One of the fine things about moving to a new city is that you always encounter something you’ve never seen before. In Shanghai I experienced the thriving majesty of the Huangpu river, the early-morning army of huishou men and women that prowl the city with bells made of pot lids, the glittering towers of Pudong (better from a distance), and the shady intimacy of the French Concession. Less charmingly, I also experienced the most annoying elevator ever made.

I’ve been riding elevators for many years and I like to claim a fair mastery of their use. I am not mystified by their operation, don’t think they are magic, and am pretty sure that I am not being teleported when I use one. When an elevator door closes on a car packed with people and opens to emptiness, I don’t assume the passengers have been disintegrated or dumped into a pool of crocodiles (although from time to time I have wished for that). Rather, I assume they have debarked conveniently upon the floors of their choosing. Yep, elevators and I are old and trusted friends.

Until now. In Shanghai I stumbled upon a type of elevator I had never seen before. An elevator that rewrites fundamentals of how one summons and uses an elevator. An elevator that shifts not only people, but paradigms of elevator operation.

It also lives in my apartment building and annoys me no end.

The difference is deceptively simple. Instead of a call button on the outside and an array of floor selection buttons on the inside, our elevator has a single calculator-style keypad on the outside. The keypad serves two elevator shafts. To summon an elevator one presses the button or buttons for the desired floor. I live on the seventh floor, so I press “7″. If I lived on the 19th floor (I can but dream) I would press “1″ then “9″. The LCD panel acknowledges my input and flashes an arrow to show which shaft I should wait by. If I enter an invalid floor number like 968 (don’t think I haven’t tried), I get a demure “?” in return.

When the elevator arrives, an LED panel inside the inner door frame shows which floors the car will be stopping so you can verify that you have in fact waited by the correct shaft as directed.

Simple, no?

No. This is a perfect example of taking an elegant, robust, time-tested system and over-engineering it into finicky obnoxiousness. Thank you, Schindler Elevator Corp, for gifting this upon the world.

First of all, no elevator should need an A4-sized plaque of directions explaining how to use it, but that’s what our elevator has. Apparently it confuses enough old people and children that the instructions were necessary. Perhaps people were just piling up in the lobby. I can explain normal elevator usage in four bullet points, just in case I happen to run into a Shipibo tribal elder in the lobby of a building:

  1. Press the call button
  2. When the elevator arrives, step inside
  3. Press the button for the desired floor
  4. When you arrive at the desired floor, as indicated by the display, get out

But this elevator needs illustrations and arrows to make clear its method of operation.

Imagethief presumes the select-floor-first method of elevator operation is supposed to speed things up. If everyone waiting for an elevator has selected a floor already, a mighty electronic brain somewhere in the bowels of the building can super-compute an elevator routing solution of maximum efficiency. But our buildings supercomputing brain must have blown a tube because our elevators take forever to show up. I think, freed from the simple linear order of normal elevator operation, the brain gets hung up on some kind of neurosis. Sure I could get the kids in the lobby now, but that auntie on twelve is only going two floors…What do I do? Confronted with this strategic calculation, it elects to punt. It’s just one more example of how much a single bad algorithm can fuck up your day.

And there are some other disadvantages to the system.

First, let’s say you’re running for a normal elevator. As long as you make it through the door, you’re home free. You can press the button for your desired floor at leisure. You can even set down your groceries to do it. But with our elevator that doesn’t work. You’ve got to get your floor entered before you step on, which means speedy key work before the doors close, or jamming a hand in to open the doors and then entering the floor outside while everyone else waits. Trust me, when you’re all flustered from your run and have ten pounds of cat litter hanging from one wrist and thirty eggs from the other, a fast floor-entry isn’t as easy as it seems.

This situation is aggravated if there are several people scrambling because each person has to enter his or her floor outside as well. Unlike a traditional elevator where as many people can press buttons as can simultaneously get their grubby little fingers near the panel, this system is strictly one-at-a-time. We have more than twenty floors, so at peak period this can take a while. Queue up.

Of course, when you’re in a hurry you sometimes sacrifice some accuracy. Thus when going down I have entered “11″ or “12″ instead of “1″ on a couple of occasions. Tough luck. I’m committed. And if you step inside the car before you notice, there is no bailout option. You can’t press the button for the next floor along and make a graceful exit. It’s the round-trip.

Furthermore, I have been conditioned for the past 39 years to press a floor button after I get on the elevator. I just can’t shake this habit. After I step into my building’s elevator I have to suppress the desire to jam my index finger into the bare, stainless steel repeatedly. People in my building already think I am wierd enough and anything more is likely to scare them. I suppose I could stab the “close door” button, but I have already conditioned myself to avoid that because nothing annoys me more than passengers who want to “drive” the elevator, and spend their time working the “open door” and “close door” buttons repeatedly.

There is also a social aspect to the process as well. We all get in; we all enter our floors; and we all enjoy the cameraderie of the elevator. Everybody knows who is going where. None of this cryptic skulking by the panel outside.

This is all just one more sign that I am getting old and increasingly reject newfangled “conveniences” that disrupt my entrenched habits. You say “iPod”. I say radioactive brain-scrambler. So be it. I welcome crankiness, and you can expect more of it as I confront my inevitable 40th birthday and propulsion into actual adulthood (I’ve been procrastinating it successfully so far).

In that spirit I’d like to go beyond criticizing my apartment’s elevators and say that I reject the idea of electronic controls for elevators completely. I’ve had it with blinking lights and fabulous electro-conductive buttons with ethereal, blue lighting like the elevators at my office (they light up for nothing; don’t even look at the button for a floor you don’t want to stop on). I want my elevators controlled by a person. And not one of those sullen girls who operate the elevators in old apartment buildings in Beijing. They can’t be bothered to look up from their books, and they knock off at midnight forcing you to walk down ungodly flights of stairs on your way home from late-night beer-swilling sessions with Chinese friends. I want no part of that. I want my elevator operated by a height-impaired man named “Rudy” who wears a velvet waistcoat and a fez and who salutes when I enter the car. This is China; shouldn’t be too hard to arrange.

And as long as I am complaining, what is it with bathroom icons in bars? I’ve been seeing a lot of “pipes” and “high-heeled shoes” to indicate men’s and ladies’ rooms these days. This is totally unsatisfactory. What are you supposed to do if you’re a pipe-smoking woman? Or a drag queen in heels? What about if you are pipe-smoking drag queen? You might simply give up in confused frustration and take a leak in the hallway. I don’t know about you, but stumbling across a pipe-smoking drag queen taking a leak in the hallway throws me off my game. And I grew up in San Francisco’s Castro district in the seventies. Let’s not encourage it in Xintiandi.

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