Up & Downs. Mostly Downs.

by Jim Knipfel

There are three elevators in the Guggenheim. Two are open to the public--the beautiful Wright-designed one which runs up the side of the rotunda, which’ll take you up to the gift shop on the sixth ramp; and the regular old steel-box elevators which hit all the galleries in the Gwathmey-Siegel addition (actually, I think they call it "The Revlon Tower" now). But on my third day of work there--the night of the first big high-powered grand re-opening party back in ‘92--I was stationed in the third elevator--the enormous service elevator which was normally used to move art works to and from the loading dock, but which that night was commandeered by the caterers.

When I first showed up, still damp behind the ears on this gig, I didn’t blink an eye. I mean, earlier in the day I had been told to guard a locked door in the coat check room. Nobody knew what it led to, and nobody asked. Nobody even tried to go through that door the whole time I was there. I felt like a character on both the winning and losing ends of a Kafka short.

So, being as yet unfamiliar with all the guard posts in the museum, I showed up at the service elevator, where I replaced another guard who had spent the last three hours there.

As he left, he pointed at the folding chair set up in front of the line of four buttons.

"Somebody left a magazine here, in case you get bored," he said, as he sped off to his 15-minute break.

"Thanks!" I called after him. "Let’s hope I don’t get stuck in here!"

It was a joke, of course. In reality I was hoping I’d get stuck in there. It was big--big enough to hold a mid-sized car, actually--and over the years, various art handlers had covered the inside of the elevator with graffiti and goofy paintings. I had a chair, I had a magazine and enough light to read by. I’d be fine. I could be amused in there for hours. I was just glad to be away from the crowds.

So for the next 20 minutes or so, I shuttled caterers from the loading dock and the makeshift kitchen up to various levels of the museum. My job was to push the button.

But sometime during my seventh or eighth trip back down to pick up another man with a cart full of salmon puffs, I heard something in the gears above me grind and sputter. Then the whole thing shuddered to a stop, somewhere between the third and fourth levels.

"Cool," I thought, and sat down in my chair, thinking I’d wait a few minutes before hitting the emergency button.

I reached under the chair and pulled out the magazine. I’d read a bit, then set about to the business of getting rescued.


Holy shit--I’m trapped! I dropped the magazine and pressed the emergency alarm. A bell tinkled feebly somewhere above me. I waited for the machine to chug into life again.


I hit the button again, and again I waited.

I hit the other buttons. Nothing.

Then I started hearing voices from a few levels above me.

"Hey..." someone was shouting down above me, his voice echoing down the shaft, "what the hell are you doing down there?"

"Waiting," I shouted back.

"For what?"

"Someone to rescue me."

"There was a long silence.

"Are you stuck?"

"Yes...Yes I am." I wasn’t feeling too witty.

There was more silence. I figured they were going to get help. A few minutes later, I heard the voice of the chief of security.

"Who’s down there?" he yelled down the shaft.

"Knipfel!" I yelled back.

I could sense that he was pondering the possibility of just leaving me there. Finally, he shouted back:

"We’ll do what we can, Knipfel. You just hold tight."

"You bet, sir! Ten-four!" I yelled, still a little tickled about being in the security business. Then I sat down in the folding chair, content to read the graffiti and wait things out.

Half an hour later, I was running small laps around the inside of the elevator and singing little songs to myself.

An hour after that, I was curled up on the floor in a corner, expensive Italian uniform be damned, rearranging all the pictures and cards in my wallet.

Finally, ten minutes before my shift at that post was set to end, something above me sparked, and the gears started meshing again.

When the doors opened on the fourth level, a small crowd of folks was waiting for me.

"Y’know it’s the damnedest thing," the crotchety old head of maintenance said to me, "they spend I dunno how many millions refurbishing this building—and they spend not penny one fixing this elevator. This elevator’s been here since the building opened, and no one’s ever fixed it."

"I’ll be," I said, strangely happy to have been swallowed up by it for a few hours.

The elevators in the Gwathmey addition weren’t nearly so charming. The same automatic steel boxes you find everyplace else. Still, they posted guards in there, too, just to make sure that the visitors who used them didn’t end up in the basement, the management offices, or some other restricted floor.

Each elevator could hold maybe five passengers comfortably, and each was lit by what was apparently a night-light bulb. That left reading out of the question. What it meant was that, when posted there, I would be spending up to 10 hours a day in a small black steel box. Visions of Cool Hand Luke and Papillon and Each Dawn I Die started playing through my head.

As a result, I volunteered for--almost demanded--elevator detail.

A lot of guards, it seemed, suffered from claustrophobia, and simply could not be posted in the elevators, so the folks who made up the schedules were more than happy to stick me there, day after day. I didn’t have to talk to anyone much--just ask them which floor they wanted, then hit a button. No one was ever in the elevator long enough to start up a real conversation. I was relieved about that.

There was something else I liked about the elevators, though, a little game I enjoyed playing. Spending an entire day in an elevator is sort of like spending an entire day at a magic show. Sitting there, you see a scene in front of you through the open doors. Then the doors close for a few seconds. And when they open up again, there’s a completely different scene in front of you! And you never know exactly what it’s going to be. This was especially effective when the show at the Gugg involved various strange and unique installations in each gallery.

The museum also set up guards in each gallery to stand in front of the elevators, so it was usually possible to ride up and down all day, finding the guards I liked to chat with, and making regular stops on their floor, where we could talk without the security cameras spying on us.

In the end, though, it was eight to ten hours a day in a small, darkened, steel box--and it wasn’t too long before I started to slip towards madness.

After a few weeks, the smooth, solid steel walls began to flow around me, and the doors became a giant mouth or a giant eye. Soon I was living inside the Guggenheim’s head--speaking and seeing for it whenever the doors opened.

I became frighteningly possessive of my elevators. A few times a day, I’d run into some passengers who wanted to push the buttons by themselves--or worse, who tried to get off on a floor where they weren’t allowed to be.

I snatched at the hands reaching for my control panel and barked at--even chased--anyone who got off on the wrong floor. That little four-by-four foot room was my domain, my kingdom--and you didn’t fuck with the King while you were in there, breathing my air and taking up my space.

Worse still, it became hard for me to leave the elevator. The world outside was just so damned big and open—

I don’t know how long it was—a few weeks, maybe—before word started filtering back to my supervisors that I was going a little "funny." Maybe after I demanded identification from one too many curators, or refused to take rude visitors where they wanted to go directly ("I’m sorry, but before we go up to 7, I have to make security checks at every floor in-between...").

Whatever it was, one day I was informed—gently—that I wouldn’t be stationed on the elevators any more. That it was time I got back out there on the ramps and dealt with the fuckers, the Frenchmen, the hunchbacks, the school trips, the hairy and the slippery.

I did as I was told, but I never really forgave them. A slow hatred burned inside me. And what’s more, instead of fading away as they should have, the hallucinations only got worse.

Article copyright Jim Knipfel. Photojournalism by Jim Canfield.

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