Monday, August 23, 2004

Elevator digression blog.

My brother Jay, who also has a gift for digression, writes regarding yesterday's post: “A manually-operated passenger elevator! In this country at least, that's right up there for rarity with the ivory-billed woodpecker & the pink-headed duck. OK, maybe not the pink-headed duck, which was never found in this country. It was last seen in the wild in what's now Bangladesh in about 1935, in the mouth of a hunter's dog. See The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck: A Journey into the Himilayas and Down the Bramaputra, by Rory Nugent, for more information.

“As to elevator operators, I think I rode with one in the Nix Professional Building in San Antonio, circa 1980. I have seen elevator operators since then, but only in specialized venues, like the observation deck on the Sears Tower or the Hemisfair Tower in San Antonio. Both of those featured elevator operators if I'm not mistaken. For what it's worth, I believe that Shirley McClain's character in The Apartment was an elevator operator.”

Indeed, manual elevators are very rare here in the United States, except maybe in the highrises of Manhattan. Some years ago I read that there were only three manual elevators in downtown Chicago, only one of which I know I’ve ridden -- it’s in a small-beer office building in River North, in the mean shadow of the Cabrini-Green public housing project (not now quite as mean as it was in the 1980s, however).

A quick search turned up an undated Seattle Times article by a reporter named Pamela Sitt that relates the following: “Elevator operators are a dying breed, so much so that the occupation isn't recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There was no information available about elevator operators in the Bureau's 2000 figures, and an Internet search turned up zilch as well. Other than Smith Tower, the only other building in Seattle that employs elevator operators is the Space Needle.”

I’ve written about the dangerous lift I experienced in the Czech Republic (March 24, 2004), but despite possibly dating from the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it wasn’t a manual, only a primitive automatic. But I don’t think I’ve mentioned Japanese department store elevators, which are a class unto themselves.

Not because the equipment is old. In fact, all of the department-store elevators I ever rode in Japan were fully automatic, late 20th-century conveyances. And yet many of them had elevator operators, who were universally known to gaijin as elevator girls. I’m sure they had different uniforms according to which store they worked for, but after 10 years, they’ve all conflated in my memory into young women wearing white, slightly frilly blouses, pink skirts and round pink-and-white hats, almost hyperfeminine bowlers.

They had no special equipment to learn. They would stand next to the elevator buttons and take requests for floors. Upon arriving on a particular floor, they announce it, along with some of the merchandise available, and thank the customers. All in a voice an octave higher than normal. Which, I’ve read, is supposedly more pleasing the ear. (But not for me.)

But that was back in the early 1990s. I will have to e-mail my remaining friends in Japan to see if the custom continues. Customs die hard in Japan, but given enough economic pressure, they do die.


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