The Elevator Effect

Close encounters in the rain – by Jessica Levine


As an expat afloat in Shanghai, one of the things I miss most about America is time spent in elevators. I miss the strange, fleeting intimacy among elevator passengers at home, the brief bond that forms within an eclectic group of strangers as you take off from the ground floor — the smile you share in the five seconds between the seventh and eighth floors, or the glare you receive when you sneeze loudly around floor 11-and-a-half.

One August afternoon here, I found that rainstorms can create the same effect. Picture a group of random passers-by searching for shelter, held captive together for a brief interlude in the lobby of a white-tiled office building. There are flowers drying on a pedestal in the back that look like they could use a taste of the torrential rain outside. A man and a woman stand in the doorway speaking in elevator-like pleasantries: Aiya! Xia da yu le. It’s raining so hard!

The woman is wearing a brightly coloured yellow-and-orange striped shirt over neon pink pants. The man is in a drab tan uniform that says “Traffic Assistant” on the sleeve. Standing together, they look like ice cream in a cone. Both of them smile at my friend and I as we enter, soaked and shivering, into this air-conditioned purgatory. By the elevators, a fancy sign proclaims the name and purpose of the building: Jing’an Temple Sub-district Incubation Center. How appropriate. 

Outside, the wind whips the rain with a tornado-like fury. A red Volkswagen Beetle floats up to the curb, and a little boy in a polo shirt climbs out and runs into the building. A woman who looks alarmingly like her car — roly-poly and dressed in red — follows him with a bright rainbow umbrella. She takes a few steps into the flood that has swallowed the sidewalk before calling to the boy: Hao, ni jin qu ba! You go in! The boy has already disappeared into the elevator – unlike the rest of us, he has a reason to be here. We all hold our breath as we watch the woman outside. Will she make it to the door? Will she drown? So far, she hasn’t moved another inch, and her struggle has become our primary source of entertainment.

To everyone’s surprise, she heads back to the car and attempts to climb into the driver’s seat, facing backwards with her umbrella open. The Traffic Assistant chuckles, but Striped-Shirt smiles compassionately. I am utterly befuddled by this woman’s actions and embarrassed to be so captivated. I thought I had become desensitized to the bizarre things I encounter daily on the streets of Shanghai, but here I am forced to watch and wonder.

The Volkswagen lady corrects her mistake and slips into the seat, facing forward, umbrella first. The Beetle skitters away from the curb and out into the storm. Traffic Man and Stripes Lady resume their admiration of the storm. Aiya, zen me da! How big it is! A man steps out of the elevator into our atrium of tedium. He walks to the doorway, takes a look outside, and promptly walks back in, perching on the narrow windowsill by the elevator. He, too, understands our fate. We must wait.

To pass the time, my Chinese friend uses the toe of his soaked sneaker to write out his favourite English word in rain, forming each letter slowly in a dry corner of the tile floor: FUCK, he writes. I slap his arm, pointing with raised eyebrows at the respectable adults around us. “What if they see?” my eyebrows say. “It’s English; they can’t understand it,” he replies in Chinese.

A few feet away, the man on the windowsill has put his face in his hands – this is the rotten cherry on top of a day’s work at the Jing’an Temple Sub-district Incubation Center. I wonder what sort of Sub-district Incubation Difficulties he has endured today. It’s probably nothing compared to the last five minutes.

The glass front doors are still open, and the rain begins to seep across the floor into the entryway. Traffic and Stripes have run out of things to say and are now standing in silence, staring out at the rain. We all are. The word “beauty” in English is inexplicably written above one of the elevators. To be sure, the room holds a strange sort of beauty – this collective of strangers, laowai and lao baixing alike, in a shared struggle against nature, floating in the friendly anonymity of shelter on a rainy afternoon.

But our stay at the Incubation Center is brief. One by one, we gauge the conditions outside and leave with a nod or a smile, as if stepping out of an elevator onto our floor. My friend and I see a lull in the rain and hurry out to resume our homeward trek. We have emerged, fully incubated and ready to take on Shanghai.

In the rain, the streets are uncharacteristically silent and empty. I imagine all the souls huddled in groups in the doorways of Shanghai – little pockets of intimacy in a city hurtling toward the unfamiliar. When I feel alone in this city of strangers, when I look out at the million distant lights of other people’s lives, I am glad to still have these places, these elevators and doorways in the rain.

Jessica Levine is a recent college grad who lives and writes in Shanghai