Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, March 1, 1999

Elevator voice
gives riders a lift

I'VE experienced some strange feelings while riding in elevators -- fear of falling, claustrophobia, awe, security and boredom -- but it wasn't until I rode in the elevators at the federal building the other day that I felt, well, carnally stirred.

The reason was that I found myself riding in an elevator of the female gender. I know, you weren't aware that elevators had genders. Neither was I. Most elevators I ride seem gender neutral, which is the way I like my mechanical appliances to be.

But the elevators at the Prince Kuhio federal building not only are female, they have a decidedly sexy comportment. When you get in the elevator and push a button, the elevator says in a breathy, female voice: "This elevator is going up." That sentence doesn't effectively capture the lilt or intonation of how the elevator speaks. It sounds sort of like Marilyn Monroe Lite.

To say it is disconcerting for the first-time rider is an understatement. The people who work at the federal building can tell when an elevator newby is on board because they want to say something witty about "the voice." (Yeah, up, babe, take me to the moon!) When a guy boarded on the fifth floor, I didn't have anything witty to say, I just felt like he was intruding on a burgeoning personal relationship between me and my new vertically compulsive conveyance. I felt a little betrayed when the elevator told this interloper "sixth floor, this elevator is going up" in the exact same tone she had used to address me. What a tease.

Talking elevators are not new. They talk because some passengers are blind and it is nice for them to be able to hear what floor the elevator is stopped at. But why the General Services Administration decided to give these elevators a personality, I don't understand.

BUILDING residents got over the novelty of having a sexy talking elevator long ago. Working at the federal building, a friend confided, is something like working amid the Pyramid of Cheops when it was under construction. (Two fairly uncomplicated short flights of steps on the mauka side of the building, for instance, have been under renovation since 1985). The building is at the mercy of the vast federal safety and accessibility bureaucracy that mandates a never-ending stream of construction tweaks and tucks. Some contractor apparently convinced the federal government that if elevators were going to talk, they ought to have a persona as well. (My friend said a visitor from Washington told him the elevators there have the exact same voice. Creepy.)

If you are going to venture toward the zany side of elevator upgrades, why not have an entire library of voices that change randomly? So the first time you get on, you hear Elvis say, "This heah elevator is goin' down, thank ya very much." Next time you get on, it's the voice of Jerry Lewis saying, "Hey, crazy, lady! This is the fifth floor!"

On the way back down, I began to have visions of Hal, the voice of the computer in the movie "2001 - A Space Odyssey." My elevator sounded friendly enough, but maybe she has a bad chip in her circuits. What if I hit the second-floor button and she said, "I'm sorry, but we can't stop at the second floor."

Then I punch the ground-floor button, and she says, "Charles, why do you want to leave me? Are you seeing other elevators?"

Then I punch the emergency button and she says, "If you do that again, this elevator is going to go up. Then it is going to go down ... very fast, Charles. I don't think you'll like being pinned to the roof."

Luckily, that didn't happen. I safely got off on the ground floor. But as I walked away, I thought I heard a disappointed sigh.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

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