Table for Six

We were all on our way up. Everyone had pushed the buttons for their floors, and we were trying our best not to look at each other. It was a Tuesday morning, about ten-thirty, and there were six of us including myself. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t take any time to describe the other passengers in an elevator. What would be the point? We were such a fleeting little collection of characters, sharing a space for the sole, expedient purpose of getting to different floor levels in this downtown Los Angeles high-rise. There was certainly no need for any of us to introduce ourselves to each other by saying hi or shaking hands. Elevators are all business, right? And we each knew where we wanted to go.

We each understood how the elevator game was played. You walk into the car, press your floor button, and then stand there as still as possible. You stare at the wall or ceiling, and you try not to touch anyone. Heaven forbid you bump or touch someone. Some innocuous comments about the weather or the speed of the elevator are acceptable, but touching isn’t okay. This is unless, of course, the car is jam-packed with travelers. Then you can’t really help it, but it’s so weird isn’t it? Brushing up against complete strangers? Sharing the air with them, and smelling their cologne and perfume? Noticing who the cigarette smokers are? Feeling the heat and salty humidity emanating from their 98.6 degree pink, brown, and black Homo sapien bodies?

In our case that morning, there were only six of us, so we had plenty of room to give each other some space. I’m going to give you some quick first impressions I had of these five passengers, and I’ll describe myself as well. In fact, let’s start with me. My name is Roger. Last names aren’t important to this story, so I will not be using them. Think of this as the story of an AA meeting in an elevator car, sans the coffee and donuts, and without the twelve steps and chips and continuous rounds of applause. And we didn’t share an addiction. Although, as you shall see, we had more in common than you’d guess. I was in this elevator on my way to see my psychiatrist, who was on the sixth floor. I was dressed in an old T-shirt, sweat pants, and athletic shoes, and I hadn’t bothered to shave that morning. I am an architect, and I work out of my home. If I had been on my way to see a client, I would certainly have been better groomed, but I was just on my way to meet with my shrink. The casual look was fine.

You know what my favorite thing is about seeing my doctor? She also sees children, and in her waiting room, she has stuff to keep the little monsters busy while they wait for her. There are those puzzles to play with, the little clear plastic boxes with the tiny balls and indentations you roll the balls into so that they hold still. These puzzles never get old. Honestly, I could play around with them for hours. But my favorite thing about the waiting room are the issues of Highlights for Children. Very nostalgic, right? Next to the Hidden Pictures, my favorite feature was always Goofus and Gallant. We learn at a very young age that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are the Goofuses, and there are the Gallants. I loved seeing the world in this way. It made me feel like a better person. I was no Goofus.

I’ll tell you a few things about myself. First, I am sixty-three years old, five feet and eight inches tall, brown-haired, and relatively slender. I am very well educated, and I believe that I’m reasonably bright. I confirmed this assessment of my intelligence by getting good grades in school. And I guess you could say I was mature for my age. But the truth is that these days I would rather play with plastic ball-toys and thumb through the latest issues of Highlights than read, say, Time or National Geographic. But that’s just me. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with behaving like an adult, or reading like one, or even thinking like one. I just now happen to find maturity to be a bit boring, and a lot disappointing. I think that’s the word I’m looking for. Yes, disappointing. When I was a young man, I expected so much from adulthood. I often feel as though I was misled, maybe even gypped.

I am currently married. In fact, I have been married to the same girl for over forty years. I call her a girl, but she’s really a woman. I call her a girl because she was only seventeen when we first met, and I’ve always thought of her as being my girl, no matter her actual age. It’s the same way you might call your mangy old dog Puppy. I call our dog Puppy, and the thing has glaucoma and cataracts in both eyes. No kidding – he’s as blind as a damn bat. Anyway, my wife and I still get along like young newlyweds even after all our years of being married, and I think that says a lot about both of us. And it says a lot about me. I am one of the good guys. I am friendly, loyal, kind, rational, stable, responsible, and fairly easy to get along with. It often seems to me that you can’t say these kinds of things about a lot of people these days. It’s funny, actually. When my wife and I tell others how long we have been married, they usually want to know how we did it. You want to know what it really boils down to? It’s simple. We don’t act like jerks.

So now you know a little about me. You now know enough so I can move on with this story. Next, I want to describe my impressions of the other people in the elevator. First there was Agatha. Ah, Agatha. I would say she was about my age. Well, she certainly wasn’t younger than me. The last time she was required to show ID to buy alcohol was probably when Patty Hearst was being sentenced to prison time and when good old Jimmy Carter was being nominated to run for the presidency. Seriously, this woman had some miles on her. And despite the fact that she was so well put together and nicely preserved, she looked like someone who would tell you in earnest that, “Life is no goddamn bowl of cherries.” Do you know the kind of woman I mean? Age, seasoned with cynicism. I was guessing that her husband had cheated on her at one time or another, and she probably had a daughter she no longer talked to.

In contrast to Agatha, there was Julie. I guessed the girl was in her mid-thirties, and she was dressed in jeans and a UC Berkeley sweatshirt. She had long blonde hair that she kept tied in a braid that ran like a ladder up and down the middle of her back. She didn’t wear make-up. It was not that she couldn’t have benefitted from a little – she just didn’t use it. At first glance, I was able to take a few more guesses about her. I figured, for example, that she spent a lot of time at the local Starbuck’s with her laptop open and her fingers busy. I also figured she was a reader, and not a big TV watcher. Bob Dylan was probably her favorite artist, and I’ll bet Tarantula was her favorite book. Raise your hand if you’ve had your fill of Bob Dylan, as in years ago. Seriously, I have. And I bet for sure Julie threatened to move to Canada when Trump was elected. For sure, she did. And I bet she had more than one cat. Probably two or three.

I knew several girls like Julie back in high school. They didn’t shave their legs or armpits. Not that I’m knocking it. It’s just an observation. I also knew boys in high school who reminded me of Ralph, the next elevator occupant I’m going to describe. Good old Ralph. Have you ever run across men like this? Of course you have. They’re always nicely dressed, nice smelling, clean-cut, and they smile stupidly no matter what you say to them. You can tell them to go jump in a fucking lake, or fly a fucking kite, or soak their fucking head in the toilet – yet they just stand there and smile. They smile because they want to be your friend. They can’t accept the idea that some people don’t like them. I knew several kids like this in high school, and they got bullied a lot. Ralph probably got pushed around and belittled on more than just once or twice.

This brings me to Edward. I knew kids like Edward in school too. He was one of the bullies, one of the jocks, one of the kids who could throw a football like it was nothing, but who couldn’t solve a simple algebra equation to save his life. All the bubbly, energetic, and pretty girls adored him. The rest of us feared him. My guess? Edward is probably a salesman. You know the type, always sucking on a breath mint, shaking hands, remembering everyone’s name, going out to lunch and getting pie-eyed with clients in the middle of the day. Edward reminded me of a boy in high school who I hated with a passion. For a while this dislike was an obsession. I used to come home from school each afternoon, lock myself in my bedroom, and pretend my pillow was him. “Oh yeah?” I’d say, and I’d punch the pillow in its belly. Then I’d smack its head. Then I’d throw it across the room. The more often I did this, the better I felt about myself. It was a little weird, but it was great therapy.

Lastly, there was Amanda. She was probably a cheerleader in high school. Now she was a mom. There’s no mistaking a mom. Her age? I guessed she was in her forties, and that her kids were still in elementary school. Her looks were still important to her, but in a more down-to-earth sort of way. She probably used to be like a plate of exotic sushi rolls with a cup of sake. She was now a very carefully assembled peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a fruit punch juice box and plastic straw. Now she went to soccer and baseball games like she used to go to parties. She never missed a single parent’s night at school. And she helped her children with all their homework, even if she didn’t know what the heck she was doing. And she taught them to be as honest as George Washington, but never in a million years would she tell them about how she once got so drunk in ninth grade that she peed herself, or that she first had sex at seventeen, or that there was a boy in school who she loved more than their father. Sometimes, when she was by herself, she would think about that boy.

So, that makes six of us in the elevator. There was me. There were Agatha, Julie, Ralph, Edward, and Amanda. And there was suddenly a big problem. The elevator came to a stop between the third and fourth floors. For a few seconds the lights went out, and then they came on again. But the elevator did not move. We were stuck. We were not moving. “What the hell?” Agatha complained. “We need to call the operator,” Edward said, and he picked up the phone receiver on the elevator wall. “Hello? Hello?” he said to the person on the other end of the call. “This elevator seems to be broken. We’re all stuck in here.” The lady told Edward they would send someone out right away. Then Ralph said, “I had a friend who got stuck like this. It took them ten hours to repair the thing.” We all looked at each other. It was the first time any of us had actually made eye contact. We were no longer going to be strangers.

All said and done, the six of us would spend over twelve hours waiting for the repairmen to do their job. In the meantime, we sat on the floor of the elevator car, our backs against the walls. You know, they say there’s no second chance to make a first impression, and I always thought this line was clever and pregnant with wisdom. I really did. But after twelve hours in the elevator car that day, I came to the conclusion that, yes, while it is true that there’s no second chance to make a first impression, first impressions are, for lack of a string of better words, just so much bullshit. The six of us talked for hours. And we learned a lot about each other. In fact, it was amazing. It turned out that my first impressions of these people were for the most part, completely off base.

Have you ever had certain experiences in your life that you would refer to as being magical? Or tough to explain? Or beyond words? Well, that’s exactly how I would describe our twelve hours in that stalled elevator car. Who would ever have guessed? Sure, at first there was the run-of-the-mill empty small talk and complaining. But then, ever so gradually, our conversation morphed into a series of heartfelt and personal exchanges, and the next thing we knew, we were actually talking to each other. I mean really talking. We were talking from the heart, and from the soul. There were many serious, honest, and powerful words spoken, and I’d never experienced anything quite like it. There were some bursts of anger, and a little arguing. There was laughter, and there were tears. There were quite a few heartwarming stories, and there were burning desires. The whole experience was nothing short of amazing. It was like some giant concrete dam broke apart and the tons of water it once held back were rushing through the breach, covering us. By the end of twelve hours, we were all soaking wet.

I’m not going to tell you specifically a single word that was discussed that day. When the elevator was repaired, we all held hands and took an oath. We agreed that everything said would remain between us. You know, as in, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” It was something like that. We weren’t even to tell our wives or loved ones. It was all to remain one hundred percent private. Things were said. Stories were told. Some secrets were revealed. No one was to learn what was said between the six of us, and we promised each other to take those twelve hours with us to our graves. And there was something else we did before we said goodbye to each other. We exchanged phone numbers. Can you believe it? Like I said earlier, it was a magical experience.

To the best of my knowledge, none of us ever called each other. I didn’t call any of them, and no one ever called me. That was until a couple weeks ago when I got a phone call from Julie. It was her idea, and I thought it was a great one. The one-year anniversary of our twelve hours in the stalled elevator was approaching, and she thought it would be terrific if we all met for dinner. It would be just the six of us, and no one else. Well, everyone immediately agreed, and that’s where I’m headed right now. I’m in my car, fighting the awful LA traffic, driving to a restaurant that Julie chose. I’m looking forward to being with my good friends and catching up on things. We’ll remember that day. We’ll probably raise our glasses to make a toast or two. And we’ll make some small talk.

Magic, magic, magic. That’s exactly what it was. Just open your heart and your eyes, and you’ll find it in the most unexpected places. When will it happen to you? Where will it take place? Who knows? Maybe it’s right around the corner. But be prepared. People in this world are not always who they seem to be, and neither are you. No, not at all.