I HAVE always had an irrational fear of elevators -- irrational if you DON'T mind being trapped in a cramped gunmetal-gray tomb with a dozen nervous strangers, one of whom is no doubt chirping: "Looks like a hot one today."
My main fear is that the cable will snap and the elevator will plummet 50 floors to the basement, where rescue teams will find my crumpled body amid the charred rubble, forefinger still pressed against the "Emergency Stop" button.
Or I worry about being trapped between floors for hours with an engaging appliance salesman named Manny, the two of us debating endlessly whether it was the automatic ice maker or defroster that truly revolutionized the home refrigeration industry.
This is why the first thing I look for upon stepping in an elevator is the inspection certificate.
What I want to see, in big, bold letters, is: "ELEVATOR INSPECTED THIS VERY MORNING AND FOUND TO BE IN A-1, TIP-TOP SHAPE. Signed: Dr. John N. Mendenhall, Chairman of Jet Propulsion Studies, National Aeronautics and Space Administration."
Instead, what I usually see is an inspection certificate that looks like it's been there since World War II, signed by someone named "Bud."
Now for all I know, "Bud" routinely shows up for work with a four-day growth of beard, rheumy eyes and a pint of Jack Daniel's in his hip pocket.
But I can't worry about that. All I can hope for is that he examined the elevator through his boozy haze and spotted that gaping five-inch gash in the cable and alerted the proper building authorities.
And hopefully those authorities, upon receiving a memo from "Bud" that said "Elevator 3 dangling by a thread; don't blame me if she drops any second!" took care of the problem.
Certainly, I'm not the only one gripped by raging paranoia in elevators, as evidenced by the way people behave in them.
Most people tend to stare down at their shoes or up at the floor indicator light for long stretches at a time, which would be considered bizarre enough to warrant medication anywhere else.
If there is conversation in an elevator, it is generally strained and awkward. I know one fellow who pipes up "Guess this isn't the express!" each time he rides an elevator that stops at a few floors.
That's all he ever says: "Guess this isn't the express!" Understandably, there are people in his building who ride the elevators with ax handles, just waiting for this guy to say "Guess this isn't the express!" one more time so they can whack him over the head.
Very often, the conversation in an elevator turns to the weather. Which is only normal, I guess. Trapped in a tiny compartment the size of a broom closet with six accountants, for example, one's thoughts would naturally turn to freedom and what it's like "outside."
I myself am reluctant to make conversation in an elevator, preferring to save my observations for that moment when the elevator lurches to a stop, a faulty fuse plunges it into darkness and the air becomes thick with panic.
Then, in between frantically clawing at the elevator doors, sobbing hysterically and praying, we can talk about anything you want.
Instead of conversation, many riders prefer to listen to piped-in "elevator music." Yet it has always seemed to me that more appropriate tunes should be played in elevators, such as "Nearer My God to Thee" and "Lord I'm Comin' Home" and the like.
Instead, what I usually end up listening to is a horrid Muzak version of "Hey, Jude," that would have Paul McCartney holding a gun to his temple if he ever heard it.
Elevators in downtown parking garages are surely the scariest ones to ride in. In most, the telephone has been ripped out by roving bands of street thugs, the inspection certificate is scrawled over with an inspirational message such as "Bon Jovi Rules!!" and glass from a broken bottle of Wild Irish Rose litters the floor.
Often the drunks themselves are passed out in a corner of the elevator, serving as convenient benches for the more adventurous passengers until they (the drunks) awaken wild-eyed and ranting and begin shaking everyone down for money.
It would be wise to have a will drawn up before stepping into one of these deathtraps.
Although I'd say the same thing about an elevator at the Pentagon, come to think of it.