AN ESSAY IN AWE OF THE ESCALATOR
art by Ryan P. Kennedy
Let’s marvel at the eight-ton tangle of belts and drive gears. What mind first imagined this asymmetrical metal structure? In what deep industrial sweatshop are forged the materials for its sensational enterprise? The American inventor Charles Seeberger is considered the father of the modern escalator. Seeberger (a Virgo) liberally cribbed from earlier inventors. His design was purchased by the Otis Elevator Company in 1910 and manufactured throughout the world since then.
The escalator was invented for one practical reason: Marshal many people from one spot to another as steadily as possible. And thanks mostly to the public’s fierce hatred of staircases it today remains a popular fixture in malls and ballparks. But the escalator has since transcended its original purpose. It cannot be stressed enough that escalators are dangerous machines. Despite this, people trust escalators. That’s what makes them powerful social tools and worthy of serious consideration.
A HISTORY OF PERIL
Escalators woo passengers by offering them an effortless ascent to the floor above them or perhaps a tranquil descent to the floor below. People love them. And apparently escalators love people and their soft flesh. Each year approximately 11,000 people become escalator meat, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that a quarter of them are children. Nearly 35,000 escalators lurk in thoroughfares across the United States. Many of them dwelling in shopping malls and department stores encumbered by heavy foot traffic. Thus, it is common for malls to ask its patrons to avoid wearing loose clothing, mostly to prevent shoppers from being pulled under the escalator’s landing platform, but also because it’s easier to mop their gooey remains out of its inner workings.
The Washington Post reported in 1998 that “intoxicated riders are more likely to fall or sit down on steps. Other riders horse around and can trip and fall; and some adults who ride with children don't hold on to their hands.” The suggestion here is that escalators strike when their prey is at their most venerable, like when people stick their fingers in the moving gears or squat on the steps, exhausted from feverishly shopping. The advert-crowded Washington Post knows who among their target readership might have their buying power squandered by a purse- or ankle-hungry escalator. It obviously wants to keep its readers alive and able. Though malls are the most likely feeding troughs for escalators, other danger zones do exist.
West Virginian Floyd Shuler, 61, tried to sue an airline in 2004 after he took an embarrassing spill on an escalator, instantly putting his life and favorite limbs in jeopardy. Somehow escaping the metallic jaws of death, Shuler threw a hissy fit over the fact that the airline allowed him to get drunk on the flight then tried to feed him to their escalator once he deplaned. Shuler backed out of the lawsuit partly because it was unwinnable but mostly because the real victory here was Shuler’s continued ownership of his limbs. Another victor in the battle of man versus machine was Jeffrey Roth, a five-year-old boy whose hand was devoured by an escalator in a Boston-area department store in 1967. Doctors were able to reattach the hand at a nearby hospital. Others, however, have not been as fortunate.
A 1964 escalator accident at a Baltimore baseball game injured 68 people, most of them children on a field trip. One teacher told the Lewiston Morning Tribune, “People just kept getting chewed up by the steps.” One girl died. A judge later absolved the stadium owners of any criminal negligence. The law, however, does not always side with machinery. A 1996 lawsuit was decided in favor of four-year-old Shareif Hall, whose foot was plucked by a Philadelphia escalator. A judge found $7.4 million to be a fair market price for the youngster’s foot.
Unknown whether it’s out of love or fiscal desperation, parents are constantly suing escalators for munching on their children’s toes and fingers. Knowing that a typical escalator could wolf down the 90-lb. Mary-Kate Olsen in less than 30 seconds and dispatch a hearty 250-lb. Drew Carey in less than two minutes, it is a poor parent who allows a child to frolic on something notorious for its steady diet of human. Especially when it is known that even the most unusually serene escalator can willingly seek out chunkier morsels.
Peacefully coiled for eight years within a Denver baseball stadium, a three-story escalator roused its hankering in 2003 and famously embarked on a limb-munching spree. In its warpath were 32 baseball fans. One of the escalator’s targets was Angela Morrow, a teenager who described her attacker as “a giant meat grinder.” In one bold gesture, a New York City escalator, reaching for record-book mayhem, chomped down on 71 children at a movie theater in 2005.
The escalator operates beyond its practical use of marshaling people from one spot to another. It is a machine that performs operations it was not programmed to execute. It is a machine that disobeys. In the words of escalator survivor Angela Morrow, “It was biting you like it was alive.” It is probably better not to ask why escalators deplume us of our limbs and faculties. To better understand the meaning of its defiance, we shall look at the effects escalator rebellion has on society. We might then be able to consider the escalator a sentient machine. We shall thusly explore in the next two sections the unforeseen and profound effects escalators violently impose on our lives without our consent.
Crime stories abound in newspapers and news programs every October of vulnerable children gobbling poisoned candy or caramel apples brimming with razor blades. The amount of national attention given to envenomed treats is large and police departments issue stern warnings to parents of innocent trick-or-treaters. There has been, however, only one documented case of poisoned goodies. Compare that to the escalator bedlam mentioned above. In one swift minute in 2005 a New York escalator throttled 7,000% more children than did all the poisoned Halloween candy combined.
Roofie-wielding rapists and road rage threats are also dangers overestimated and perpetuated by news outlets and police statements. But there is a reason why those near-fictional fears are all amplified over the real threat of getting mutilated by an escalator. It simply doesn’t suit our consumerism lifestyle. Escalators are part of our shopping and tourist experiences. They allow us to reach our destinations full of energy. Particularly in the mall, where escalators ensure that shoppers conserve their energy for navigating the sprawling sales floors. If shoppers, in fear of the escalator, had to huff and puff their way up several flights of stairs to reach the retailers, they would be exhausted and without the moxie necessary for impulse purchases and bankrupt of the strength needed for lugging bulky shopping bags long distances. To report the ominous peril of the escalator is to risk a sharp plummet in profits of advertisers and potential advertisers. Pointing out these dangers would rob people of what makes them happy: The freedom to shop and buy. And this freedom is what makes them happy Americans. Despite this, there are still those who promote awareness of escalator dangers.
In a bid to keep our citizens from ending up on the lunch menu of their local escalators, America celebrates its 18th annual Escalator Safety Awareness Week this November. The Elevator-Escalator Safety Foundation, whose mission is “to educate the public on the safe and proper use of elevators, escalators, and moving walks through informational programs,” is pushing for national recognition of not sticking your fingers and other appendages in the treacherous gears of an escalator. But as a species we are attracted to the idea of automated doom. Fascination with mass murder achieved by mechanical means goes back to the death camps of World War Two and can be seen today in the apocalypse fantasies peddled by cable news and Hollywood. For years, action fans have been thrilled by damsels or heroes bound tightly to conveyer belts with lethal destinations. There is something equally thrilling about a cavalcade of passengers progressing steadily toward an escalator’s gnarly maw.
The escalator ride itself is titillating. It strips the rider of all control and ushers him or her closer to a grisly end or, as mentioned above, an opulent sales floor. But people trust the escalator. It is their shepherd. This faith in the escalator is what makes us vulnerable to its macabre effects.
One the goriest escalator accidents on record is the 1987 fire at the King’s Cross St. Pancras stop in London’s subway system. A flash fire burst through the station during evening rush hour. A wooden escalator designed to carry commuters to a higher level carried them instead into an inferno. Several survivors said “a sheet of flame” engulfed the escalator. Thirty-two commuters were ushered steadily to their doom by the fiery lift. The underground station, with black smoke billowing and bodies stacking high, could only be described as apocalyptic.
And the escalator is a metaphor for the Christian apocalypse. Passengers’ heads are packed with the gruesome images of automated murder and corpse-fed bonfires but, given a fervent faith in the escalator itself, the passenger will coast onto the Promised Land, the land of milk and discounts.
INSTRUMENT OF SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION
Compared to the physical demands of staircase use, escalators are really great, but, as persistently cited above, they are likely to mutilate passengers and their limbs the second they set foot on the machine’s roaring teeth of death. And when enough passengers are bereft of limb the escalator begins to have a powerful effect on the social world. This power to transform society is thanks in part to the escalator’s refusal to discriminate. The escalator, in other words, preys on everybody, including the elite. Amputee rights and acceptance of transsexual lifestyles can emerge from the fringes of society to its forefront as a result of ravenous escalators. Only after select limbs have been extracted from our nation’s most powerful can social change be effected.
Castration can be a boon for the individual male and the society in which he functions. In this way, the escalator represents an instrument of social transformation. The physical body regulates exotic pleasure for males. In other words, a man cannot muster enthusiasm for hanky-panky after his body is spent and his testicles sapped. However, obliterate the physical limitations and this man is capable of reaching new summits of arousal and erotic pleasure. He is able to go beyond physical pleasures. It is fair to say that to castrate a man is to unfetter his sexual imagination from the tyranny of his body. Enter the escalator. Exit the gonads. Now tamed by its menacing gears, the man, with spotless mind and shredded nards, can transcend the conditions of a pitiful, instant-gratification life.
Every elevator ride is an opportunity for the individual to become a eunuch. On a much greater scale, though, the introduction of escalators into a society can reduce its patriarchy to microdust. The escalator itself has the power to topple the male dominator hierarchy. The persistent global bloodbath brought to us by masculinity and the oppression of its opposite can find its conclusion in the thunderous escalator. (Only a matter of time before rumors begin to circulate about emerging escalator-worshipping cults, spearheaded by fanatical feminists and transsexual terrorists.)
Lurking in America’s great mall systems and ballparks is the bloodthirsty escalator, laying in wait for limbs and genitals. What stands between a generation of entitled frat brothers and a generation of egalitarianism is the short distance between the passenger’s limb or groin and the sawtooth edge of the escalator stair. The escalator, for all its practical use and disclosures about society, is most importantly a knife poised at the heart of patriarchy.
“Boy’s Hand Is Restored After Escalator Accident.” Lewiston Evening Journal. 19 Dec. 1967.
“Girl Killed In Escalator Jam.” The Montreal Gazette. 4 May 1964.
“No Negligence Seen In Mishap At Baltimore.” St. Petersburg Times. 12 Sept. 1964.
McCann, Michael and Norman Zaleski. ”Deaths And Injuries Involving Elevators And Escalators.” The Center To Protect Workers’ Rights. July 2006.
“Probers Try To Determine Escalator Accident Cause.” Lewiston Morning Tribune. 4 May 1964.
Raines, Howell. “32 Are Killed In Fire London Subway; 80 Reported Injured.” The New York Times. 19 Nov. 1987.
Reid, Alice. “Escalator Troubles Rooted In Metro’s Original Design.” Washington Post. 5 Dec. 1998.
“Several Injured In St. Louis Venue Escalator Accident.” AOL Sporting News. 9 Oct. 2009.
Zullo, Robert. “Tainted-Candy Myth Continues to Haunt Halloween Festivities.” Houma Today. 30 Oct. 2007.