Few people feel perfectly at ease in a lift. This is not surprising. We are in uncomfortably close proximity to strangers. We are literally boxed in. There are few available displacement activities. In all, one needn’t be a general claustrophobic to feel specific mild social angst in a lift.
My company has a small office near Canary Wharf on the 33rd floor. I notice little rituals played out by the lifts on every visit. For example, I’ve realised that people often time their approach to the cluster of lifts so that they just miss one that appears already inhabited. This is especially true when they are confident another is on the way. They sort of slope up to the lifts, and suddenly become distracted by their watch, their phone or the plaque on the wall indicating fire regulations. The doors of the “missed” lift close. The deliberator pulls his eyes away from the watch/phone/plaque, waits a moment, and presses the button to summon the next one. There is amusing room for error in this routine, though: sometimes he presses the summoning button too quickly – the full lift he had tried to avoid hasn’t had time to leave, and so “helpfully” slides open. His strategy in tatters, he now has to make a sheepish entrance all the while other pristine lifts are arriving just around him. Sometimes I am he.
Of course, the Docklands Busy-busy-businessman more usually suffers from the Must Get The Next Lift mentality than the Must Avoid This Full Lift angst outlined above. The disease is related to the Must Get This Tube-train malady which afflicts all self-important Londoners. Even when an empty tube-train surely follows a packed sardine tin, Mr Busy-busy must barge his way into the present overflowing carriage, as if the minute’s delay he’d have to endure till the next train pulled up would make a difference worth millions of pounds, lives or Gilts. In all likelihood, of course, the minute he saved on arriving home would be used for little more than giving his scrotum a scratch or staring into the fridge. As with trains, though, a closing lift means urgent panic. Busy-busy runs toward the closing doors, jamming his hand, foot, briefcase or secretary in the gap, piling into the lift as if he’s just hopped on to the last rocket off a dying planet. “Ping”. Another two lifts have arrived in the time he’s performed his self-important acrobatics. He’s impervious to the glares, though. He’s Busy.
Of course, lift rituals continue once one’s in. It is important to stare at the floor number-indicator. The lifts in Canary Wharf have little television screens with, bizarrely, stills of people about to enter private jets. This makes a welcome focal point, and helps to prevent that supreme faux-pas of lift eye-contact. Where one positions oneself in a lift depends on its occupancy, and is fraught with complication well beyond this discussion. The placement matrix is subtle and the product of a highly complex set of innate rules – perhaps more so even than with men at urinals.
When I’m in a lift with a friend or colleague, I like to have some sort of odd conversation with him or her. It is entertaining to watch any other lift inhabitants try to ignore the discussion, or even, if we’re lucky, scowl or smirk. A rare achievement in the monastic cell of the lift. That said, one can find this disconcerting in the inverse: a colleague related to me how a couple of men got in a lift and cheerily waved good-bye to a woman who remained outside the lift. As soon as the door closed, the men suddenly began a leery discussion of the myriad sexual divertissements they’d like to perform with that woman. It became more and more graphic. Fortunately, the lifts in our building traverse the 33 floors very quickly, so my colleague was not present for the denouement of their outburst.
A taboo lift-practice we’ve all performed at some time or other is the quick-close attempt: we enter a lift and hear footsteps. We want the lift to ourselves, so we jab the door-close button repeatedly. The lift reacts slightly too slowly, and the owner of the stepping feet becomes visible. He can see our hand, suspiciously near the close-button. We quickly press the open-button, as if we’ve been desperately trying to get the damn thing open for our poor, lost foot-stepper all along. “Oh, what a relief the door didn’t close before I could hold it open for you, my new deserving friend, thank heavens”, we hope we’re projecting. Our unconscious mind begins its complex simultaneous equation to align us appropriately with regard to this new interloper. The bastard.