Best Elevator 2004: Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning

November 20, 2008 at 7:27 am (Published)

Published originally in Pittsburgh CityPaper, November 11, 2004.


The year was 1983. My friend Michelle and I got separated from the rest of the youth group during our field trip to the Cathedral of Learning. Typically for a couple of 13-year-old girls, we decided to go exploring. Our adventures led us to one of the elevators, which Michelle suggested we ride to the top. It sounded like fun.


I remember the elevator smelled like old wood, and the noises above us somewhere sounded like several dozen mice riding rusty tricycles. The ancient elevator swayed from side to side, adding to the usual ear-popping and vertigo one might expect. I thought I was experiencing the zenith of my class-A freakout until Michelle hit the stop button near the 36th floor and spent the next several minutes jumping up and down, making the elevator squeak and bounce in ways I wasn’t sure it could tolerate. I tried not to remember that elevator scene I’d watched in the edited-for-TV version of The Towering Inferno involving several deaths. Michelle was laughing her ass off, more amused by the minute at my progressive meltdown. By the time we found the youth group, the incident had so unraveled me that I developed a fear of elevators ever after.


Fast-forward 21 years … the elevator that spawned my elevator-neurosis has now been named “The Best Elevator in Pittsburgh.” I am the writer assigned to cover it. This assignment forces me to ride the elevator that caused my fear in the first place. Damned inconvenient time for my therapist to be out of town.


Absent the therapist, my next choice is Fearless Daughter, the 9-year-old who isn’t noticeably afraid of anything. I even wonder whether Annie might jump up and down in the elevator, like Michelle. In any case, I cast our lives in the hands of Fate and take a Sunday-morning trip to Oakland, so we can get the elevator ride from hell over with.


The elevator looks different now, with textured aluminum doors and walls and gray carpeting. The elevator also now smells like a ream of fresh paper. Maybe, I decide, they upgraded the elevator mechanisms too … that was 20 years ago, after all. I make a point of noticing a placard directing me to the office where the elevator-inspection certificate is stored, and for the first time in my life, I actually consider asking to see the certificate before I set foot on the elevator. Too late, though: Annie has just enthusiastically pressed the button for the 36th floor.


I am pressing my back against the innermost wall of the elevator; bringing my daughter with me has created an incentive to stay calm. But then I hear it: the many mice on their many rusty tricycles, except 20 years later they must surely be blind, too, as they power the Victorian system of rubber bands, pulleys and frayed cords that’s surely at work. We sway from side to side, my ears start to pop and my stomach feels all squooshy and I really wish Steve McQueen would yell through the bullhorn to tell me everything’s all right as Paul Newman swoops in and saves us. I look at Annie, standing there confidently in her little pink jacket with her bespectacled eyes slightly widening. “Please don’t jump,” I think.


Exiting the Cathedral, Annie turns the revolving door a couple extra times, to be funny. “What did you think of that?” I ask.


“That was really fun,” she says.


“The elevator? Really? You thought it was fun?”


“OH! Not the elevator. I meant the door that goes around and around. That elevator was really scary!”


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