I was waiting for the lift on the ground floor of Jenners, one of Edinburgh’s oldest department stores. With me were four little old ladies, all with white hair in that “set and styled” look that seems to be the fashion in the over-70 demographic. The “up” button was already lit, and one lady was pressing the “down” button over and over again while talking about lift journeys. She, apparently, wanted to go to the third floor.
So why the down button? She explained as she stabbed away.
“Most folks think you’re supposed to tell the lift where you want to go. But that’s daft, you see, because the lift doesn’t know how to take you there. It’ll be on the third floor – like this one – and know you want to go up. But it doesn’t know that it has to go down to fetch you first. How could it? It’s like driving a car – you tell the lift where you want it to go. We’re on the ground floor, and it’s on the third floor. So we want it to come down to fetch us. We’ll tell it which floors to go to when we get on. Like a car,” she nodded again, clinching the argument.
Listening to her, I experienced a sudden, seismic burst of cognitive dissonance. I suddenly doubted whether I had been using lifts correctly all my life. How did I know how to use a lift? My parents taught me, and I’d watched colleagues and strangers. In essence, lift usage is an oral tradition, and like many oral traditions, may be wrong. Maybe this woman was right? Who was to know?
The lift came, and the “down” arrow went dark. The “up” arrow was still lit, but we all got on. I would have stayed back, suspecting it was en route to the lower ground floor, but I didn’t want to offend the woman by doubting her thesis with my actions. (Or was I simply insecure, unsure the lift would stop at the ground floor again on its way back up? The cognitive dissonance was pretty strong.)
We both got off at the third floor, and I left her energetically explaining something to a saleswoman. I went on my way, still a little dazed.
Even after leaving Jenners, I couldn’t quite shake the underlying doubt. Had I been using lifts wrong all this time? I mentioned it to my father, who provided the clinching evidence. Most lifts have only one button at the extreme ends of their runs. If you’re on the bottom floor of a building, the only lift control instruction you can give is up, please. If the lady was right, then you could never summon the lift to the ground floor, because you could never give it the instruction to go down.
I should be convinced. I should be sure. But last night, in the middle of the night, I woke up certain that I lived in a world where lifts were like cars, and we were all doing it wrong.