toxic jobs

Personal stories about toxic jobs and workplace woes.

January 13, 2007

lunchtime adventures

Marcia, 52, lives and works in a big city and survives in a stressful job by making the most of her lunchtimes -- getting as much exercise and fresh air as she can.

"I usually de-stress myself by taking a walk in the park," says Marcia, "but one lunchtime I made a big mistake when I changed my routine and got stuck in an elevator with sixteen strangers."

"I had an overdue bill to pay and since the creditor's office was situated near where I worked, I thought it would be a good idea to pay it in person," explains Marcia

"It was a sweltering day and people were in a hot and hurried mood, going to lunch or returning from lunch," explains Marcia, "and because I was so determined to pay that bill in person I piled into the elevator at the creditor's building like all the other sweating sardines who probably had the same destination and intention as I had."

Had there been stairs visible, Marcia would have chosen to walk up to the next floor, but like most office blocks, stairs are hidden behind solid, fireproof doors for emergency use only.

"Nobody had a choice," explains Marcia, "it was either pile in, or wait forever for the next elevator."

Being enclosed in an elevator with just one stranger is sometimes unnerving, so being in close proximity to sixteen strangers was not going to be pleasant -- especially when most of the elevator travelers were wearing sleeveless blouses or shirts.

Before the door closed, Marcia felt her bare arms sticking to the people next to her.

"I only had to travel one floor," laughs Marcia. "I gritted my teeth and resolved that I would survive this indignity."

As always in an elevator, nobody looked at each other.

"I suppose it's elevator etiquette all over the world that one should avert one's gaze and look at the door, wall or floor rather than at one's fellow elevator travelers," laughs Marica, "and being unable to see any of these usual distractions, I concentrated on focusing my attention on the ceiling of the elevator. In fact, so did everyone else!"

"It was an elevator full of sardined cranes," laughs Marcia, "and gratefully, the journey was over quickly. The door opened and then those in the front started grumbling."

"We had gone down to the Basement, not up," says Marcia, "and how odd that nobody, least of all me, noticed a downward rather than an upward movement."

"Anyway, somebody pressed the First Floor button, and off we went again," explains Marcia. "But we didn't get very far. We became stuck between the Ground Floor and the First Floor!"

With every passing minute the temperature in the elevator crept up by a degree.

It was not long before Marcia’s bare arms were practically married to the people on either side of her. One a man, one a woman. They probably hated her as much as Marcia hated them. Such is marriage.

The woman nearest to the emergency button did her job. Bells started ringing. She picked up the emergency telephone and was told that an engineer was on his way.

She had a sense of humor. "Dearly beloved ...." she announced to the elevator inmates incarcerated with her.

"Get me out of here!" A man in the back of the elevator started to panic and banged on the walls.

"I think I'm going to faint," a woman whispered.

As Marcia was near the point of fainting herself, she called out, "Would the person nearest to the doors try to force them open, please. We need air!"

Thankfully, the doors opened a few inches revealing the location of the elevator. A gush of cool air filled the stuffy cage. The man at the back calmed down.

Marcia caught a glimpse of a group of people on the Ground Floor, looking up in amazement at the legs of those trapped in the elevator.

Then another man from the back of the elevator declared that opening the doors was a mistake.

"How can we get out with the doors open half-way between floors? Close them, and press the button for the First Floor again," he demanded.

"He may have been a managing director, used to giving orders," muses Marcia, "but he held no sway in an elevator full of hot and bothered and terrified strangers."

Having fresh air and a glimpse of life on the 'outside' -- in the form of the people on the Ground Floor -- comforted the rest of the elevated sardines.

They voted to keep the doors open.

Someone shouted up that the Engineer would be arriving in about half an hour, and suggested that the sardines could try crawling out.

By now they had opened the doors fully on the Ground Floor and Marcia and the rest of the people trapped with her slithered out of the elevator to the place from which they had all started their journey.

They congregated in the Ground Floor Lobby and re-lived their harrowing experience. Some were clearly shaken, others were highly amused.

"The managing director type had disappeared, and good thing, too," said Marcia, "because had he been in charge we would have been stuck there for at least half an hour during which some of the trapped people would have expired from heat exhaustion or the horror of claustrophobia."

"In my case, I imagined that a surgical operation would have been necessary to detach my arms from the two people I was pressed up against."

And then, suddenly, in the midst of all this camaraderie and therapy, the group remembered that they were all strangers and one by one they nodded good-bye and proceeded on their business.

By now, the emergency stair door had been propped open and notices had been pinned on the walls not to use the elevator.

Faced with the choice whether to return to work or proceed on her business, Marcia chose the latter.

Walking up the steps she glanced at her watch. The whole experience had taken less than ten minutes.

"It felt like hours!" laughs Marcia.

At the busy bill-paying counter, Marcia saw a fellow elevator sardine. They smiled.

On her way back to work, Marcia mused that she would never be able to recognize that person or any of those sixteen people again.

"Imagine being stuck to two people, flesh to flesh," laughs Marcia, "and not knowing who they were?"

"For a brief period of time we had shared an adventure -- a touch of death -- that each and every one of us will go home and relate to our families and friends and will probably remember for the rest of our lives," says Marcia, "but none of us is likely to remember the faces of any of the people who shared the adventure with us."

"When I got back to work I never mentioned the experience to anyone because, quite frankly, it's not that sort of workplace," says Marcia. "Even when 9/11 happened, not one person at work brought up the subject. Can you believe that? It was strictly business as usual."

"I'm sure that in their private lives everyone I work with has a heart beating under that cold exterior," says Marcia, "but at work they behave essentially like strangers in an elevator -- no eye contact, no chat and God forbid no skin contact!"

"I need this job, so I'm not complaining," smiles Marica. "Like I said, I survive by making the most of my lunchtimes and while I hope I never have another elevating experience it did act as a welcome infusion of humanity into an otherwise cold and uncaring day at work."

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