Everybody knows the Elevator Rules.
Rule #1 Stand facing the door.
Rule #2 Space yourself evenly in the elevator car.
Rule #3 Stand still.
Rule #4 Don’t talk to strangers.
Rule #5 Keep your eyes on the floor indicator lights.
There’s some wisdom in elevator etiquette, how to conduct yourself when you’re locked into a small box with a stranger for a short ride. What strikes me as sad, however, is that most of us take the Elevator Rules with us out into the world. It’s how we’re accustomed to act on a street corner or in our own neighborhoods.
I was in Atlanta last weekend, and the Elevator Rules are different down South. A man gets on the elevator with his son, who’s wearing a Braves tee shirt. I say, “Braves playing today?” The little boy says, “Yup. Go Chipper Jones!” His father and I talk baseball as forty floors go by. Pam and I get on the lift, and there are two black women we’ve seen earlier in the day. Now they’re wearing orange and green jerseys with FAMU on the front. Pam says, “What’s FAMU?” We find out it’s Florida A&M University, in town to play Southern University in the Georgia Dome. Then one of the women says to Pam, “You’re all dressed up—looking a whole lot better than you did in your running clothes this morning!” We have a good laugh, and tell them we’re going to a wedding.
It was like that most of the weekend. People struck up conversations in restaurant lines, waiting to be seated, on street corners, waiting for the light to change. I was very aware of how insular the culture is back home in the North East. People don’t connect. Don’t have time to connect. There’s almost a cultural prohibition. You have to work to overcome it.
I am not simply arguing that Southern culture is, on this account, better than Northern culture. It’s theological, spiritual. It’s how we see human beings, ourselves and others. It’s literally how we see.
I think of that famous Louisville scene, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, where Thomas Merton breaks out of the elevator rules.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers . . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.