The Elevator-Phobes of a Vertical City
Twenty-four years ago, more or less to the month, I got stuck in an elevator. I was ten years old. We were on the north side of Tel Aviv, in the apartment building I’d grown up in. I was trapped with my parents and ten or so loud Israelis and a neon pink tennis ball that I kept dropping and squirming down between the thickets of sweaty legs to pick back up again. My dad said we should all jump up and down to click the elevator back on its tracks and I thought that was a great idea. There was a pregnant woman who disagreed, however, and she, understandably, had veto power. I could hear Shlomi, my buddy from down the hall, running around yelping for help. Eventually the maintenance guy showed up and unlocked the doors and popped us free. I walked out on jellified legs, grateful for a world I’d at least partially believed I’d never see again. It had been 90 minutes. Enough time to leave me with a phobia for life.
I’ve lived in New York now for 12 years. There are, as you might imagine, lots of elevators in New York. Over 60,000, actually. More than in L.A., Miami, D.C., and Chicago combined.
It comes in waves. Some days, some months, some years even are blissfully peaceful. Then some little incident will happen and it’ll trigger me all over again. And there are lots and lots of would-be triggers.
It had been 90 minutes. Enough time to leave me with a phobia for life.
Once—during a time in my life when the phobia’s grip happened to be particularly weak—I got in the elevator with my fellow commuters at the 168th Street subway station in Washington Heights to head down to the subterranean 1 train platform. It was a foreboding specimen of an elevator, stainless steel and poorly lit. And then it didn’t move. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Nothing. I panicked. “We’re stuck!” I shouted, and began pacing the small space, staring at the ground, trying to ignore my heart spiking out of my rib cage. Then a fellow passenger noticed an important detail—no one had actually pressed the “down” button. We made it to the platform soon after. But it was too late: the phobia had rushed back in, at full strength. And for years after, I was back to avoiding every elevator I possibly could.
I’ve climbed stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. As part of my regular hunt for a less claustrophobic passage up (or down), I’ve gotten lost in the bowels of office towers, hospitals, apartment buildings, courthouses, gyms, and recording studios. For over three years I lived on the sixth floor of an elevator building in Brooklyn. I only ever stepped inside it once, while fairly-to-severely drunk. I did regularly put my bike in it, though, sending the elevator down to the first floor or up to the sixth and then bounding up or down the stairs after it.
My record up is 22 flights. My record down is 50. That’s at my parents’ place in Tribeca. They moved to the city a few years back and gleefully flocked to a 50th-floor apartment with truly stunning panoramic views. They tell me they love me, but sometimes I’m not sure.
I know that elevators are safe. I know that they have all manner of fine-tuned safety devices: automatic braking systems, bunches of backup cables, heavy-duty shock absorbers. I know that very, very few people die in elevators. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the death rate is about 30 people a year (and about half of all victims are people whose job it is to work on elevators). But what do abstract numbers and facts matter when you’ll forever remember that one week in late 2011 when a woman in Manhattan was pinned inside malfunctioning elevator doors and dragged up to her death and another woman in Brooklyn was burned alive in a lift by her disgruntled former handyman?!
There’s a well-known 2008 New Yorker piece by Nick Paumgarten called “Up and Then Down.” It’s a perfect microhistory of the development and proliferation of the elevator. It also relates the tale of Nicholas White, a magazine production manager who, in the fall of 1999, spent 41 hours stuck in a Manhattan elevator. Working late one Friday evening, White went outside for a smoke. When he headed back upstairs, the elevator jammed. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that a security guard finally noticed the elevator was out of service. In a corresponding New Yorker video, the security-camera footage of White’s very long weekend is sped up and set to obnoxiously somber piano music.
You’d think I’d avoid this kind of content. But at least once a year—involuntarily, I swear—I somehow find myself rereading the piece. (I’m not alone in this; Paumgarten writes in an email that he still gets calls from producers who want to find White. “I’ve jokingly referred to that piece as my ‘Margaritaville,’” he adds.) Even more regularly: by shutting my eyes and letting my mind wander, involuntarily, my brain recalls the grainy footage of the man trapped, pacing, standing up, sitting down, looking like a lab mouse bouncing around a cage.
Therapists treat elevator phobia (no official name) like a specific subset of claustrophobia, one that can be triggered in a variety of ways, both expected and not. Suffering an incidental, unrelated panic attack while on an elevator can, for some, create a lifelong fear. Others have the phobia passed down from a mentor, parent, or parental figure. (That’s known as vicarious or social learning, and it can happen unconsciously.) And some folks, like me, get stuck once and never totally get over it.
The elevator-phobic people of New York City are almost our own subculture, though our specific fears differ in kind and in intensity. (Personally, I never saw myself dying in an elevator. I saw myself getting stuck, forever and ever.)
Gabriella Lewis, a 23-year-old video producer, moved to the city from Chicago three years ago. She takes an elevator every day for work in Manhattan, and every day she imagines it “flying down and crashing into the ground floor.” Her phobia started, innocently enough, when a person she was dating made a joke imagining what would happen to their bodies if the elevator they were in dropped. Now every time she’s in one, she thinks, “This it. This is how I die.”
Rachel Handler, an editor at New York magazine, also faces down a work elevator daily. She never goes in one alone because she, like me, doesn’t so much fear death as she does a kind of loneliness. “The idea of being in a tiny box hovering in space with only my own mind for company,” she says, “is worse than death.” Every time Handler needs to go up or down during the day, she loiters at the elevator banks until an unwitting Sherpa arrives. That way, she explains, “I can sidestep an existential meltdown.”
Kevin Martinez, a former publishing executive at Maxim and InStyle, grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and has been fighting elevator phobia since he was a toddler. There was never any traumatic incident. Whenever he was in an elevator as a boy, his father used to calm him down by pointing out the escape hatches, promising him they’d climb out if they had to. It’s been decades now and Martinez is still afraid. (He prefers to keep his exact age off the record: “Just say, ‘I remember disco.’”)
Martinez has been actively hunting for a cause, and a cure. In his beautiful Brooklynese, he tells me, “I actually went to a past-life regressionist five different times to see, I don’t know, maybe I was buried alive in another life?” The regressionist, unfortunately, didn’t come up with any answers. And neither did any of the other potential treatments Martinez sought out: hypnotism, Buddhist meditation, acupuncture, psychoanalysis, and a “tapping thing where they merge your right brain with your left brain.”
Martinez has spent most of his 40-year career in Manhattan office buildings, sometimes coming in and out of meetings throughout the city three or four times a day. He always takes the stairs (his record up is a remarkable 35 floors) racing up them, as much younger security guards—mandated at times by the building’s bylaws to escort him—huff and puff behind. “I’m like, ‘Dude! Get in shape!’”
As any true claustrophobe in New York knows, the city is full of office buildings with stairwells that, because of security concerns, open only outward. But Martinez clues me in on a little secret: a Michael Bloomberg–era health-conscious law that decreed stairwell access be provided to all in hopes of encouraging more New Yorkers to take the stairs. Ever since, whenever Martinez finds a locked door, he’ll call up his personal lawyer, who will then find the building’s managers, cite the legal statute, and force the managers to acquiesce under the threat of court action. (Once, Martinez did it to get to a job interview. His would-be employers were impressed. “They said, ‘Look what the fuck he did just to get up our stairs!’”)
Martinez makes avoiding elevators almost seem fun. When I spoke to Nakia “Nikki” Hicks, a former music publicist, I remembered that underneath the trickery elevator phobics utilize to evade the box, more often than not, there is some sort of trauma.
Hicks, 41, grew up in a New York City Housing Authority building in Harlem. Her family lived on the 16th floor, her grandparents on the 10th. One day, when she was ten years old, she got in an elevator to go down to their apartment and got stuck. Hicks was in the elevator for less than a half hour, until a neighbor helped pry the door open from the outside. And yet she can remember the experience so clearly that she can recall what she was wearing. “It feels like I’m still on it now,” she says. “I was by myself and I was screaaaaaming.”
In the years following, older cousins and various nice guys in the building would ride the elevator with Hicks, to help her stay calm. As she got older, she started taking the stairs. “When Method Man says, ‘My style was born in the pissy staircases’—that’s a real thing,” she says. “Those project staircases, you have to be able to gauge if there’s danger around the corner.” Hicks remembers a neighbor named Linette Wilson, who lived on the 14th floor and used to sit in the stairwell smoking. Hearing the young girl clomp up the stairs, she’d shout out a reassuring, “Nikki, is that you?”
“It feels like I’m still on it now. I was by myself and I was screaaaaaming.”
By the time Hicks had entered the professional world, the trauma from age ten had hardened her heart against elevators forever. She has turned down job offers because of her phobia, including one at the high-rise headquarters of Tidal, the music-streaming service co-owned by Jay-Z. She laughs that she wouldn’t have considered it “even if Jay-Z [was] giving me my tea every morning!” The rappers Wale, Rick Ross, Young Dolph—she’s worked with them all, shepherding them to the lobbies of magazine offices for interviews or production studios for video shoots. And she’d always wait downstairs, making the artist head upstairs without her: “I don’t give a fuck how many platinum plaques you have.”
When people try to cajole her into an elevator—to promise to look out for her—she’ll as often as not snap. “Do you really think your presence can counterbalance fucking three decades of fear?!” The only exception is 2 Chainz, the ultracharismatic Atlanta rapper. He has managed, with patience and true care, to keep Hicks calm in the box. He tells her, “It’s just you and me.” And he’ll actually stop any other passengers from getting on, to make sure Hicks has the personal space she needs. He tells her, “You with me—we’re together.”
I’d caught Hicks in the midst of a possible inflection point. She’s been doing a lot of meditating recently (partially with the help of an app called Insight Timer, recommended to her by her pal and client Dej Loaf) and is insistent that she’s not giving up. “I don’t want to be out here still floundering and flapping about,” she says.
We talk about the options. Hypnosis? Immersion therapy? Hicks wonders if there are support groups. I tell her that I tried and failed to find one. I’d hoped to find an actual population of New Yorkers who gathered to share and commiserate about their elevator-specific claustrophobia. I went through all kinds of channels and listings and forums. Psychology Today. The National Institute of Mental Health. The Social Anxiety Association. Even Meetup. Nothing. I reached out to doctors and social workers. None of them had never heard of an extant elevator-phobia group, either.
So for now, this is it: a disconnected network of claustrophobes spending an inordinate amount of time plotting ways to get up and down elevators without panicking. “[I’m] thrilled whenever I find another elevator-phobic,” Handler tells me, “because I feel slightly less deranged.”
When I ask Martinez if he’s ever considered moving out of the city, he snaps back, “No. New York is where the money is.”
Hicks says she’s contemplated leaving a thousand times, but she’ll never go through with it.
Says Handler, simply enough: “I love living here.”
These days, my phobia is in a good place. It's not quite gone, and I don't think it'll ever totally disappear. But years and years of forced elevator exposure has slowly made me less crazy, more likely to move in vertical enclosures. There are limits, of course. You’ll never catch me in a subway elevator again. And there’s a whole swath of Manhattan, roughly from the Flatiron to Midtown East, that I try to avoid. For some architectural-historical reason, that area is riddled with skinny buildings and weird, old, creaky, teeny-tiny elevators and no inward stair access. (I don’t have a personal elevator lawyer. At least not yet. And, sadly, 2 Chainz isn’t around to escort me, either.) But for the most part, I’m what you might call a functional claustrophobe.
My younger brother messes with me by telling me he thinks my phobia is made up. It’s not actually true—I swear it’s not true—but there is something to the accusation. I do feel, sometimes, like I’m actively holding on to my fear, like I know that putting some of my anxiety into a definable malady helps me to release it, or at least redirect it, away from my other, truer, deeper fears. About my career. About the choices that I’ve made. About the people that I love.
What strange fate have we dealt ourselves, to live in a place full of hellscapes.
I’ve fantasized at times about a kind of utopia: a gleaming glass city free of elevators. But for now I, just like Gabriella and Rachel and Kevin and Nakia, still live in New York, and still constantly have to force myself to enter slim or squat boxes of despair. Why haven’t we left? What strange fate have we dealt ourselves, to live in a place full of hellscapes.
Thinking of my fellow elevator-phobics here in the city, I see a common thread. One that gives me some small, off-kilter joy. We coddle our fears. We embrace them. It’s neither victory nor defeat. We found a third way. And I love that.
I remember now that when I first moved here, I did so knowing that I was forcing myself to face my phobia. If you’d told me then that more than a decade later I’d still be afraid, would I be disappointed in future me? Only if you’d also told me that I’d given up. But I’m still here, man. I’m afraid, yes. But I’m not going anywhere. New York is where the money is.