I have been musing of late on the American obsession with self-service. Apparently someone’s idea of nirvana is being able to do all tasks alone, interacting only with a machine. In addition, the idea of the machine being able to do the task without a person also seems to be catching on. Now somewhere designs are on the table for self-driving long haul trucks. And robots are being planned to take over many jobs currently requiring people.
I became aware, while responding to a young writer who was bemoaning the lack of social interactions, of how many parts of my life are now “unpeopled.” I thought for the benefit of readers younger than I that I would reflect on some of the ways I used to interact with people as I went about my life.
Today I am remembering elevator operators who peopled all multi-storied buildings. In the photo above is a typical view of a department store bank of elevators with one woman there to direct shoppers to available cars and two ready to load their cars. The most common sentences would be “going up,” going down,” and “express to floors 10 and 12 only.”
In the elevator, the woman(always women in my town) would announce each floor just before arriving at it. I can still remember the phrase “Shoes, millinery, daytime dresses” from a frequent ride.The rider’s job was to state when she wanted to exit. Today elevators automatically stop even with the floor. Previously, the operator was responsible for neatly stopping the car even with the stop. This was quite challenging, and you could tell experienced from new operators by how often they had to jostle the car up and down until you could get off without tripping.
Once in high school I visited a very posh women’s clothing store for the first time. When I told the operator I needed the third floor, she sailed right by saying, “You do NOT want the third floor,” and deposited me on the fourth. Apparently the third floor was for women with money where the clothes were brought out one at a time for perusal. Clearly she could tell I was not the appropriate customer!
I miss them. I never had to worry about finding myself alone in an elevator with a strange(in both senses of the word) man. And what happened to the old line about the task? “It was a job with ups and downs.”