IF EDWARD MORRIS didn't show up to work, and you worked with him, it would impact you in the following way:
(1) You would have to take the stairs.
Okay, so not really a big deal—aside from that gate blocking the staircase on the third floor, which you need a key to open. All tenants have keys, though, so it's kind of whatever. Morris has a key too, but he doesn't need it because he has Marfan Syndrome—extremely long, double-jointed fingers perfect for reaching through gates and popping latches.
Until a couple weeks ago, Morris worked in downtown Portland at the Semler Building, running the last manually operated elevator in the city. Manual elevators were prevalent in Portland, all the way through the 1950s. By 1960, they'd started to go, replaced by push-button ones people could operate themselves. Morris describes his position simply as being "a living anachronism." I spent the day with him in the elevator car, taking tenants up and down, to and from their offices in the building.
Morris feels pretty strongly there should be a plaque in the building's lobby touting the significance of the manual elevator, but for now there's just a Post-it he wrote and taped to the building directory. There's also a Post-it he taped to the wall in the ladies' restroom on the sixth floor after a tenant complained to him about another tenant stealing toilet paper: "Bathroom supplies are for all tenants. Please do not remove them. If you need them that bad, talk to Ed."
I've arranged to shadow him all day, and when I come into the lobby, he's wearing all black—including a black vest and suspenders hanging down by his thighs. A wallet chain hangs out of his pocket. When we sit down to chat, I start to notice the subtler things about his appearance, like how long his fingers are. They're so long that I do a double take, initially thinking he has six fingers on each hand. And all his piercing holes—five in each ear, two in the nose, and one in the tongue that I can't see. Under his clothing he apparently also has a "shit-load of tattoos," including one that says "Bastards of the Universe"—the name of a social group he and his friends created in college, and a snake on his arm.
"That one I gave myself," he explains, "using nothing but a slot car motor and a pen. I bled like a stuck pig."
Before I got there at 9 am, he'd already given two tarot readings to himself and rides to about a half-dozen tenants. I jump into the elevator and can immediately tell he relishes the formality of his job: He makes a point to announce the number of whatever floor the elevator is arriving on, as well as when somebody is getting on or off the elevator, not unlike the caller at a debutante ball. He also gets a kick out of the small-talky interactions he has with people during their rides. He says he likes the contact habit, putting that little spin on someone else's day.
Somebody asks him how his day is going. "It's goin'. Don't know when, where, why, or how but it's definitely goin'."
During slow points, Morris and I sit down in the lobby or smoke cigarettes outside, and he tells me about things like his mother's Multiple Sclerosis; his father's brain tumor; a particularly worthwhile acid trip ("I went to a Rocky Horror party August of '91 and popped a hit of four-way window-pane acid and rode for 12 hours straight. It was the most cleansing spiritual thing that had ever happened to me and I'll preach about it 'til I turn blue in the face."); the $12,000 he owes in back child support; and some of his past jobs, including a gig unloading Slinky dogs from trucks the year the movie Toy Story came out.
For lunch, he usually just walks to the 7-Eleven down the block and gets a hoagie or something.
A buzzer buzzes. Somebody needs a ride down to the lobby. He tells me that buzzer is like a meditation bell to him.
"In monasteries, monks come around with a bell to remind you to be in the present moment. That's what that elevator is to me. Can't get too attached to anything. It's the perfect job for somebody with a bunch of things going on at once."
It quickly becomes apparent that people tend to let their guards down when they're in the elevator with Morris. This morning, the girl from the second floor told Morris that she got "distracted" while visiting the cute real estate guy on four, with a wink. At lunchtime, we gave a ride down to the lobby to a big guy from the third floor, and I remarked that he seemed nice. "Yeah, I thought so too, until he told me last week how he likes to hit his girlfriend," Morris deadpans.
We ride out the afternoon and I start to see some of the same faces I saw in the morning. Except it's a little strange for me, because now I know things about them.
When a girl on her cell phone walks into the lobby, Morris and I both jump up and go to the elevator. But she walks right past us and takes the stairs. Morris says "deee-nied" in a deep, joking voice. "Talk to the elevator operator not the phone!" he says after she is out of earshot. "Chew on that a little while. That is anachronism city!"
Two days passed after my day with Morris, and then I received this text message: "It's Ed from the Semler. Just got fired. Need to talk ASAP."
We met up a few days later at Three Friends Coffeehouse in Southeast, where Morris and a couple of his friends regularly participate in the poetry open mic that's held there every Monday. Turns out, Morris is a science-fiction writer, and quite an acclaimed one, at that. He's been on panels at both Wordstock and the Oregon Science Fiction Convention, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. He shows up in a trench coat, with rings in every one of his piercing holes. He's carrying a walking stick made of blackthorn wood that he says was gifted to him by Olympia, Washington-based horror writer/Iditarod racer Laird Barron.
"The weather's gonna change soon," Morris says. "My whole body feels like a marionette crumbling apart."
We get to talking about his firing, which he's pretty bummed about. But he's always been able to find work and isn't too worried. He'd only been working the elevator gig for five months, but said it was the perfect writer job. He'll miss his meditation bell, and the distinction of being the last of his kind—carrying the torch for all the elevator operators of Portland's past. He says the reason he was fired had something to do with him taking the elevator to the fourth floor after hours to hang out with a tenant and not clearing it with the building's owner, Jeffrey Brady, first. Brady wouldn't comment on this incident, but did complain that Morris "slammed that door one too many times."
"If you don't pay attention to it, you could really hurt somebody. You could cut somebody's arm off, or kill somebody too with that elevator if you don't pay attention."
Maybe Morris can include that tidbit in a short story he's working on, that he read to me over lunch. It's about a zombie elevator operator who doesn't realize he's died and doesn't understand that the building's tenants are long gone and won't be coming back to work, won't be riding the elevator anymore. The lonely elevator operator pleads with himself, the universe, the situation: "They'll all be back. They have to come back. They will come back."
I go over to the Semler a few days after Morris was fired, and find a construction guy from the building is all spiffed up—wearing a tan-colored vest and pressed slacks. He's filling in until they hire someone else for the gig. I've got some business to attend to up on the sixth floor.
"Hey, how's it goin'?" I ask him. "It's goin'," he says. He takes me up to my floor. I get off the elevator.
I don't remember anything else about him.