Wise men recall how 'elevator men know their building'

By John Kass

Chicago Tribune

Published: Sunday, Oct. 13 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Capitol Hill elevator operators have long had to endure a terrible indignity: politicians staring at the backs of their defenseless heads.

But now, to make matters even worse, federal elevator operators have become symbols of wasteful federal spending as part of Washington’s Federal Shutdown Lite.

The wasteful spending part is true. The ancient manually operated elevators are gone, replaced by computerized panels of buttons. Taxpayers don’t need to pay operators to push buttons, not even for Sen. Dick Durbin.

Yet as elevator operators have become metaphors for antiquated systems and out-of-control spending — like absurd minor characters from the old movie “Brazil” — there’s one thing Americans should consider.

It’s that existential back-of-the-head thing.

“I’ve had people staring holes in the back of my head for 47 years,” longtime Chicago elevator operator John Nelson once told me with a sigh.

That was eons ago, in 1989, and Nelson was pushing 70 then, an elderly gent running one of those old-fashioned elevators in a dying building in Chicago’s Loop.

“For years, I considered it, wondering if they thought about what goes through the mind of an elevator operator,” Nelson told me in his elevator at the Unity Building.

And as he said it, face front, I couldn’t help but stare right at his skull.

Life is hard enough without your entire life spent with perfect strangers staring at the back of your head.

“I finally realize that people looked at me as if I wasn’t there,” he said. “As if I were an inanimate object. . It used to be a place of action and excitement!”

Such old-style elevators are all but extinct, with their Victorian cages and levers, the drivers building psychic shields to protect themselves from the indifferent eyeballs of their riders.

They belong to old cities, and memories of old cities. And in government buildings, they were patronage jobs.

“You always took care of the elevator operators on your beat, and they’d take care of you,” legendary Chicago newspaperman Bernard Judge told me the other day.

Judge was the Tribune’s city editor when I was a copy boy here as a kid. He’d scream “COPY!” and we’d jump and come running.

Years before, he covered the Criminal Courts and learned the value of elevator operators.

“One night, I was just about to leave,” Judge said, “and one of the elevator guys whispered, ‘You’d better stick around.’ So I did.”

A few hours later, with other reporters gone, the county sheriff and state’s attorney sent cops on a surprise raid of the jail’s federal tier.

They found Chicago mobsters with complete kitchens in their cells — frying pans, tomatoes, onions and hot plates, knives, cash, even a fish-scaling knife.

About the only thing Judge forgot to mention in his scoop for the Tribune was whether the wiseguys used a razor to slice the garlic so thin that it would liquefy in the pan.

“I learned the lesson,” he said. “The elevator men know their building.”

These days, only a few remain, like the one in the Fine Arts Building, where Brian Feeley works.

Feeley, 44, has been working as an elevator operator there, with the lever in his hand, for the past year. He said passengers who see his elevator for the first time are usually amazed.

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