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Lessons on an Elevator

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In my last hour on campus during the fall-winter 2010 semester, during my last elevator ride down from the English/Philosophy Department, I experienced the most interesting confrontation/ conversation. Ever.

When the elevator “landed” at the 5th floor, several people got out and four faculty members — including myself — got in.

One woman was already on the elevator; her dark skin stood in sharp contrast to the knee-length, bright yellow coat she wore. She had long, false eyelashes and long, sparkly fingernails. It was pretty obvious that she was a student as most educators simply don’t have enough hours in the day to worry about simple hygiene let alone more advanced techniques like applying fingernails or eyelashes. She also carried a cute little backpack while we all had little, unattractive wheelie bags laden with books and papers.  She must have accidentally gone up when she meant to go down. Whatever. The five of us crammed into the teeny-tiny elevator.

The door closed.

Suddenly a loud, distorted male voice came from Ms. Yellow Puffy Coat’s hand, “Girl, you better fucking get back on them pills. I don’t want to be nobody’s baby-daddy.”

All of us “newcomers” noticed at the same moment that Puffy Coat was now holding a telephone in front of her mouth, that it was on speaker mode, and its volume was on full blast.

“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “Don’t fucking be telling me fucking nothing about what I need to do with my body. You so worried about getting me pregnant again, go buy some fucking condoms.”

We faculty members were silenced.

It was incredibly uncomfortable.

I looked around the elevator as Puffy Coat’s increasingly intimate conversation filled with obscenities continued. I caught one professor’s eye. He shrugged, then looked down. The filthy elevator floor was apparently very interesting as everyone else was looking down, too. The doors stopped at the 4th floor where another professor got in. I recognized her immediately as Professor Sanity.

Puffy Coat kept going.

“I’m not having another abortion…” said Puffy Coat.

“Bitch,” shouted the faceless Dashan, “don’t play fuckin’ games with me.”

I couldn’t take it. If no one was going to say anything, I would be that girl.

“Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “that sounds like a very personal conversation. Do you think you could wait to continue until we are off the elevator?”

Polite wasn’t going to work.

“Hold up, Dashan,” Puffy Coat declared. “Bitch in the elevator trying to tell me what to do.” She continued, “Fucking bitch. I don’t know who she is. Just ignore her. Go on.”

Suddenly, the elevator stopped moving. Professor Sanity had hit the kill switch.

“Excuse me,” said Professor Sanity to Puffy Coat. “That is a completely inappropriate way to speak to another person. Please apologize right now.”

Puffy Coat didn’t know what to do.

It was excellent.

“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “I got a situation in the elevator. I’m gonna have to call you back.” And with that she silenced her phone.

(Hello, that’s all I was asking for!)

Professor Sanity did not stop. She pointed over toward my way. “When that professor suggested you turn off your phone, she was speaking for all of us. Because when you are in an elevator, you are in a public space. This is a public space.” Professor Sanity gestured a tiny circle above her head. “It’s a really tight public space, so people need to be especially mindful of each other. The conversation that you were having was beyond personal. No one wants to hear about your sex life. No one wants to hear the language you were using. The swearing was inappropriate, and it made us all uncomfortable. This is a place of higher learning. This is your moment to learn something.”

“Is everything okay in there?” A voice from campus security interjected through the intercom.

“We’re fine,” said Professor Sanity with authority. “Just give us a few minutes.”

Gawd, I love Professor Sanity. I soooo want to be her when I grow up.

Puffy Coat was relentless. She would not back down.

“I have every right to talk on my phone whenever and wherever I want to,” she insisted. “I pay my bills. You can’t tell me what to do. This is racism. You all are just picking on me because I’m black.”

Professor Sanity kept her cool, “You know very well that this has absolutely nothing to do with the color of your skin. This has to do with your behavior. You were not acting respectfully toward the people around you. When someone asks you to do something, your first response should not be to call that person a ‘Bitch’ — but that was your very first response. You need to think about that.”

Feeling bolder now that we weren’t going anywhere, another professor weighed in. Skinny, bald, and sporting double-hearing aids, this man looked to be about 80 years old. “Your argument isn’t logical.” (He must have been a Philosophy Professor.) He continued, “Why do you think that because you pay your bills you have the right to do ‘whatever you want whenever you want’? Paying your bills merely gives you the service. This conversation has nothing to do with race. This conversation has everything to do with your attitude of entitlement.”

Puffy Coat was silent. I couldn’t tell if she understood one word that Elder Prof had just said. Or maybe she realized that she was like a punchline in a bad joke: Five tired professors are on an elevator at the end of the semester. A student walks in.

Maybe she figured if she was quiet, things would end more quickly.

And things did end. Puffy Coat did, in fact, apologize. When five educators are staring at you in a stopped elevator, what choice does a person have? I mean, her apology was totally coerced. Puffy mumbled something to the effect that she was sorry for cursing, adding that she had never considered that being on a speaker phone in public could be perceived as rude. It was Guantanamo Bay in there. And that poor girl was being detained by brutally civilized, intellectual savages.

Professor Sanity told campus security to start us back up again, and we silently rode down to the first floor.

What stuck with me after I made it outside was Puffy’s defensiveness and her utter lack of understanding with regard to how to communicate with people. I considered how Puffy spoke to her boyfriend, to me, to the others: I supposed “combative” was her default setting. I imagined a whole heckuva lot of people must have spoken to Puffy with that same hostile tone over her lifetime, so that is the way she approaches the world. Pissed off is a pretty good defense-mechanism, but it doesn’t serve a person well in college, in the working world, or in life.

I wondered how a person could get to be college-aged and not understand how to behave in a socially appropriate manner.

It’s a sad social comment.

I’d like to believe — given the season — that like the Grinch, maybe …

Puffy puzzled three hours, `till her puzzler was sore

and eventually she realized she could be so much more.

“Maybe,” she thought, “I don’t have to be rotten to the core”

“Maybe it’s good those professors blocked the door.”

Maybe Puffy’s small brain grew three sizes that day!

Do you think that it could?

That maybe Puffy actually “got it” — maybe she understood?

Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be good?

It would be wonderful.

If that’s what she got.

Do you think that she got it?

Alas, probably not.

What have you witnessed recently that caused you to think: “What has happened to civility?”