Always Close the Bar: lessons learned in an elevator
"It's last call. Did we decide what we're doing?" I yelled to my brother, Jeff, over the jukebox playing "My Love.”
"Yeah, let's get the fuck out of here. I’m not sitting on that train with all of these drunk fucks. Greg, are you in or are you staying?"
"And skip drunk pizza? Nah, man. I'm getting one last beer, then heading to Pete's.” Greg made his way back through the dimly-lit, crowded bar to get one last beer.
Working late on Fridays usually means I will be meeting my friends in the city. They will, more than likely, already be drunk, and we will probably end up closing the bar. The bars in Philadelphia let out at 2:00am, and most patrons who stay until the bars close take their time making their way back to the train platform because rare is the occurrence that they can make it there it time for the early train, and the early train always leaves on time.
These are the options: 1) do not close the bar, do not stop to eat food we lovingly refer to as "drunk pizza", and catch the 2:08 train home to be in bed before 3:00am, or 2) Close the bar, get drunk pizza, take the next train at 2:53am with everyone else who has spent the past four or more hours drinking their weight in beer, and eventually climb into bed at close to four in the morning. I'm a single mom in my thirties who enjoys sleep more than most activities, as it's on my Top 10 Favorite Things To-Do list. A 4:00 am bedtime has never appealed to me.
In addition to wanting to get into bed at a slightly earlier time, avoiding the over-crowded train station and subsequent train ride back is always an effective motivator. At 2:30am, you can count on the 8th and Market platform being full of twenty to thirty year-olds who are more than likely drunk, occasionally looking for a place to relieve their bladders, and sometimes even emptying the contents of their stomachs. This makes my list of Top 10 Least Favorite Things.
So, a group of us headed out, leaving Greg behind, and made our way to the PATCO station, giving ourselves very little time to dilly-dally. We were, more or less, power-walking the five blocks down Market Street. When we reached the corner of 8th and Market, we were on the wrong side of the road, the light was red for us, and we had zero minutes left to spare. We needed to get downstairs fast.
On the corner, opposite of the train station steps that take you to the underground platform, is an elevator, sparingly maintained by PATCO. It is only sometimes running, sometimes a toilet for the homeless or drunk, and sometimes smells of Clorox bleach, which we all know is actually the smell of semen; overall, it looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since Betsy Ross stitched that last star on her flag.
There was only slight hesitation in our decision to get into the elevator—once we had forfeited drunk pizza, there was no way we were going to miss this train. We piled in.
“Watch out for the bum pee.” Scott laughed it off so the girls wouldn’t get too upset over the fact that there was someone else’s urine in the elevator car with us.
Anna, Scott’s girlfriend, who could win the lottery while eating dinner with Mickey Mouse in Disney World and still have something to complain about, not-surprisingly responded with, “Are you fucking kidding me? Jesus fucking Christ, that’s disgusting. Scott, don’t walk in it!”
I rolled my eyes in Erin and Jeff’s direction, shrugged and touched the button to take us down. The elevator car jumped, started its descent, and within seconds, stopped abruptly.
I turned around so that the five of us were facing one another. Everyone’s eyes went wide. I started to giggle nervously. The temperature felt as if it had immediately risen. The air became thick and dense, and for a minute, no one said anything.
Then, everyone started talking at the same time:
“What the fuck just happened?”
“Robin, press the button again.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Ugh, I don’t like this. I can’t breathe.” This last one was Erin, and was one of the only things she said for the rest of the night. Tears sprung into her eyes, and she started breathing heavily. She slid her back down the cool steel wall, sat on her heels and put her head between her knees.
We pressed the “Call Help” button. I had never pressed the “Call Help” button on purpose before. No response. We waited a full minute or two before calling 911. I had never called 911 on purpose before either.
Jeff put the call on speaker phone:
“911. What is your emergency?”
“Um… We’re stuck in an elevator”
“Is this an emergency? Is anyone hurt?”
“Well, we’re stuck and would like to be not stuck. No, no one is hurt, but my girlfriend is about to have a panic attack.”
“What is your location?”
“We’re at the corner of 8th and Market Streets.”
“What building are you in?”
“Not in a building. Literally, on the corner of 8th and Market. The PATCO elevator.”
“So, what building are you in, then?”
“We’re not in a building. The elevator is on the street. At the corner of 8th and Market.” I could hear my brother’s frustration rising in his voice.
“There’s an elevator on the street? At 8th and Market? Are you sure you’re not in a building?”
“Jesus Christ, yes! On the street. 8th and Market. We’re not in a fucking building.”
“Sir, you don’t have to yell at me. I’m only trying to help. We’re sending someone out now.”
At that point, less than ten minutes had passed, though you could have told me an hour and I would have believed you. Everyone was already sweating. The night had been relatively warm and muggy, but with five bodies in a 7’x5’ space and everyone avoiding the toilet area, we had managed to raise the temperature to what felt like ninety.
The men, being men, decided to take charge. Each grabbed onto a door and pulled in opposite directions; with some resistance, the doors eventually opened about three inches, and it was just enough to give us some much-needed fresh air. Erin stood up, feeling relieved by the new air.
We could see ankles and feet of passersby, and one or two stopped to ask if we needed them to get us help. We started to make jokes about living there forever, never being rescued, and how we would have to make the puddle of urine bigger if whomever they were sending couldn’t get us out in a timely fashion.
Anna would respond to each comment with “That isn’t funny at all,” or “this isn’t something to joke about.”
After ten more minutes and the third sound of sirens passing our little elevator car, someone from the ambulance company finally came to our doorstep. A man with tanned skin and bright blue eyes peered in through the small opening between the doors.
"Is anyone in need of immediate medical attention?”
“No. We would just really like to get out,” Jeff responded.
“You’ll have to wait for that. The Fire Department is on its way. What did you guys do?”
"What do you mean? We were trying to make the 2:08 train.”
“Were you jumping around? This elevator never gets stuck; you guys must have been rough-housing in there.”
“Um... No, we didn’t do anything like that. We literally just pressed the button and it stopped moving.”
“Whatever you say. The Fire Department just pulled up. Someone’ll be right over.”
I turned to Jeff, “Did we just get accused of breaking the elevator and that’s why we’re stuck here?”
“We sure did.”
“Hey guys. Is everyone alright in there? My name’s Shawn. We’re sending someone downstairs to get the PATCO security guard. He has a key that’ll unlock the car from the jam and send it down to the platform. You guys should be out in a few minutes.” Shawn the Fireman was kneeling down outside of the door opening, peering in on us.
“Aw, that would be awesome. It’s really hot in here,” Scott said.
“Yeah, well, if you guys hadn’t been fooling around, it wouldn’t have gotten stuck.”
“Seriously? We weren’t fooling around. We didn’t do anything.”
“This elevator doesn’t get stuck on its own. You must have done something.”
“You’re joking, right?” Now Scott was getting worked up.
“Here comes the magic key. You guys sit tight.”
Shawn the Fireman then started talking to the PATCO security guard, who wanted to know how long we’d been there and why no one had notified him to come upstairs sooner. We wanted to know, too. He put the magic key in the keyhole. The doors slammed shut, and Erin started crying again, but our tiny cubicle didn’t budge.
“It didn’t work. We’re going to try again,” someone’s muffled voice said from outside the now-closed doors. Then, “it’s still not working. We’re going to have to figure something else out.”
Jeff, worried about his girlfriend, asked loudly through the doors if we could open the doors back up, to which the men replied, “No.”
Then there was nothing for four whole minutes. We weren’t even sure if anyone was there anymore. We couldn’t hear anything except one another’s anxious sighs.
“Hello?” Scott said, and the rest of us froze, waiting for a response.
“Hello!” Anna snapped.
“We’ll be right there! Just sit still!” Shawn the Fireman’s tone made it obvious that he would much rather have been at the station playing poker and watching Roseanne reruns, or whatever it is that firemen do when they’re not fighting fires, than out on a call to save some asshole kids who were clowning around in an elevator and managed to get it jammed. “Okay, we’re going to have to come in from the top. These ceiling panels are hinged and come apart. We’ll put down a ladder for you to climb out.”
None of us had anything witty to say anymore. Each of us had to use the bathroom, and no one was going to let anyone turn the urine pond into a lake. We had obviously missed our earlier train and, at this point, weren’t sure if we would even make the next train.
Jeff called Greg, who had made the better choice by not attempting to be somewhat responsible, “Hey man, are you at Pete’s? Can you bring us a whole pie? Yeah, we’ll be here when you get here. No really, we didn’t make the train. Just come to where all the firemen and EMTs are. We’ll be waiting. Yeah, seriously. I promise we’ll be here.”
We could hear people above us now, though we couldn’t make out what anyone was saying; they had stopped talking to us. It was obvious that they had already decided we were just a bunch of drunken college kids who didn’t know how to behave themselves after a few beers, though all of us were over the average age of a college student. One of us was a business owner, another a mom. In fact, only one of us was actually in college.
We all stood, pressed against the walls, unsure of what exactly was going to happen. The ceiling consisted of six tiles, two by three, one of which started to shake in its place. The fireman told us the tiles were “tongue and groove” and they were made to just lift right out in the event of an emergency, like the one we were having. Jeff and Scott put their hands up in the air, thinking that if it happened to fall in instead of being lifted out, they would be able to catch it so no one would get hurt.
The tile lifted, but only a few inches, not enough for it to come out. “Don’t touch anything. Put your hands down.” Shawn the Fireman’s patience was obviously wearing.
“We just want to make sure it doesn’t hit anyone if it falls,” I tried to be polite.
“It’s not going to fall. It’s going to lift out. It’s just a little stuck. I’m going to go get some tools.”
Now, I was starting to feel sick. It was hot, really hot, and it was hard to breathe the same air in a tiny room with four other people. I wanted to go home or back to the bar. I wanted to be anywhere else. I had been in there for hours, days even. When was I going to see my kid again? When would we eat again? At what point would it be okay to start working on Lake Urine?
Shawn the Fireman came back with what sounded like a hammer. He was working at the tongues and grooves for a few minutes when he looked down and saw Jeff and Scott with their hands up again.
“I told you guys to put your fucking hands down!”
“Hey man, there’s no need to yell and curse at us. We’re stressed enough.” I was still attempting to be polite.
“Well, don’t fucking touch anything and I won’t have to yell.”
“Isn’t your job to keep us calm? Like, this girl is having a panic attack and now you’re cursing at her?” Jeff said. Erin had resumed her crouching position, face in her hands, still crying.
“My job…(grunt) is to get your… (grunt) asses out of… (grunt) this elevator.” And with that last word, the tile came crashing in on us. He had been stomping on it with his heavy-rubber-fireman’s boot. None of us had our arms in the air to catch it anymore. It was heavy. And it was sharp. The tile, which probably weighed about twenty-five pounds, had bounced off of Scott’s face, hit the top of my knee, slid down my shin, and was now leaning on my leg; I was frozen. Scott had a gash on his cheek that was bleeding. Jeff bent down to take the tile off of my foot, and I lifted my pant leg to see a broken shoe and streaks of blood.
When we finally looked up, Shawn wasn’t there, but a different fireman was.
“You guys okay? We’re getting a ladder.”
“Can we just climb out? We really just want to get out. We’re tired and bleeding now, and we just want to get out,” Scott said.
“We can’t let you do that, we have to follow protocol, and if you get hurt climbing out, it’s our asses. Move to the sides, I’m going to lower this ladder in.”
The first ladder they brought over didn’t even reach the floor of the elevator. They went back and grabbed a longer one, and because of the placement of the tiles, the ladder that was long enough was at such an angle that it was just shy of standing upright. The first three feet of the ladder were too close to the wall to actually climb.
A tall, thin fireman, who introduced himself as Brian, came down the ladder. “Hey guys. Sorry about that. Is everyone alright? Holy shit, it’s hot in here. Is that pee? Did one of you pee?”
Jeff seemed glad to not be cursed at by Shawn the Fireman anymore, “It was here when we got in. And yes, it is really hot in here.”
“And you still got in?”
“Just get us out, please.”
“Okay, I’m here to help you, but I can’t actually touch you. You’re going to have to climb the first two rungs of the ladder on the backside, then climb around to the front and go up the rest of the way. There are people at the top but they can’t touch you either.”
“You can’t touch us?” I asked him.
“So if one of us gets hurt, we can’t say it was your fault and sue you, right?” Anna chimed in.
“More or less.”
We sent Erin out first, followed by Anna and then me. It wasn’t easy to climb a ladder leaning backwards, especially now that my knee was swelling from the impact of the tile, and Brian didn’t lie—he didn’t touch us. Neither did the fireman at the top of the ladder, even when I reached my hand out for his so that I wouldn’t fall when stepping off the ladder.
It was incredibly relieving to be standing back on the sidewalk. Even better was when I looked up and saw Greg, standing to the side, with a huge smile on his face, and an open box of pizza in his hands.
“Sweet relief, Robin,” he pulled out a slice and held it out toward me, “You should know better than to leave the bar early.”
When Jeff and Scott got out, they ran over to the wall of the building, right on the street and used it as a makeshift urinal. One of the firemen tried to say something, but Scott hushed him with a quick, “Are you really going to give me a ticket, man?”
After everyone was out, I looked at the clock on my phone. 2:51am. We had been in that elevator car for 45 minutes and were two minutes away from missing the next train. We signed waivers that stated refusal for hospital treatment and everyone ran, while I hobbled, across the street, down the stairs, and into a train car. The train left within the minute. It was over crowded and full of loud, obnoxious people, who smelled of liquor and beer. Someone did vomit, but the five of us smiled at each other and silently vowed, from that moment forward, to always close the bar.
Robin Miller is a mom (whose son thinks she's friends with Batman), photographer, professional student, seamstress, amateur pastry chef, artsy-fart and space nerd. She is still making her way through the coffee she smuggled home from Cuba last year (the cigars are long gone). Robin has ambitions to travel the world but will settle for turning into a crazy cat lady.