Escalation

Getting from point A to point B in Beijing, assuming point A and B aren’t right next to each other, is one of the daily adventures that makes life here so interesting. Aside from a certain hyper-linear approach to walking that can make the most casual stroll an exercise in ducking and weaving and the well-documented board-first/exit second approach to subways and elevators, there is also the near mystical ability of Chinese people to suddenly stop at choke points such as doorways. Hilarity ensues.

Nowhere is this tendency more infuriating than at the tops and bottoms of escalators. I work in an office tower atop a glitzy supermall awash in escalators. My commute requires no less than three escalator rides from the subway station to the lift lobby. Without fail someone will be standing smack at the top of one of those escalators wondering whether to get breakfast from Dairy Queen or Bread Talk while angry people pile up behind. This is far more obnoxious than the local tendency to stand two-abreast and leave no lane for walking on the elevator. That’s obstructive but at least it’s not dangerous.

I am most likely to be riding escalators when I am on my way to work or back home from work. Neither is a time when I am blessed with surplus patience, and the sight of a teenage couple parked on the elevator landing wondering which retail paradise or food-service outlet to avail themselves of makes me want to lower my shoulder and blow through them like Ronnie Lott.

At this point I must digress and explain something of the phenomenon that was Ronnie Lott. If you didn’t grow up in San Francisco in the 1980s or are not huge American football fan, you probably have no idea who Ronnie Lott is. That’s a shame, because Ronnie was one of the most exciting professional athletes ever to grace a television near you. Ronnie was a free safety for the San Francisco Forty-Niners back when theĀ  Niners were the most feared American football team in the league. Ronnie played three different positions well, but he made his career as a free safety. For those who don’t understand American football, I’ll explain. One of the ways you can advance the ball in football is by making a forward pass, literally throwing the ball down the field where, hopefully, someone on the same team will catch it.

This can be surprisingly difficult, not least because there are usually several extremely large and freakishly fast defenders roaming around the “backfield” (the area where the ball is likely to be caught) waiting to dispense pain upon anyone who dares to try to catch a lofted ball. Free safeties are one of those defenders, and the best of them have an uncanny ability to tell how a play will unfold and to be in the right place to dispense that pain. For more than a decade, Ronnie Lott was the NFL’s chief backfield pain dispenser.

Although smart, tough and fast, much of Ronnie’s effectiveness was psychological. A receiver –the guy trying to catch the ball– would be streaking down the field when a pass would head his way. Man, he was open and it was a perfect throw. He could smell the goal line already. He’d reach out his arms to pull in the pass, but just as his fingertips were brushing the pigskin BLAM! All 203 pounds of Ronnie would come blazing out of nowhere and lay into the poor schmoe’s unprotected, stretched-out ribs at a full-on sprint. Some dudes turned 360 degree somersaults in the air on taking hits like that from Ronnie. The football would go bouncing off down the field and a bunch of guys with polo shirts and black bags would run onto the field to administer smelling salts and ask the dazed receiver what day of the week it was.

That’s when the psychological effect would take over. Ronnie would terrorize the backfield for a while, and then receivers would start to terrorize themselves. A receiver would be streaking down the field again, another perfect looking pass would float his way and, just as he was reaching for it, you would see the thought float through his head: Oh shit! Where’s Ronnie? He’d take his eye off the ball for a split second to find out where Ronnie was and miss the catch. And, as often as not, Ronnie was right there anyway, KAPOW! Ecstasy.

That’s the effect I want to have on people who stop at the tops or bottoms of escalators. I want to lower my shoulder and set a few painful examples. I want the teenage guy and his spindly girlfriend blocking the landing to think, “Dairy Queen or Bread Talk? Oh shit! Where’s Will?” KABLAM! Only my natural restraint and lack of shoulder pads keeps me from living this fantasy. But someday that restraint will break.

I used to also be much more annoyed by the behavior of Beijingers getting onto escalators as well as off of them. I don’t break stride when I walk onto an escalator and I expect other people to behave the same way. It’s easy enough to shift a few inches backward or forward if you feel the step splitting beneath your feet. Nevertheless, I see a lot of people here stopping at the foot of escalators and carefully and deliberately stepping onto them. But after careful observation I’ve noticed a number of western tourists doing the same thing, so it’s not just a Chinese thing. And, in fairness to the Chinese, the only person I’ve ever seen who utterly failed to manage an escalator was an Australian woman at the airport who appeared to have had a few too many mini-bottles of Johnnie Walker on her flight up from Sydney. She simply toppled over backward and would have been on her way to Beijing United with a “V” shaped groove across the back of her skull had she not fortunately landed on a large suitcase. It took a frantic effort by me and one of her friends to get her upright before we reached the landing. Perhaps the cautious, Chinese approach is sensible. Of course, escalators also have a somewhat shorter tradition here than they do in the west. An article in The Economist (subscription) from last December pointed out that even in the west…

…[Escalators] were initially regarded as terrifying: when Harrods, a London department store, introduced its first escalator in 1898, smelling salts and brandy were provided to revive customers overcome by the experience.

So I could understand when I once had to watch an attendant at the Blue Zoo, a Beijing aquarium, painstakingly explain the turnstile and escalators to a bunch of provincial tourists and then talk them through one at a time. After all, everybody has a first time. But what I can forgive in an elderly man from a semi-rural part of Anhui and what I can forgive in Beijing’s young, urban sophisticates are different. If you have an iPod, you should know better than to stop at the end of the escalator. Better keep your eyes open, because I’m out there somewhere, roaming the backfield of Oriental Plaza. CRUNCH!

Note: In writing this post I had to use a proxy server to access the Pro Football Hall of Fame website in the USA. Come on, Nanny; the BBC, Wikipedia and Blogspot I can understand. But the Hall of Fame? That’s just wrong.

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