“Say, that’s a nifty-looking gadget you’ve got there, Miss,” the man in the bowtie said to the young woman standing next to him in the elevator. Her eyes were glued to the screen of her smartphone. “Whatever will they think of next?”
“Uh, yeah,” she said as the elevator steadily ascended. She continued playing Candy Crush and made no eye contact with her fellow passengers — me and Mr. Bowtie.
The elevator stopped at the 10th floor. The doors opened, and the woman got out, thumbs clicking away relentlessly on her smartphone.
“Have a …” The doors shut. “… nice day,” said Mr. Bowtie. The elevator resumed its ascent.
“Well, so much for the art of conversation,” he snarled.
“Excuse me?” I said, putting my thoughts of lunch on hold.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. Bowtie. “I must be losing my touch. Not having any sort of meaningful verbal interaction with a fellow elevator passenger — unbelievable. Maybe I need a vacation.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you.”
“Oh, my goodness, how rude of me. Clipperton’s the name. Elwood Clipperton, acting secretary-general of the ECA.”
“Pleased to meet you. What exactly is the ECA?”
He looked at me with a mixture of sadness and resignation.
“O tempora! O mores! Do you mean to say you’ve never heard of the Elevator Conversation Association?”
“I’m afraid you have the advantage of me. Please tell me more,” I lied as I stole a glance at the numerical display above the door. 15 … 16 …17… the elevator seemed to be ascending ever more slowly.
“No need to blame yourself. Our numbers have fallen off a bit lately. Of course, our movement has always had its ups and downs,” he chortled.
“Just what is the ECA’s mission?”
“Why, to foster healthy and stimulating conversation among people whom fate has decided to throw together in elevators, of course, and thus avoid the long silences that anyone with a smidgen of sensitivity finds toe-curlingly awkward.”
“But of course.”
“No one dares say a word for fear of being thought forward or” — Clipperton tapped his temple with his index finger while giving me a meaningful look — “kooky.”
“Well, erm, yes,” I replied.” 19… 20… the elevator seemed to be straining to reach each floor.
“Is this, ah, your full-time occupation, Mr. Clipperton?” I ventured.
“It is since I retired some years ago. But like many of our members, I did this kind of field work when I had a full-time job. To answer your next question, I was a bowtie designer.”
“Why, thank you. I can tell you’re burning with curiosity about the ECA, so I’ll give you the lowdown on our outfit. Say, what floor are you getting out at?”
I wanted to say the next one, but instead I told the truth. “39. What about you?”
“Straight to the top, as I always say. That’s one of my little jokes, you see,” he said with a glint in his eye. “So I can give you the full-length elevator pitch.”
I groaned inwardly.
“The ECA was founded in 1947 by Uriah Bonaventure, an old-time elevator operator known far and wide for his ability to kindle elevator gabfests. He knew that his was a dying profession, and so he and some of his colleagues established the ECA.”
“So what’s so bad about people not talking to each other in elevators, anyway?”
“My good man, surely you jest? No man is an island, and that includes people in elevators. It’s in our nature to reach out — not, ahem, literally, mind you — to our fellow human beings.”
“Well, thank you for reaching out to me, sir.”
“You’re very welcome. Did you know that the average office worker spends the equivalent of one whole day a year in elevators? Can you imagine spending 24 hours in complete and utter silence while surrounded by other people? The horror, the horror!”
“I feel your pain. Come to think of it, I believe I’ve heard of an organization called the ECA that tries to encourage conversation, but not in elevators…”
“You mean the Escalator Conversation Association. Splitters! We purged them from the real ECA years ago. Have you ever heard of anything so absurd, not to mention downright dangerous, as trying to carry on a conversation with someone a step below or above you during an escalator ride that’s over in the blink of an eye?”
“When you put it that way, no.” 25 … 26 … 27 … the elevator was making glacially slow progress upward.
“You said it’s becoming harder to carry out your mission,” I asked. “Just why is that?”
Clipperton scowled. “Video screens showing the news and weather are a big convo-killer. But our number-one threat is the dreaded smartphone. They have reduced elevator passengers to alienated asocial atoms, to use the terminology favored by the ECA’s French chapter.”
“Yes, I noticed how engrossed in her smartphone the young lady who just got out of the elevator was,” I said, envying her ability to shut herself off from her fellow passengers. 28 … 29… 30… Grant me patience, Lord, I silently prayed.
“She was probably checking to see what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast, instead of engaging in sparkling repartee with men of the world such as you and I,” he said with a conspiratorial wink.
“Her loss, undoubtedly.”
“Yes, smartphones are the work of the Devil,” Clipperton intoned with all the gravitas a man wearing a bowtie can muster. “I’m afraid we’re fighting an uphill battle.”
“Indeed.” 31… 32…33…
“But we have a secret weapon up our sleeves.” Clipperton rolled up the left sleeve of his jacket, revealing a small metal cylinder.
“This nifty little gadget cuts off electrical signals within a certain radius. This is a test model — it still has some kinks to work out. That’s why I didn’t use it to zap the smartphone of the young lady who got out earlier.”
“That was very gentlemanly of you.” 34… 35… 36 …
“Well, you’ve almost reached your floor,” he said. “Why don’t you come to one of our meetings? We’re always looking for new blood.”
“Where do you hold them?”
“In a large freight elevator downtown. It has a wet bar, by the way. Our next featured speaker is an ECA man who was in an elevator that was stopped between floors for six hours during the recent blackout in Pittsburgh. Oh, how I envy him that golden opportunity to spread the Word!”
“Well, that sounds very … interesting.” Just then my smartphone rang. Clipperton’s expression turned to one of disgust as I mumbled an apology and answered. The agent I was supposed to meet in his office on the 39th floor had called me to cancel our appointment at the last minute. But I decided to get out anyway. I’d heard quite enough about the ECA.
Clipperton started fiddling with his device as I spoke into the phone.
“Guess I had you pegged wrong, pal,” he said as we reached floor 39 and the elevator doors slid open. Clipperton pressed a switch on his gadget and my phone went dead.
I stepped out and looked back at him. The doors stayed open. He frantically pushed the buttons on the elevator’s control panel. Nothing happened.
“I told you this thing still had some kinks,” Clipperton said. He threw it down in disgust. “It seems to have zapped the elevator’s controls.”
“Looks like you’ll be taking the stairs back down,” I observed.
“Stairs? Did you say stairs? Heresy! An ECA man never takes the stairs!”
With an agility that surprised me, he found a foothold on the side of the elevator and leapt up to reach the handle on the small trap door on the ceiling. He opened it, grasped either side of the opening with his hands, and pulled himself up out of sight onto the top of the elevator.
“Ha ha! Bet you didn’t know about the manual override function! All I have to do is activate this little chromium switch…”
There was a clicking of gears, and the elevator began to ascend ever-faster, with Clipperton on top.
“Looks like the signal-cutter has screwed up the servo mechanism and put the elevator into overdrive! The ECA forever!” Clipperton cried as a shower of sparks cascaded from the rapidly ascending conveyance.
The police report said the elevator was moving at close to 200 miles an hour when it blasted through the roof with Clipperton hanging on for dear life. It landed upside-down in a car park several blocks away. I later ID’d what was left of the acting secretary-general of the Elevator Conversation Association thanks to his plaid bowtie.
People in elevators give me funny looks when I tell them this story. Maybe it’s the bowtie.