'Oh, you know, this job has its ups and downs'
During a recent summer break from college, Katie Lorah worked as an elevator operator at Seattle's iconic Space Needle.
On the job
One hundred and fifty times daily, I made the 500-foot journey up to the Needle's observation deck and slowly revolving restaurant. (My ears stopped popping after the first week.) I wore a sparkly space-themed vest, a giant Space Needle button, and a big grin. Every time the glass-fronted elevator rose, I zipped through a well-rehearsed, 41-second spiel. Tourists from near and far huddled near the glass to take in the view and snap pictures. They shrieked in delight, and occasionally listened. It was chaos, and, some of the time, fun.
Facts and fictions
Before starting the job, I learned all sorts of facts that I will be able to spew forth well into old age. I was trained to answer most any question tossed my way--from how much the structure was designed to sway in a heavy wind (20 inches at the top) to what kinds of animals live in Puget Sound (the world's largest octopus, the Giant Pacific, measuring up to 30 feet). When I didn't know the answer, I would shamelessly make something up: "That weird scraping sound? Oh, that's just normal elevator noise." Heads would nod appreciatively.
Actors and lifers
Most of my coworkers were actors, artists, and students. Needless to say, this was not many people's dream job. We learned to meet lame-brained questions ("Is the oxygen thinner up there?"), clumsy come-ons from middle-aged creeps ("I didn't know they had blondes in space"), and temper tantrums (both juvenile and adult) with chipper indifference. You could practically watch employees remove their happy masks as they came into the break room. A few kept their masks on all the time: the lifers who felt that this was their calling. One woman had run her elevator for over two decades; the summer I was there, she had calculated the approximate date of her millionth trip up the Needle. She baked a cake to celebrate.
Taking it personally
As a native Seattleite, I felt responsible for everyone's enjoyment of the Space Needle, and by extension, the city. I apologized if it was cloudy. I winked at kids and told them where to stand for the best views ("Psst! In the front, near the glass. You're not scared of heights, are you?") and asked people where they came from ("Minnesota? Lotta lakes there, I hear"). When the weather was clear, you could see the Mariners playing at Safeco Field, and I offered prizes to anyone who could read the name on the pitcher's jersey. I told nice couples to come back at dusk--the sunset over Puget Sound is instant romance. More than a few times I pointed out where my parents' house sits, three miles away.
For one of the first times in my life, I was an authority figure and the all-knowing center of attention. It was addictive. And I was surprised at how often feigning a good mood would actually put me in one. The tourists in my charge had probably saved up money and planned their trip months beforehand. Most of the people made my job easy because they were absolutely determined to have fun, to make their vacation a success. That's the only explanation for how I got laughs--actual guffaws--every time someone asked how I was doing.
"Oh, you know," I'd reply, "this job has its ups and downs."