“Hold the door, please.”
It’s a windy day and everyone’s straightening their hair. Fortunately, the elevator’s walls are shiny enough so the twenty-or-so people inside don’t have to cram on the mirror. Those who get in first, get the best view.
I got in first.
The doors are still open and the warning bell’s dinging. Someone swears because he’s late and two female voices to my left are discussing the merits of blind-dating in hushed tones. There’s a lot of that crowded coughing, sniffing, throat-clearing and someone at the front whistles quietly to hide his impatience.
The bell dings again, and the crowd moves a third of a step backwards. Some shuffling at the front, “Sorry, sorry, thank you”, and the bell dings again.
“Can you press six, please? Thank you.” Someone huffs – I think it’s the late guy but I can’t tell because I’m stuck at the back, a half-inch from the mirror behind me and a quarter-inch from the businesswoman – mid-twenties, tops – in front of me.
“DOORS CLOSING.” It’s a female voice, and I wonder for the first time why do machines always sound female. Maybe it’s a mother thing.
“LIFT GOING UP”.
Everyone’s looking up at the changing numbers. All is quiet now, even the blind date debate. The guy to my right elbows me as he tries to check his watch.
“FLOOR TWO. DOORS OPENING”.
We quietly search for the one who dared to take the lift for just two floors. Nobody moves and the doors gape open while people outside walk past and stare at us.
“DOORS CLOSING. LIFT GOING UP.” A tangible relief washes over the crowd, but the late guy swears again, louder now, and somebody from the front snickers. The late guy now swears at him, but there’s no rebuttal, they probably know each other.
“FLOOR FOUR. DOORS OPENING”. Four floors is the accepted take-the-lift minimum, so there’s some shuffling and eleven people get off. Like dammed water, the rest of us move thankfully forward, breathe, straighten our clothes, our hair, check the time. “DOORS CLOSING. LIFT GOING UP”.
“Hold the door, please.” Some tension again, but the late guy doesn’t swear, maybe he got off on Four, and in steps Stanley. He spots me, nods and wades through the crowd towards me.
“DOORS CLOSING. LIFT GOING UP”.
The familiar bump, and we’re off. My floor is sixteen, and Stanley knows this since he works there too, so he starts talking.
“You heard about the Liebermann account? They beat us to it. Four years of work, and Thomson announced it yesterday. You know we’re going to feel the ripples today, and the bosses are pissed. They say the Man might come down today from twenty-four, so we better get the report in by ten. You know, everything happens on weekends and holidays. You leave the world running on Friday evening, and it’s Armageddon Monday AM. Like last year, with Pearson & Woods – I’m telling you, we have to start weekend shifts around here. Someone to come in and do some monitoring – if someone had, we might have been able to pull out by the time the market opened today. I don’t know, maybe we could’ve saved some pennies – ah, who am I kidding, it was a lost cause from the start, and it’s not like I didn’t say anything to the board, I told them, and the CEO himself was there, I told them that the Liebermann was shaky, that it wouldn’t last if the market shifted gears, and here we are now, and I was right. They’ll want to blame someone; but they point a finger at me and I’ll point mine at them and hand them the minutes of that meeting. You know, they say that heads might roll today, the Man’s looking for a scapegoat. Shaky or not, the Liebermann has enough investors to file a lawsuit. Anyway, that’s what I’ll tell them: the minutes. What do you think?”
“FLOOR TWELVE. DOORS OPENING.”
Before I can answer, people around us move to accommodate six more passengers. We’re back to twenty again, and Stanley and I have to press on the mirror and obey the no-talking rule. Stanley’s wearing Hart Schaffner Marx.
One of the new passengers is listening to an iPod mini, black, which he pulls out of his jacket (Mino Lombardi) and fiddles with it until his head starts bopping to some unheard beat that could be anything from Mozart to Manson. Looking at him, I match his nods to some residual Bob Dylan I heard at breakfast.
“FLOOR THIRTEEN. DOORS OPENING”.
Everyone gets off, leaving Stanley and me alone. Stanley starts talking again, looking down, searching his feelings.
“Not that I’d mind changing scenery. You know, I was talking with Harrison the other day – the guy from Albert & Hendricks – you know what they get paid? Twice our morsels, my friend, twice and thrice. And not even half the stress or the bull – you read their annual report, number freaking three on the list while we’ll be lucky to be ten come September. I don’t know…” he looks up at the numbers wistfully, then at the mirror and rolls his tongue inside his mouth, “sometimes I just think about quitting the lot of it and going back home to fix boats…” He shakes his head, “Ha! Listen to me. I sound –“
“FLOOR SIXTEEN. DOORS OPENING”.
“ – worrying about the Liebermann mess. I really think they’re gonna sack someone.” He steps out of the elevator and I step forward to follow him and he’s turning to someone outside, “Mr Hubbard, good morning. Who? Uh, sure, he’s right in there. In the lift.” Stanley looks at me with a face I can only describe as foreboding and before I’m out, Jacob Hubbard, General Executive and the Man’s G-man, strides into my view, his corpulence well-concealed in a black Versace.
“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you. No, no, don’t get out. We need to talk.” With that, he steps into the elevator and I move back submissively.
I have to blink a few times, but the luminous red number that Hubbard pressed doesn’t change.
Where The Man lives.
Hubbard turns to me and tries to smile. He’s not good at it, and he doesn’t have to be. Suddenly I feel hot, and I wonder if the elevator is sufficiently ventilated.
It’s just the two of us now. No surprise – people will rather take the stairs than be in close quarters with Hubbard.
“I suppose you’ve already heard about the Liebermann account”, Hubbard says, “and I’m not going to lie to you, we’re feeling the ripples and the boat’s rocking.” Through all this, I observe the laws of Natural Selection: I nod and keep my mouth shut.
“We’ve been in conference with the boss since yesterday – oh yes, on a Sunday. The Liebermann, it’s not good. It’s crisis management, my boy. It’s a storm, and we have to weather it.
“You know, he’s a good captain, the boss. The kind you can trust in a storm; the kind that’ll keep the ship from sinking. I mean, after all, what’s more important than that, huh? To keep sailing despite the waves – that’s the most important thing. You understand don’t you? Of course you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be where you’re at. Wouldn’t have made it this far without knowing a thing or two about navigation. And you know, I’m positive, that storms – they’re tricky things. They come out of nowhere; even the most experienced sailors can’t always predict them. One moment you’re looking up at the blue sky, and the next you’re going under. And that, that’s what shows the captain’s worth, my boy. And not just the captain, but his crew too.”
“FLOOR TWENTY. DOORS OPENING.” Someone stands at the door – nice Gucci suit – but he sees Hubbard and Hubbard sees him and he glances at me and then Hubbard again and slowly, hesitantly, apprehensively-gingerly-cautiously takes a step back and smiles like a –
“DOORS CLOSING. LIFT GOING UP.”
It’s Hubbard and me again, alone. Hubbard is speaking.
“… his crew too. And you understand that, in a storm, decisions, quick decisions, important decisions have to be made – by the captain, by him who has the responsibility of keeping the ship afloat; of getting it to its destination. And sometimes, when the storm hits, sometimes, not always, but sometimes, some of the cargo needs to be thrown overboard. You understand? Some of the cargo, the dead weight, needs to sink so that the ship can make it. Because if the ship doesn’t make it, my boy, then –”
“FLOOR TWENTY-FOUR. DOORS OPENING”.
“- none of us will.”
The doors part, and all I can see is Hubbard’s smiling mouth, and I can see his teeth and I can see his throat twitch, and for the first time today, for the first time I ever came into the elevator, I acknowledge the sad and detached fact that some forgotten corner of my unbranded self is afraid.
The doors part, and The Man is standing there, through the gaping elevator hole.
“Ah, Jacob. You’ve filled him in? Good.”
Hubbard steps out and leaves me alone in the lift and that’s when I realise that this isn’t where I get off, that I wasn’t invited to see The Man, but simply for The Man to see me. And he does, Giorgio Armani all the way except for the French shoes that are custom-made and he looks at me with his blue, glassy eyes and his dried lips that have been sucking blood and sweat and tears and anything else produced by humans for the seventy years of his existence, those lips, they open and with a casual wave of his hand like he’s waving away a fly, an unimportant insect, he speaks the only words I’ll hear today.
“Hold the door, please.”
When I blink again, I’m still in the elevator. In the misty distance I see someone running over, someone I know, someone who knows me, he’s carrying files and papers and coffee and he says “Hold the door, please”.
I don’t hold the door and it closes in his face. I won’t be the only one today.
Alone in the elevator, the same place I’ve been standing on since I got in this morning, this morning when I still had my job, this morning when all my work hadn’t been thrown overboard, this morning when the Liebermann mess was not going to affect me, this morning when I got into the elevator and went up and down –
“DOORS CLOSING. LIFT GOING DOWN.”
– and then my mobile rings. It rings and rings and then it stops, and then it rings again so my hand picks up, but before my mouth says anything the caller introduces himself as a George Harrison from Albert & Hendricks and he rattles away that he just heard about what happened to me, and he thinks that it is bad management, bad executive, big loss, and if I would consider having lunch with him today, and discuss some other professional possibilities with his company.
“What do you think?” says George Harrison from Albert & Hendricks, and I’m still standing there trying to catch up with the speed of the business world that fires and hires, and I want to say yes to George Harrison from Albert & Hendricks but something stops me, something says –
“FLOOR FOUR. DOORS OPENING”
– and it rhymes, and it sounds like a mother, and it’s a machine with more feeling that the rest of us sardines that cram in and out of the tin box of life trying to keep themselves in the brine when all that matters is that we’re dead, dead, dead, head chopped off and ready for the eating –
– and George Harrison from Albert & Hendricks is still on the phone shouting my name, he says it over and over again like a mantra, like he’s cheering me on, but my phone’s on the elevator’s floor and soon the noise it makes is drowned out as the doors close and I’m outside the box for the first time today, for the first time ever and when the doors slide shut and I walk away all I can hear is silence and the warm voice that says –
“DOORS CLOSING. LIFT GOING UP.”