Machine age blues

Needing peace and quiet in which to address Christmas cards, I stayed at the office after hours and had been addressing merrily for forty minutes when I walked down the hall to the water fountain. This water fountain, which from nine to five must be cajoled into bequeathing a trickle, erupted like Old Faithful. I came near drowning before I located the cutoff valve.

Returning to the office, I passed the elevator chutes just as an elevator door opened. A shy young man in black rubber boots, black rubber jacket, black gas mask, and yellow (a welcome hue) oxygen tank raised a hatchet in salute and stammered, ''Good evening, sir. How are you?'' Once I got my heart out of my throat, I was fine.

Hoping I might distract his attention from my sodden condition, I said, ''Nothing personal . . . but what are YOU doing HERE?''

''Just hunting a fire, sir.''

''Well,'' I said with mindless Christmas cheer, ''I hope you find one.'' The oxygen mask tilted, suddenly, as if the wearer was perplexed. The door closed, and I went back to my office.

Two and a half envelopes later, three more Star Warsm storm troopers charged down the hall banging on doors and shouting, ''Fire on the floor above. Fire on Eleven. Evacuate. Do not use the elevators.'' I shouted, ''Turn on the water fountain,'' thinking that might settle them down. Instead, one gentleman barged into my office and growled, ''Evacuate . . . RIGHT NOW!''

With such merrymaking in the hall, it was impossible to concentrate on ZIP codes, anyway. I left. Left my wallet . . . checkbook . . . petty cash unlocked. In all the years of asking, hypothetically, ''What would I grab in case of fire?'' and answering ''clothes, books, TV, etc.,'' I was somewhat chagrined to find myself trotting down ten stories cradling in my arms two envelopes, seventeen Christmas cards, and a falling-apart address book.

My folly might have been more tolerable had I not been assaulted at the lobby by lights and video cameras of every TV station in town. The ''downtown blaze'' of a six o'clock news bulletin was actually a strip of smoldering air-conditioner insulation, which did not photograph well. The cards and I received prime coverage on the ten o'clock news. Next day, I was the only person at the building Christmas party given an I SURVIVED THE GREAT FIRE label for a name badge.

I assumed the misbehaving water fountain and air conditioner were merely accidents until, a month later, I stayed late at the office again. The first phone call from the pay phone in the lobby came in at six-o-five. ''What ya doin' up there?'' someone demanded. ''Working,'' I said and hung up.

The second call rang at six-o-seven. ''Do you really need both elevators on Ten?'' I explained I needed only my typewriter but gladly would accept fewer phone interruptions.

''Hey, fella,'' the caller snorted at six-o-nine, ''if I have to walk up ten flights and get one of those elevators, your body's gonna regret it.''

Since my bodily intactness is of some interest, I promised to see what I could do and ventured into the hall. Indeed, both elevators were sitting there, doors open. I stepped inside one, hit the ''Lobby'' button, and jumped out before the door could close. Except the door did not - would not - close. On either car.

To the shrill accompaniment of a ringing telephone, I threw my frail body against an entire bank of buttons. Nothing.

Those elevators had twelve floors to choose from; why mine? Sure, I often get on at lobby level and punch ''Lobby.'' Occasionally, after a six-minute wait, I have been known to tap on the closed door and mumble, ''Are you coming before or after you lay the egg?'' But I mean no harm.

After a while, the stairwell echoed with concerted huffing and puffing. With no time to run for the office, I assumed what I trusted was a sufficiently menacing posture of self-defense and succeeded in looking idiotic when three men from the elevator company staggered into the hall.

''You know what's going on here?'' one gasped.

''I believe they are holding me for ransom,'' I suggested. He ignored that, disassembled the hallway call-button panel, and exclaimed that it was acting as if someone were holding a finger to the heat-operated buttons. ''But the second car should have gone on,'' he muttered.

''Aha,'' I said, ''and you thought I was kidding.''

When they left, I left. The lobby was empty of threatening callers, but as I passed the pay phone, it rang. I let it. I haven't any idea what is going on around that building after hours, but I am positive that call couldn't have been for me. And life is too short to hang around where you're not wanted.

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