No Exit: Trapped in an Elevator

There is a video on the New Yorker website that shows an unfortunate man who spent several days trapped in an elevator in 1999.
What we see is the video surveillance tape that no one looked at for 41 hours. The man, Nicholas White, got into the elevator at the McGraw Hill building at 11 PM on a Friday and wasn’t freed until 4 PM on Sunday. He managed to pry open the elevator doors several times, to reveal, each time, the same brick wall.
I would have died.
I hate elevators.
On Tuesday afternoon last week, after lunch, I took the elevator at the wowOwow offices, which are in that area of New York sometimes referred to as the flower district but most often thought of as the nowhere strip between Madison Square Garden and Chelsea.
It’s a funny old office building, with a lobby that runs from a street with a church to a street with a police precinct that looks like a fortress.
So: the elevators. Six of them lined up behind a semicircular reception desk, manned by one or two women in uniform. Numbers light up on the wall to let you know what floor the elevators are on.
There aren’t many of us in the elevator: there’s me and Jonathan Marder, who is wowOwow’s PR, and two women from other floors, and another man. The door almost closes. A thick-set young man pushes the door open, slams in with a shoulder bag, pushes a button. The door closes. “Funny,” I think, “The guy looks like Chris Penn.”
But I’m actually trying not to think because I am a claustrophobe, the kind of claustrophobe concerned less with vital space than with needing to know — always, and with proof — that there is a way to get out of here immediately. Wherever here is. I tend not to lock bathroom doors in case this traps me. I can’t stand being the center person in a restaurant booth; I deal with airplanes by focusing on certain talismanic magazines and doing every crossword I can find. In emergencies, I use a mantra and the Lord’s Prayer in equal doses. Elevator rides involve a suspension of thought, because if I think while on an elevator, all I can think is get me out of here.
So I’m not thinking, staring at the iPhone, where a text tells me someone wants to see me while they’re in town. The elevator door closes. The elevator shudders.
Nothing happens.
I look at the indicator. A large “L” tells me we have gone nowhere.
The door does not open.
Someone presses the bell. Loud clanging. No response.
Get me out of here now get me out of here Now Now Now get me out of here NOW.
I’m going to faint. I will not faint.
I might as well hit the floor right now.
I slide down and sit with my legs straight out ahead of me. I’ll just climb into my head and stay there. Recite the mantra.
Recite the mantra to calm my heart that is clanging as loud as the alarm bell that no one can hear.
What mantra?
How does it go?
Clang goes the bell. Clang clang clang goes my heart.
Oh yes here it is. Mantra, mantra, mantra.
On the other hand, no one answers the bell.
Mantra mantra mantra.
Clang clang.
Ba-thump ba-thump ba-thump.
“What is it?” comes over the loudspeaker. It’s been a long time.
“We’re trapped in the elevator,” says someone who is standing up.
“Which one?”
Which one? They can’t tell which elevator is stuck?
I shove the iPhone earpieces in so I don’t have to hear any more evidence of the lack of competence or impaired acuity from outside.
Where there is air and where there are two doors to the sunny streets.
The earpieces are said to cancel out sound.
Mantra mantra.
Breathe through the nose, not the mouth.
I’ll listen to some music. Thank God for the iPhone.
My hands are trembling so hard — two minutes ago I was on the street, in the fresh air — that my now immense fingers stumble around on the dashboard.
The iPhone allows me to do things that are of no immediate use.
I take a picture of my knee.
I check the weather. Outside where the breeze blows on a sunny street … outside where we are not …
I write a text to Joni Evans, upstairs.
It takes a long time to type in recognizable English.
Trapped in elevator get cops get firemen now.

“Error in sending message,” says the iPhone.
Breathe through the nose, not the mouth.
iTunes, I was looking for iTunes. Got it.
Yo Yo Ma. Good.
Yo Yo Ma. Funereal. For the funeral of six people who died in an elevator stuck on the ground floor in midtown.
Waylon Jennings? Plaintive.
Leonard Cohen. No, no. No …
Bach: Sleepers awake? No.
Bury Me Not on the Cold Prairie? No.
Mantra. Mantra. Mantra.
My fingers now steady enough, I dial 9-1-1. The call doesn’t go through.
God this is taking a long time. A quick peek at my fellow entombees. All standing.
The bell rings again.
“Can you get the air on? It’s getting hot in here,” says someone above me.
— They’re right! It’s hot in here!!! Breathe through the nose.
Do not look at the time, do not count the minutes, do not try to time this.
This is happening, it’s not dangerous.
Get me out of here now now now now now now now!

Our father who art in heaven …
“It’s very hot,” I hear through the earpieces.
Open the eyes again. The two women are on the floor in front of me. Jonathan Marder is folded up, sitting on my left. The Chris Penn look-alike still looms over us.
Be adult, do not be scared, this can be dealt with.
The Blue Danube Waltz? Whee, whee, whee, whee. Too many spinning notes for this confined space where there is no room to …
Clang clang, back to the mantra, ba-thump ba-thump.
Twelve songs, eight times. But not counting.
Do not count.
One thousand, twenty thousand, do not look at the time on the iPhone.
This has happened, that’s all. And just like the triumph of your worst enemy or bad news, there is nothing to do but wait it out. Tides turn.
But the wait is very long and we are very hot and there is nowhere to run to …
There is nothing you can do about this.
There are people outside who can do something about this.
Where are they?
My eyes still shut.
Hoping to find enough inner space to crawl into to forget how little outer space there is in the confined little …
Clanging of the bell.
Clanging of the heart —
Cracking of a — you know what a crowbar on an elevator door sounds like?
It’s the same noise, inside you and outside, that you hear when the dentist pulls out a tooth. Crack, resistance, resistance, crack crack crack resonating inside a cavity.
Your own mouth or the elevator you’re trapped in.
Not yet.
Crack crack crack.
It gets hotter. Everyone is sitting on the floor, except Chris Penn who still looms above me.
There is no inner space to crawl into and this has gone on for a very long time and it is very very very hot in here
and there is no oxygen, there is nothing to breathe in, and every breath out just adds to the congestion, the traffic jam of carbon dioxide that is making everyone very slow and groggy on the floor here.
Contracting around a mantra, trying to fit into a space inside my head but squinting at my knees,
trying to breathe but there’s less air all the time.
So this is what it’s like.
And when they do open the door, the air outside is just as hot, just as used.

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