Memories Of Being An Elevator Boy

The old, wooden, four-legged stool was anything but comfortable. It was a compromise –  stand for eight hours or else sit, but look ready to hop to attention inside the elevator in only two or three steps.

The hotel faced Ocean Avenue and the New Jersey shore. Its wide porches were populated with beckoning rocking chairs. The ocean air wore away the thick grey paint on the porch floors, and created waves of warping. Countless chips on the green and white rails revealed dark brown wood underneath.

The guests at the hotel were older Jewish folks, mostly women, seeking an escape from the city summer of 1965. Being the elevator boy was not an ideal job, but it allowed me to wear my knit kippah, stay at home on Shabbos, and feel like one of the crowd at work. I couldn’t shake the memory of the owner of the penny arcade on the boardwalk looking at me in disbelief – You can’t work on Saturday?? – and that ended that.

The elevator was a paneled and carpeted box with a six foot square floor. The crank handle moved in a semicircle, forward to descend, backward to climb. Each of the seven floors of the hotel had a sliding door and a folding metal grate, both of which had to be opened to allow guests to enter or exit. Standing with my left hand on the crank, I studied an ornate metal plaque above the crank. The plaque had two columns of seven, small, rectangular openings. One column for up, and the other for down, a small piece of paper with the floor number would slide into the opening along with a buzzing noise when a guest pressed a button.

My usual shift was from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon. That meant handling the guests coming down for a late breakfast, and those few returning to their rooms instead of sitting on the cool porch with a newspaper or knitting. The avid mahjong players were usually the first to hit the beach. I’d open the doors to smile at a group of women in their seventies and eighties, in short terry robes, with ribbed bathing suits, sometimes with skirts. They looked like a group of upside-down light bulbs, with five or six inches of cleavage where the the bulb’s threads would be. A few husbands would tag along, in their own terry robes, ivy league caps, roomy trunks with spindly legs, and a gold mezuzah lost in a grey hairy chest.

I would always smile, share the weather forecast, and wish them fun on the beach. Inevitably, I was asked at least four or five times, “So, I guess your job has its ups and downs?” Almost as frequently, a woman would inquire about my kippah, “How does that stay on your head?” My usual response was “Will power.”

Tipping was inconsistent and unpredictable. Some guests gave me a dime for each week. Others gave me a dollar. One kind gentleman came down every morning, dressed impeccably, with gold wire rim frames, a grey handlebar mustache, and grey hair parted down the middle. He’d smile and keep his right hand in his pants pocket jingling his change. “A dollar or the pocket?” He played this game with me every Wednesday, and truly enjoyed it. Many of the older women would come to the elevator after breakfast or lunch, with a white napkin wrapped around a danish. “Here, you look like you could use it.”  I would hide the gift under a newspaper so that the later givers would not get upset. I’d wish they’d given me the gentleman’s choice of a dollar.

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Without the controls and computer decision making of modern elevators, it was all up to me. I’d have to judge the weight of passengers and luggage to get a landing that was even with the floor.

Knowing when to move the crank to the stop position took time to learn – a quarter of a second before reaching the floor? Half a second?  Missing the floor, with the elevator a half inch or inch too low, meant people would trip as they got off. Correcting the gap meant an uncomfortable jerk of the elevator to get the floors level, often scaring the riders. As the summer progressed, the number of apologies and “Watch your step” warnings declined.

I also had to strategize which floors to go to first. I don’t think people talked about algorithms back then, so it was seat of the pants at best. If the elevator filled and I had to pass floors with waiting passengers, I would hear elderly cries of “Stop!” or banging on the doors. Many guests were not shy about asking for an express ride due to some made-up emergency. Again, more apologies on the retrieval trip.

The seventh was the highest floor, and it was the home of  hotel staff. Waiters, busboys, bellhops and others. They were a raucous group who shared many “if the guests only knew” stories of goings on in the kitchen. If the elevator was nearly full, a staff member would get on and ask for the fifteenth floor, causing a great many “I had no idea….” whispers in the group. With a special emergency operation button, the elevator could be operated with the doors open, allowing a waiter to climb on top of the elevator, inside the shaft. In the evening, an unsuspecting guest riding up to his room. would hear “Mr. Schwartz, this is God. Tonight you will go to sleep and wake up in heaven.” Eyes wide, Mr. Schwartz would ask me if I had heard that, and I would respond, “Heard what?” Reaching his floor, he very reluctantly stepped off to his room.

I heard Yiddish all around me, in the lobbies, in the dining room, and in the elevator. My parents had not made an effort to teach me the language, so it was foreign to me. Several times a week, women in the elevator, speaking Yiddish, would see my kippah, stop talking, and ask me if I knew Yiddish. When I responded “No”, they would query “Are you sure you’re Jewish?”

Recalling fifty years ago has become a habit every time I get on an elevator. But the electronic voices and large digital screens wake me from my two or three seconds of memory.