The building where I temporarily reside does not appear to be very old, but it should be. After all, the elevator is not discreet at all. It is made of wood and it is disquiet. It goes up trembling like an aeroplane under turbulence, and stops like a car with poor brakes. All these signs indicate that the building – and especially the elevator – should be around one century of existence. The Avenida Almirante Reis, where this place is located, was created in the last decade of the nineteenth century, where a tramline has served it since 1920.
The elevator has a door and an iron grid that must be pulled manually by inside, otherwise, it does not move. Riding this elevator can provide some moments of narcissism, as well as of life disruption. The mirror located on the central wall of the elevator can serve (especially to those who leave home late) to fix the hairdo or to clean possible lipstick stains. On the other hand, there is also space to those who find time to acquire tobacco stain on their teeth while they look into the mirror; Yes, despite the sign ‘No Smoking’, several times the place smells like a cornered smoker. On the bright side of it, the slowness of the elevator may also give wings to the imagination of those with creative minds.
The elevator has capacity for four people up to 80 kilos and it can be embarrassing to share the elevator, particularly with strangers who are visiting the building. Sometimes you have to hold your breath. The odds of meeting neighbors in the elevator are minimal because this building is not for housing except the seventh floor. On the first floor there is a ‘Turkish hostel’, with rooms for 15 euros, the second floor is a clinic that offers couples therapy, while the third floor houses a Chinese school. On the fourth, fifth and sixth floors, I believe that there are attorney offices. This building is undoubtedly a global space with an atmosphere of the twenties that has served the needs of the mobile and contemporary society of the twentieth century.
Although it is no longer common the presence of a concierge in Lisbon’s buildings, this edifice has one on the ground floor. There is a desk and a chair in the lobby for him and he works only during the weekdays. I assume his function is to ensure the safety of the building and receive the mail. Usually, when he sees me coming through the glass door, he opens the automatic door by pressing a button, without getting up from his chair.
As I pass through the door, I greet him and make some comments about the weather. He responds timidly, unable to make eye contact. I cannot help but to think of the French book The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Is he an intellectual in the closet? If so, he will not fool me. Generally, when I enter the building, I feel relieved to get home, having survived the heat and the slippery streets and pavements of Lisbon.
I call the elevator, and for a second, I wonder if that is not the tram that is coming down. The noise that I hear approaching is similar to that of public transportation. While the tram in the streets of Lisbon can derail, preventing or delaying the journey of the passengers, the elevator of this building may leave people imprisoned. Aimed at ‘estimated students and parents,’ the Chinese school has released a notice with instructions on how to use the elevator. I highlight the following lines: ‘... the elevator can also get stuck. In this situation, you should not move the iron grid, you must remain calm and shout loudly so that people can be made aware of the situation and take respective measures.’ The Chinese school ends the warning with the note: ‘students under the age of 14 should not use this lift if they are not accompanied by adults. Please use the stairs.’
The day I got stuck inside the elevator I did not have to shout, because there was a person waiting for me outside the building, with whom I was communicating by Whatsapp. And that’s what saved me. My housemate still went for something more memorable. She is Canadian but her parents are Portuguese. She is pregnant and is in Lisbon only for two months doing an artist residency. Unaware of my mishap with the elevator, she told me her story, in English, between suspected laughter. She said the lift was shaking her, up and down frantically between the seventh and fifth floor. She said the situation reminded her of horror movies. However, she also did not have to shout to be rescued. The elevator returned to sanity spontaneously and she made it to the Studio 59 on the seventh floor. My housemate will carry back to Canada a bigger tummy, the taste of her parents’ homeland, and the memory that living in Lisbon is a way of living a past made of wood in a future made of steel.
Note: This story was written in June, 2016. The video was made and edited with an Iphone 5.