Working late one Friday evening, I left my office in the McGraw-Hill building in New York’s Rockefeller Center and smoked a cigarette. Then I walked back into the building, past the guy polishing the marble floor – the same guy I’d seen for 15 years – and went into the elevator. I pushed the number “43”.
On the way up, I felt a jolt; the lights dimmed for a second. After a while, I realised the elevator had stopped moving, so I rang the emergency bell. I was irritated because I was on deadline. I was a production manager for Business Week and had to get the magazine out. I waited for someone to answer, but nobody did. So, I pushed the button again. I thought about yelling but I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I just left the bell ringing and waited.
But no one came. It was the weekend, there was only a skeleton staff working and there were 32 elevators in the building. What if nobody discovered me until Monday morning? I tried to keep that thought out of my head but the longer the alarm bell rang unanswered, the more persistent the image of me lying dead in an elevator became.
I began to prise at the doors to see if there was a way out. But when I wrenched them apart all I found was a concrete wall, the wall of the lift shaft, which only served to make me feel even more enclosed and frustrated. I scrambled up the sides of the elevator to bang open the trap door in the ceiling. I knew it would be dangerous to leave the lift, but I was desperate. The trap door was locked.
I lay on the floor, defeated. Thoughts of a slow death consumed me. I only had a few cigarettes left and I had no food or drink. I tried to sleep. As I turned on my side I noticed pieces of fingernail, bits of skin and hair on the lift carpet. I wondered how people managed to shed so much during a short elevator ride. I thought to myself that if I ever got out of the elevator, I would definitely take a day or two off and have some fun.
Hours passed. Then more hours. I just lost track of them. Then suddenly, at last, a voice came over the intercom: “Is there someone in there?” I jumped up and shouted back: “Just get me the hell out of here.” Forty minutes later, with no warning, I felt a breeze as the elevator moved. The doors opened and I just popped out of there like a cork. I asked the elevator mechanic what time it was. “Four pm,” he said. “On Sunday.” I had been in that lift for 41 hours.
Next morning, reporters laid siege to my apartment. Every little comment I made found its way into a newspaper. The head of PR for Business Week asked if I wanted to be put up in a hotel until the storm had died down. And then, inevitably, lawyers started calling me and throwing around figures. Some talked of $25m in punitive damages and advised me to stop working, so I did. I went off into this fantasy life. I was unemployed but began looking at apartments for $2m and $3m.
I signed up with one of the lawyers, and in 2004, five years after the lift jammed, we went to court. I didn’t like being on the stand – I was frightened. I had no money, no job and no future and I was banking on a big payout. In the end, we settled. I can’t disclose the amount, but it felt like a piece of change. I barely got six figures.
All living creatures have a fear of being trapped. I was truly terrified in that elevator. But my mistake was that I prolonged my entrapment. My life was in good shape, then I went for the big bucks and ruined everything. I haven’t had a job for 10 years and I’ve never married. I walked into an elevator with one kind of life and walked out with a completely different one. But it wasn’t the elevator that ruined my life. It was me.
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