In August of 1989, after approximately three hop-scotching years of college in San Diego, Colorado Springs, Chicago, and back to Colorado Springs, I was handed the amazing opportunity of working as an artist’s assistant in New York. During my time there, I contributed in a behind the scenes capacity with work that was exhibited at Pace Gallery, Pace MacGill, and the Museum of Modern Art – even contributing some work of my own that was exhibited in the latter venue.
Brief as it was, the year and a half I lived in the city was filled to the brim with other noteworthy highlights, and yet there was one moment in particular, early on, when it all might’ve ended rather suddenly and tragically.
During the first few months of living in Manhattan, I resided in another well-known artist’s loft on Prince Street in SoHo, just a couple blocks from the studio where I worked.
Now, the building on Prince, then and now, has seven floors, and I lived way up on the seventh, usually accessing it via the stairwell.
While the building had an elevator, it wasn’t the kind that responds automatically to the electronic summons of a depressed button. It had a lever that had to be operated manually from within the elevator to move it between floors.
The rule was that if you lived on, say, the fourth floor, and the elevator was on your floor, if someone on the first floor pressed the buzzer to use the elevator, you had to take it down to the first floor, pick up the person, who would then drop you back off on your floor and then continue on to use the elevator for their purposes. Then, it was up to them to be “on call” to pick up the next person in need of the elevator, or just return it to the first floor when they were finished with it. In other words, though it could be a life-saver, especially when something heavy needed to be transported to the upper floors, it certainly wasn’t ideal, and most of the time I would simply take the stairs.
I’d do so because, more often than not, the elevator was somewhere other than the first floor, and it was a hassle to wait for the person who had it to bring it down to you. Even if it was already on the first floor, it was a minor nuisance to use.
Say you had a heavy load and needed to use the elevator. You’d enter the building, pulling the heavy outer door closed behind you. You’d walk past the rows of mailboxes on the right, then down the long, narrow hall to the far end, where, just to the right of the stairs stood the single, hinged, steel elevator door painted battleship gray, with its single, circular window about the size of a softball. If you brought your face right up to the dingy window and cupped your hands to block the hall lights, you could just discern, through its Coke-bottle thick glass, if the elevator’s dim ceiling bulb was visible within or not. If all was blackness, it was probably on another floor. If you could just detect light within, you were in luck: the elevator was there. So, you’d head back to the mailboxes, unlock the box with the elevator door key, return to the elevator, unlock the door, and then leave it ajar while you replace the key, walk back yet again to the elevator, open the door, enter, close the door behind you, and then operate it to access your floor.
One fateful day I thought the elevator was on the first floor. For the life of me, I don’t remember if I checked the window or, what’s more likely, short-cut the process by grabbing the key when I first arrived.
What I clearly recall, however, is unlocking the elevator door and leaving it ajar as I replaced the key. Returning to the elevator door, I opened it and began to enter.
Only, the elevator wasn’t there.
The moment is relived in slow motion. The door is open and I’m passing through the threshold, one foot suspended in pitch black space in front of me. At what must have been just about the last possible moment, I realize that I’ve made a mistake and I pivot my torso to the left, allowing my left hand to just grab hold of the door and arrest my forward, and soon to be downward, movement.
Now, had I fallen into the elevator shaft, I would’ve only gone one floor into the basement, so it’s unlikely I would’ve died, but you never know. Perhaps I would’ve been broken, bleeding, and unconscious, as rats the size of cats converged upon me in the blackness. Easy pickin’s. Could’ve been bloody well all she wrote. Later on during my time in the city I had an occasion to go down into the basement and I made a point of viewing the spot where I would’ve landed. To say the least, it wasn’t a clean and thickly cushioned featherbed.
I just read this to my wife, who as per usual is sitting in her sofa chair across the room from the couch where I sit, laptop on lap, coffee within reach, on this pre-dawn hour. She asked me why I chose to write about the moment and I told her I think it’s because I watched an interview of a former New York-based mafia boss yesterday which had a lot to do with risk (there’s just about no riskier life than that of a made man) and, at one point, he mentioned his association with the Gambino family head John Gotti, which brought back another moment where I myself passed Gotti (walking with another man, with two bodyguards behind them) on a side street in Little Italy, late in 1990. It was about a month before the “Teflon Don” was arrested and put in prison, where he eventually contracted throat cancer and died.
In both of my personal non-incidents, a sudden move might’ve either caused or, as I’ve already related, definitely did avert a tragedy.
Also as per usual, I often begin a blog post without knowing exactly where I want it to go, and it’s that way today, though I have seeds of a metaphor for the near-fateful moment. It’s very likely I’ll continue to mull it and return to this post for further fleshing out, but for now, here are my incipient thoughts:
The non-incident-by-a-hair’s-breadth serves me, now, as a kind of cautionary tale.
If I view the moment metaphorically, it reminds me of my propensity, at times, to want to cut corners, particularly for the sake of expediency. Not in the quality of my work, and I also don’t mean that taking the elevator as opposed to the stairs is necessarily cutting corners, though I have an artist friend in Manitou Springs in his late 70’s who has lived in a third floor loft for decades and I’ve sworn the secret to his youthful energy is his building’s lack of an elevator and the multiple times he’ll ascend and descend the passage, most days.
But if I did indeed grab the elevator key before checking to make sure the elevator was there, and definitely if I didn’t take the simple precaution of opening the door and peering in before committing my whole being to the “enterprise”… yeah, those were indications that I could be a bit hasty at times. Probably it’s something I ought to keep in mind.
Because in general, I’d say I’m more of a risk-taker than my wife. We balance each other out in that way, and I try not to twist her arm too much to get my way. Neither does she carte blanche veto all my ideas.
And yet, recently, we’ve both served as counter-points to each other with an upcoming decision, interestingly enough. Not an ultra-risky one. Not an all-or-nothing one. Definitely one that will have implications in a number of categories, both positive and negative, on our life together.
She’s the one who initially dangled the idea before me for months, if not years. For reasons probably having more to do with the knowledge that the idea, good as it was, would cost me time and energy, I held back.
Then, more recently, I jumped on board, and as I’ve already said, when I jump, I tend to jump. Not that I haven’t reserved the possibility of backing out – of keeping one hand, as it were, firmly on the elevator door. Yet a couple weeks back, nearing the moment where we’d be financially committed, Nan began to vocalize her concerns, wondering if we were taking on too much. Frustrating!
Not a week later, however, we reversed polarity yet again, with me wondering the same. Immediately after beginning to vocalize my doubts, she responded that this seemed like the perfect time to be stepping out. It was a no-brainer, if we could swing it.
Currently, we’re both back “on board”, and it’s nice to know that we’re in this together, this dive into the great unknown of life in the macro and our next months-long project in the micro. We’ve been all over the board, weighed the pros and cons, checked and rechecked the math, prayed, and consulted with others.
Seems like we can safely enter the elevator, so to speak.
(If you’re wondering what the decision regards, I’ve a separate blog that goes into more detail.)