Is a young man in our society a slacker if he has emotionally changed very little since childhood? I believe books like this one–Wanted: Elevator Man by Joseph G. Peterson–are meant to help oldsters like me get it, in tune with the millennials’s programming. Eliot Barnes, raised in a deeply rural place (Iowa) by a distant and frequently incomprehensible mother, survives a childhood that only seems weird in the rear-view mirror. That’s the way of things, isn’t it? He and his mother live alone in the quiet of a place with corn stalks for neighbors, tending a garden surrounding the small and dark home she clings to.
In all Barnes’s growing years, he becomes increasingly fixated on getting out of Iowa, out of isolation, and never ceases to encourage his mother to do the same. She can’t, she mumbles, he’s in school, she has a job (which she hates), why bother anyway…this litany doesn’t escape Barnes’s attention. Since his mother hates the owner of the real-estate place where she is a secretary, and returns home railing against them for not recognizing her potential to bring sales up and make something of the place, why doesn’t she use her knowledge and set up a competitive shop? Even as a child, Barnes can see this, can encourage it, but can’t get past his mother’s angry, bitter resignation, her masochistic reveling in her squashed potential.
Off like a shot to go to college at a “major institution” (it’s always referred to that way, never by name, and we have to infer that it’s in or near Chicago because that’s where the story takes place), where the tall, gaunt kid Barnes turns into the tall, gaunt misfit Barnes. His useless degree from the major institution hasn’t even made him suitable for a waiter’s job: He’s been fired from seven so far. So down deep inside, even as he’s chronically behind on his student loans and rent, he feels as if he’s obscurely letting himself down, failing failing over and over again. His upstairs neighbor, Tom, was a locomotive engineer, and keeps Barnes company occasionally. He even brings Barnes the bizarre solution to his “what shall I do with my life?” angst: An ad, a want ad, a large-type headline WANTED: ELEVATOR MAN with an address in the Loop. Mia, Barnes’s ex-girlfriend and the only other human being who calls or calls on him, doesn’t want him to sink to being a laborer. Nonetheless, with big plans fueled by Mia as to how he’ll use his elevator man job to pitch his talents to the big shots, he applies for and gets the job. The troubles and dream-shattering begin from the moment he sets on the bus:
The bus was crowded, standing room only, and he clung apelike from a bar that hung down from the ceiling. It was humiliating to be packed in with all these people; it reminded him of a cattle car or worse, a sardine can, or worse…but what could be worse than this?
After all, he has a degree from a major institution and will soon be in a corner office! But that moment in the bus sees Barnes thrown off the bus physically, face first, and required to walk to his new job at 154 South LaSalle Street. There the day begins with a woman trapped in an elevator. Coneybeare, his boss, leads the out of shape Barnes up the stairs to the floor two above the stuck elevator. They pause to smoke:
Coneybeare didn’t put his cigarette out. He merely let it slip from between his long fingers, and it fell down the space between the stairs. Barnes watched, dismayed at the distance, as the red ember disappeared in the darkness, and then, like Coneybeare, he did the same, dropping his cigarette and counting one one thousand, two one thousand, as it fell, a disappearing red dot in the darkness below.
Anxiety over his first-day baptism by fire, a stuck woman screaming her lungs out, getting roped into rappelling gear for the first time in his life, and getting all sorts of dire “advice” from Coneybeare about the dangerous wiring, the irreplaceable Art Deco pieces on the elevator car’s roof, and he jumps before he can’t even move. Naturally he lands on the dangerous wiring, breaks the irreplaceable Art Deco pieces, and falls into the car with the screaming woman, trailing a live electrical wire.
What else could go wrong? The elevator, swinging around in the shaft, starts to fall twenty-eight or so stories! The formerly screaming woman now changes behavior utterly and becomes a ministering angel to the wounded, scared Barnes:
He felt entombed and stifled and desperately craved oxygen. He vainly raised the question: Why have you forsaken me?
‘Call my mother,’ he yelled. He had meant to say: I’m dying. Please call a priest.
The shadowy Presence, who had been in a panic, rushed over to him and, disregarding the fact that it was live, pushed the cable aside.
‘You’re alive,’ the Presence said in breathless tones. ‘Mamma’s here to help.’
The elevator continued to descend, creating a vacuum. Barnes gasped for breath.
‘Breathe in, breathe out,’ the Presence urged. She tapped his pulse rapidly with two fingers. ‘Come on, you can do it. One, two, three. Breathe in. Mamma’s here to help.’ … In his delirium he thought that indeed his mother was here to help. However, in all of Barnes’s twenty-nine years of so-called living, his mother had never come so comfortingly close as this.
He allows himself to be cradled, soothed, bathing in the luxurious ease of motherly gynergy. And as soon as the elevator stops, the doors whoosh open and the Presence departs at top speed, pausing only to give him a card with her name, Marie, and a phone number on it; on the back of the card is the mantra she used to soothe Barnes after he fell the two floors and crashed through the elevator’s roof: ‘Love you.’
It’s human nature to crave more of things that make us feel secure, loved, coddled. Barnes is no exception. Although his first day on the job was, by anyone’s standards, a clusterfuck, he emerges from the elevator in a haze of poignant happiness. His boss has newfound respect for the toughness of a man who will risk death and still calm a passenger down from screaming, and survive the experience not needing an ambulance or submitting a resignation letter. Barnes is a man transformed, and Coneybeare treats him as such, making sure he has a properly fitted uniform and offering a steady stream of praise for the amazing work Barnes begins to do.
But there is still the matter of Marie, of the gorgeous enveloping aura of lovingkindness Barnes experienced. He wants to call her, he needs to hear her voice and feel her presence and bask once more in the numinous cloud of joy she enfolded him in with her arms. But Barnes is still a putz, a Jell-o-spined mass of neuroses and fears, so he puts it off. Finally, though, the self-help pamphlets Tom’s been giving him kick in:
To have luck and fail to act on it is tantamount to not having luck at all. In fact, it was worse. Barnes thought back to his self-help manuals. They all proclaimed with compelling force the necessity of recognizing opportunity then seizing it when it struck.
He can’t just not carpe diem>, he’ll lose the last minuscule dot of self-respect he possesses.
Barnes looked at her card once again. He held it in his hand. He scrutinized it for a watermark–but there wasn’t even that. Just her name, her number, and that strange mantra: ‘love you.’
Several awkward call attempts later, Marie appears in Barnes’s apartment late one night to have the longest conversation he ever has with her. He stares into her grey-flecked-with-blue eyes. He answers questions he’s stopped asking himself because Marie–the Presence–asks them. He exposes his entire unimpressive body to her, at her urging, and feels no shame in his vulnerable nudity.
This moment, this rebirth from the loving mother Barnes has never had, causes Barnes’s life change, fairly quickly, into a life he can be proud of y. For a man accustomed to existing not living, this is heady stuff. His journey upwards began with a falling elevator, and ends with him doing good, because those things need doing. He thinks back to the self-help pamphlets his neighbor gave him and how he wants to pay that forward. The doorman, Freddy, listens to Eliot talking about his plans, and ends up helping make more pamphlets, adding a certain something to them Eliot doesn’t have:
He was friendly as a warm bowl of soup. An affable guy, he always had a dimpled smile on his face and lived life unplagued by want.
The perfect pair to make a difference in others’ lives. And they do.
Joseph Peterson plants his flag more deeply in the territory he calls his own with this book. Forgotten, peripheral, or useless, the men in all five of his prose novels (a verse novel, Into the Whale, completes his full-length works) are the ones we walk past unthinkingly. Peterson’s gift is to pluck them from the sea of anonymity. The words and the subtexts of his novels are hopeful and kind, in contrast to many other writers’ blunt and bleak words and worlds. The religious…specifically Catholic…subtext is obvious as a street light to me, but then that was my upbringing. Marie the Mamma, the dangerous descent into the dark unknown to be led out by Mamma Marie, the subsequent assurances of personal worth and redemption are all very much in the Catholic tradition. It makes this novel a quiet, old-fashioned pleasure to read.