On that dreary Monday morning, no sunshine streamed through the front entrance into the lobby of our office building. Worse, the doors of No. 2 elevator did not spring open to cheer my overcast mood with a sunburst smile from Maydell.
Maydell has operated the second elevator car for seven years. Lydia, the lady she calls "my white sister," has run No. 1 for almost 30. Lydia has risen with presidents, descended with movie stars. She is also the resident baseball authority and chief World Series fan. Shaft by shaft, through up times and down , Lydia and Maydell have become like family to each other and to the building tenants. To a great degree, they have made those tenants a "family."
Modernity began its invasion over the weekend. Our building may be the last in the city to convert to automatic elevators; I know of no other with such a distinguished history. Until surgery renders No. 2 self- serve, Lydia will continue to run her car. And then . . . .
Losing Maydell was sad enough, although we had several months to prepare for her departure. This presumptuous placard, on the other hand, struck without warning. Over the weekend, the elevator company propped it in front of No. 2's doors. "Elevators are being modernized by us to provide you with improved service and convenience."
Oh? An automatic elevator will provide better service than Maydell? Than Lydia?
I'll believe that the next time I lock my keys accidentally in my office and the elevator come to my rescue with a grin and a giggle and a master key drawn from its uniform pocket.
The next time a package addressed to me is delivered during the lunch hour, I want to see that elevator sign for it, tuck it safely away in a utility room, then later bring it down the hall to me.
The next time I am stranded between floors, I want to watch that elevator turn around, smile encouragingly, and holler, "Helllppp!" And while help is on the way, I want to stand there listening to those cheery tales of its childhood or laughing over a good joke it heard during one of its ups or downs that morning.
When I cannot leave the office at 5, is this new elevator going to carry the sack of outgoing mail downstairs and drop it in the postal rack in time for the day's final pickup?
When I forget to buy razor blades, will it volunteer to stop by a drugstore on its lunch break and make the purchase for me? (I'd go along just to watch the expression on the sales clerk's face!)
Is it going to ask if I had a pleasant trip . . . enjoyed a nice weekend . . . remembered to pay my utility bill? Will it keep me posted as to who in the building just got married? Had a baby? Will it solicit my signature on a "get well" card for someone in the hospital?
When a sudden thunderstorm blows in, will it come tell me I'd better go roll up the car windows? When it halts an inch below my floor, will it have the courtesy to advise "watch your step" or simply trip me up and go on its inconsiderate way?
Exactly what "improved service" is this automated wonder prepared to offer?
I daresay it will not be inclinded to share half a sandwich or a candy bar with me. More than likely, it won't tell me, "Mr. So- and-So came by while you were out and wants you to call him at home tonight." Nor, I anticipate, will it hold its doors open when I call down the hall, "I've got an armload; can you wait just a minute?"
Pushing buttons is no new thrill. The elevator will rise or descend as it always has. But we'll travel through vertical space in mute solitary confinement. Some improvement!
Elevator operators, I suppose, are doomed to go where postal clerks, service station attendants, bank tellers, and Mohicans have gone. I'm not sure where that is. I do know that where their friendly assistance used to be I now encounter the indifferent convenience of metallic buttons and levers that dispense stamps, gas, and currency with uningratiating whirs, clanks, beeps, and burps. But until last Friday, I never realized how much I have enjoyed being deprived of "convenience."
I stayed late at the office, then walked down the 10 flights of stairs rather than face that last trip down with Maydell. It might have been the only ride in seven years when we did not share a laugh.
As I walked through the lobby, I stared at that three-color billboard on No. 2. "Us," I thought, "you may understand automation, but kindly do not congratulate Us-self for the service you are providing me. Your substitution may suffice, but service, I submit, is beyond your computerized comprehension."
At least, while progress marches backward, the memory of service may linger. After all, there is simply no way you can ever replace a sunburst smile.