Elevator Conversations

— Zoe Zhang

Elevator conversations are the worst. Predictable, but horrifyingly dry, thumb-twaddling, tongue-against-teeth-flicking boring.

If it’s your friend, maybe Jim from tech, you talk about anything you want, from video games to how to spell macchiato, from presidential candidates to phone cases and protective screens. But you can’t talk about your coworkers, your boss, can’t address awkward silences or assessing glares that arrive when elevator doors open, and you can’t shut up fast enough if you’re talking about the wrong thing.

If it’s your friendly coworker, like Jason from facilities, you can talk about where to eat lunch next time, what assignments you need help with, who’s hosting what obscure office event. Maybe what TV show you’re watching—but if you don’t both like it, it’ll never come up again. You might ask about his bobble head collection, he might ask about your fractured finger and sympathize with slamming into subway doors a second too late. You build a list of questions in your mind to ask and jokes to tell when you go out to lunch on Wednesday, but you’ll never ask in the elevator. The ride isn’t long enough, and you don’t know that many good knock-knock jokes.

Mornings, if it’s a coworker you recognize, but never see outside of the elevator, you’ll nod and polite-smile a greeting, a “G’d morning” as short as can be, and he or she will do the same. But it’s a long way up, thirty seconds too long for silence, so one of you will mention the weather—“real overcast, just in time for October,” and “oh, but I like it that way,” and “oh, really?”—and if you’re both late, commiserate with each other over terrible, truly awful commutes. It’s really not that bad, but he or she appears to be genuine, so you do, too.

If it’s your boss or anyone of “higher” status (read: partners and attorneys, and the occasional fresh-meat, fresh-faced, I’m-younger-than-you-but-we-are-equals-I-promise associates), you don’t speak. That is to say, you’ll speak a few words, but not enough to build an objective conversation. Your “Good morning” will be more enunciated than usual, your shoulders relaxed, but your back straight. Your boss, a friendlier face than most, will reply with a smile and ask after your sick mother or visiting cousin, because he remembers things like that. You’ll ask after his softball-playing daughter named Angelica and terrier-something mutt named Andy. If it’s not your boss, “Good morning” may be the only thing you say to each other, maybe even just “Morning” if he or she looks to be in a rush, or pretending to be.

One time, Carla the secretary and Thomas the attorney had a full conversation about the Super Bowl right in front of you. With you at the back of the elevator. You know Thomas’ secretary Carla very well, and you see Thomas walk by all the time. When Thomas left the elevator, Carla looked back at you and shrugged in apology, and when she exited next, you were alone. But you were grateful Carla let you know that she knew.

When you’re alone, you can’t even sing because it moves too fast and doors open without warning, so you’re left staring at elevator ads and trying not to get motion sick, pretending you understand the stock ticker at the bottom of the screen.

You’ve tried taking the stairs more often.

The box in your arms is heavier than you anticipated; eight pounds six ounces, easy. You’re surprised you managed to accumulate so much stuff in a little over a year of your time here. Your mailroom desk’s been cleared, sticky notes balled up, and miscellaneous office supplies tucked away in the box, things you know no one will miss.

Your desk will always have that faded blue hue to it unless someone replaces it. Not that anyone else cares about the ink stain. Not that anyone seems able to see anything but you, the Partner’s Son.

You’re waiting in front of the elevators at 3:00PM on a Thursday. You could have held out until Friday, you could have even held out until 5:00PM today, but you don’t care. You’ve had enough of sidelong stares and careful quiet, of fake cheeriness and unimpressed silence. Screw anyone who thinks anything of you because of who your father is. Screw anyone who thought it made a difference.

You breathe out your frustration slowly. One of the elevators dings. You walk over to it. In the seconds before it actually arrives, before the doors slide open, you wish Yu-ting’s internship had extended to this week. You wish Carla the secretary wasn’t in Sacramento visiting her sister. You wish Tasha the receptionist wasn’t so nervous around you—wish she wasn’t so desperate to make you laugh.

You could use a friend right about now.

You step into the elevator, jabbing at the first floor button with the corner of your box, and you start your descent from floor thirty-five. The elevator slows and the doors open once more at floor thirty-four and you intensely regret your decision to leave on a Thursday afternoon. Jerry Bingham walks in and you wish you left on a Friday instead. Fridays are filled with long lunchbreaks and unproductive chatter, with people who leave the building at 2:00PM, with empty desks and loud gossip in the kitchen area. You forgot in your impatience that Thursdays are full of last-minute deadlines, of important people powerwalking like they need to do Something Important and there’s not a second to be wasted.

Partner Jerry Bingham presses a button, nods at you, and notes your box. “Leaving?” he asks.

“Yeah,” you say.

“We’ll miss you,” he says, the same way he says “thank you,” which is insincerely. “Say hello to your father for me,” he says.

You say nothing, because you don’t owe this man a thing. He doesn’t wait for a response either, and he exits the elevator at floor thirty-three without looking back.

Thursday afternoons are people who take the elevator up or down one floor.

The elevator descends and you wish Jim from tech hadn’t been relocated to another building in the city. The doors open again at floor thirty-two and Jason from facilities walks in without seeing who you are, his face mashed up close to a clipboard like he’s trying to read. He presses a button, which is when he notices you and your box.

“Dude,” he says, like that’s the only way he knows how to react. Like he didn’t ask you two weeks ago if you could use your “connections” to get him a promotion. You look over his head at the digital screen. Jason looks too, like he’s trying to decide if you’re interested in the Apple stock drop or the Sephora commercial. 2:04PM, the screen reads.

Jason looks back at you. “Visit sometime, yeah?”

Of course, you don’t say. I’ll try, you don’t say.

“Probably not,” you end up saying. You’re tired of trying. You’re tired of meaningless words creating an even more meaningless world.

The elevator stops at floor twenty-eight and a stupefied Jason can do nothing else but get out. The doors close, hopefully for the rest of your way down, and you lean back against the metal railing.

Elevator conversations are the worst.



Zoe Zhang is an editor, writer, senior college student, and all-around geek. Double-majoring in English Literature and Creative Writing, she likes reading horizontally, rollerblading vertically, and sweater weather.