If you were a small boy living in a hotel . . .
I have mixed feelings about the current nostalgia craze. Not only is our house pretty well cluttered with stuff that keeps turning into nostalgia before my eyes, but a lot of things we threw out 40 years ago keep reappearing, often in lifelike polyethylene reproductions at five times the original price. On the other hand, some things that I'd welcome back seem strangely elusive.
Elevator operators, for instance.
Unless you happen to be a devotee of old movies, you may find it hard to believe that there was once a time when elevators didn't levitate at the touch of a button but actually had pilots, known as elevator operators. Honest-to-goodness people they were, who exercised command through a lever that went one way to ascend and the other to descend, and who responded to floor numbers that appeared, along with a buzz, on a call box mounted at eye level. I'd like to see them back on the job again.
For one thing, they were able to think for themselves rather than depending on a preprogrammed tape or time clock to tell them what was, er, up. Thus you seldom ran into those situations where, if you are on the ground floor, the whole bank of elevators is communing on the top floor, because some computer has decreed that at this particular hour everybody should be going down. A flesh-and-blood operator would simply have hollered up the shaft to a confrere, telling him to shag his cage down to First, pronto.
For another thing, you could often reason with an elevator operator. It's all your life is worth, nowadays, to try to get an upward-bound elevator to change its mind and take you down. What ensues is a kind of stately do-si-do in which the door opens, you enter and press ''1,'' the door closes and then reopens, as if to suggest that you'd better get out because the elevator isn't going your way and you don't understand the situation. It may even emit a stern buzz in an attempt to intimidate you into making a hasty exit, but you stand your ground, pressing ''1'' again and again while the elevator tries to decide what to do with this aberrant passenger. At last it decides to humor you and starts to close the door, just as you lunge for the ''Close Door'' button, grimly determined to bend the machine to your will.
Only, at this point, you probably press ''Open Door'' by mistake because the printing on the button is pretty small. This sends the elevator into shock, and it is some time before it is nerved to continue, whereupon it will like as not stop at every floor all the way down, as if inviting you to take your pick.
A human operator would have grasped - and solved - the problem in mere seconds.
This was, in fact, a major advantage of elevator operators: that you could talk to them and they could answer back. Granted, some moden elevators I have met will talk at you, telling you to face the front, announcing what floor this is, and so on, but they do it in a rather patronizing tone. As for idle banter or cracking a joke or two, forget it.
With an operator, it was different. If you were inside going out, he could warn you that it was raining. If you were outside coming in, he could observe that it must be raining and it's been a pretty wet spring, hasn't it? If you returned from a severe day in the grist mill and hinted that a fast takeoff might conceivably cause the spark of life to flicker dangerously, he could cluck sympathetically and lift off in a slow, soothing manner - rather than trying to hurl you into orbit as some modern cages do.
One thing you had to be careful about with elevator operators, though, was commenting in a jocular way that their job was full of ups and downs, because they heard this wheeze 17 times a day and were often tempted to make a spine-jolting response. And, of course, if you were a regular passenger, as in an apartment house or office, you had to tip them at Christmastime. Otherwise, for a few weeks afterwards, you'd find the elevator stopping several inches above or below floor level. Or even, if the operator thought you weren't paying attention, at the wrong floor.
But normally operators never feinted at you with the doors, the way today's elevators do if you're not pretty nippy about getting in or out. They never played soupy music at you from concealed speakers. If you were irate at their nonappearance, you could lean on the call button and hear a lot of satisfying buzzing going on somewhere up the shaft.
And if you were a small boy living in an apartment hotel, you could go out and visit the operators in the evenings and work crossword puzzles together. And maybe they'd let you run the elevator yourself, if no one was aboard, and pull the doors open, and let you punch the button that cleared all the floor indicators. And maybe teach you to do a buck-and-wing, if there were no passengers for 10 or 15 minutes.
And, besides, lots of elevator operators were girls. And lots of them were pretty.