
There are, of course, the more titillating possibilities: an eccentric zillionaire candy factory owner may shepherd you through a series of moral challenges and, upon determining you to be of sound judgment and impeccable character, he might whisk you sideways, slantways, longways and backways in a great glass elevator high above the crummy town you’ve spent your whole crummy life in before bequeathing you all his worldly kit, including a lifetime’s supply of chocolate bars (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”).
You might deliver your high school French teacher’s baby – while you are still in high school! – after the elevator you’re both riding in breaks down and she goes into panic-labor, which would normally be completely horrifying and sick, but fortunately for all involved, you are a child prodigy who sported medical credentials before back hair and have thus have had ample time to fine-tune your bedside manner (“Doogie Howser, M.D.”).
Never mind. Hang the dead doctors and the TV-movie formulae. Let’s try real-life anecdote.
I had a high school English teacher named Mr. Stiff who once told me that as a kid, he believed it was not the people inside of the elevator, but the people outside of the elevator who did all the moving and transferring when you stepped into the car and pushed a button. The heavy steel door clanked shut, and then you waited patiently with funny feelings jumping around in your stomach while the actors in the room you’d just exited rushed about in a frenzy, moving all the furniture around and exchanging places, and then, Ring! The door opened and you re-entered the same room, now totally reimagined.
This feels like progress. Mr. Stiff’s youthful elevator fantasy seems to illustrate something essential about the fundamental mystery and promise of an elevator ride: the elevator is an in-between place. It exists between moments, between floors, between worlds. Riding an elevator isn’t something you do. It’s something in between the thing you were doing a minute ago and the thing you’ll be doing a minute henceforth. It’s an interlude. This frees us, for the duration of the journey, from some of the normal limits of time, space and conduct.
Elevators further collapse the clear delineations we normally make between public and private spaces, and that makes them just a little bit dangerous. You’re inside, but you’re outside, too. Nobody can see you – or can they? Like an empty library passageway or a locked toilet stall, an elevator is ripe with delectable and occasionally terrible possibility.
Anyone who has ever felt that naughty rumble deep inside when the elevator door “dings” shut knows what I’m talking about. We rub up against our fellow humanoids all day long in ways that are rarely sexy and frequently irritating. The flaccid truth is that the world is way too crowded. Other people are annoying, selfish, and often smell like farts, old cigars, or worse.
There’s something delicious about stealing a moment of respite from all that existential mucking about. It’s the perfect opportunity to dig for a nagging booger and catapult it shamelessly into space, to scratch at one’s genitals, to pass gas, to mutter some tuneless snippet of song to oneself, to sigh discontentedly.
If we are in the company of a romantic partner, an elevator ride is also a golden shot at that first or fifteen-hundredth kiss, and maybe a pinch or a grope if there’s still time left over.
For most of us, such undertakings constitute tiny victories. They are restorative, decompressive acts that put the wind back in our patched, sagging sails and carry us through to blessed end-of-day when we can finally be alone with our discontent.
They aren’t much. And yet they are enough, most of the time. Why, then, does the prospect of being both seen and unseen so compel a select few of us to do terrible, awful things?
If Freud were in either of those elevators, he’d probably chew on the end of an unlit cigar and mutter something about collective id and baser longings, about our dark, sticky insides forcing their ugly way out through any portal available.
If I were in either of those elevators with him, I’d nod politely at the good Herr Doktor, and then, just before the door dinged open on my designated floor, I’d toss out my own carefully constructed theory of personality: some people are just dickbags.
As usual, the simplest explanation may well be the correct one. Elevators tickle at our baser urges in subtle and powerful ways, but people probably don’t behave themselves better or worse in elevators simply because they are in elevators. Probably, some people just behave atrociously as a rule, consistently and frightfully, whenever they’re pretty sure nobody’s looking.
Most of the time, they’re right.
Once in awhile, they are, of course, wrong.
And once an even lesser while, they’re famous as well as wrong.
Then, the peek behind the curtain becomes an unintended closing act, an angry, ceremonial and very public divestment. One that is deserved, no doubt, as in the sad cases of Desmond Hague and Ray Rice, but ceremonial all the same.
“Dickbags,” I’d tell the Good Doctor as I clutched at my ovaries and went skipping over the threshold.
Complete. Utter. Free-standing. Dickbags.