I often take the stairs.
Well, I often take the stairs down. Rarely up, if I can help it. It's mostly habit. When I lived in the dorms during college, the elevators were slow and crowded. My friends and I felt it wasn't worth waiting 10 minutes for an elevator ride when it took almost no effort or time to run down the stairs. Especially when we were running down to the cafeteria for the Annual Chocolate Day luncheon.
Running down the stairs seemed like exercise to us, only without the sweating and discomfort. It because Our Thing. We'd seek out tall buildings, ride the elevator to the top floor, and run down the stairs, just to say we'd done it. Kind of a geeky way of working out every day or climbing Mt. Everest.
So, while I do not believe my cardiovascular system is in any better shape for all the downstairs running I've done in my lifetime, I still do it. It's sort of a sentimental journey and a nod to all my friends from school that I don't get to see any more.
I applied for a job in one of the few semi-tall office buildings in Sacramento. It was on the 9th floor and running down the stairs after the interview seemed like a good way to burn off a little nervous energy. I entered the stairwell and began my downward trek. At the first landing, between the 8th and 9th floors, I noticed a faded sign stenciled on the wall.
STAIRS ARE FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY
My years of downstairs running have taught me to pay attention to signs associated with exits and stairwells. Many doors which lead to stairwells are alarmed and I lived in constant fear that pushing a door open to get to the stairwell in an unfamiliar building would be accompanied by the obnoxious clang of a fire alarm and a shower of cold water from the overhead sprinklers. It never happened, mind you, and I attribute that good fortune to the fact that I pay attention to the signs.
Let me remind you, however, that this sign was not posted where I could see it before or upon immediately entering the stairwell. It was stenciled on the wall between two floors. I had to turn two corners and descend half-a-flight of stairs before it was visible.
I cocked an eyebrow at the message. Okay, so they would prefer that people not use the stairs unless there's an emergency. Well, it's obviously not that important, otherwise they would post it in a conspicuous place before they get into the stairwell, right? Some stuck-up power-hungry office manager had probably made a stink somewhere along the line about people in the stairwell making too much noise. Sure, if I was a building superintendent and had to deal with a whiner like that, I would definitely post a non-vital message between floors to appease her and thumb my nose at her at the same time.
Now I felt empowered and rebellious. I was using the stairs for non-emergency purposes and no one could stop me. Haha! I stomped my feet harder than usual and the sound of my job-interviewing high-heels echoed off the walls. Come and complain about it! See if I care!
The noise was deafening by the time I reached the ground floor. I expected shouts of dismay from above at any moment. (Note: this stairwell was on the opposite side of the building from the company at which I had just interviewed. Of course, I wouldn't want to disturb my prospective employer.) Preparing to make my escape, I pushed the handle of the exit door.
It was locked.
The for-use-only-in-case-of-emergency door which led to the parking lot outside was locked.
My heady rebelliousness faded. Some idiot had forgotten to unlock the ground floor exit door when he opened the building this morning. Now I would have to climb UP to the second floor and take the elevator down to the lobby. The fun was gone. Dejected, I dragged my sorry carcass upstairs and pushed the handle of the exit door on the second floor.
It was locked.
I began to think that maybe the sign had not been merely a suggestion. But I couldn't believe that a stairwell "for emergency use only" would provide no exit to the outside world. I mean, what if there actually was an emergency? They'd rather have all the burned or earthquake-mangled carcasses collected in a locked stairwell than scattered through the 15 floors of the building? That does make a morbid kind of sense, I guess.
There was no escaping the fact that this was going to be an embarrassing situation. Someone was going to have to come and let me out. But not before I tried every single door in that blasted stairwell.
All 15 doors were locked.
Now I knew I would have to get someone's attention. I chose a random door on a random floor and began to knock. My knuckles against the solid metal industrial door barely made a noise. I used the side of my fist, then my keys. I began to shout, "Hello? Hello?!" The sound echoed as before but no one came.
It was getting toward late afternoon. The stairwell was hot and I was sweaty from climbing up and down. I began to worry that people would be going home (taking the elevator, of course) and I would be stuck there overnight, over the weekend, or FOREVER! I did what any reasonable person would do.
I called my husband to come save me. Yes, that would mean he would have to drive all the way across town in rush hour traffic. Yes, that would mean that he would tease, harass, and generally annoy me about this incident for the rest of my life. Yes, that would mean I would have to tell him the silly reason I was in the stairwell to begin with.
But, he wasn't home. And his cell phone was off.
Now, I only had one option left. The worst and most undesirable option. I called the company at which I had just interviewed, sheepishly explained the situation, and asked someone to come and let me out.
A very annoyed office manager showed up moments later. "The stairs are for emergency use only," she hissed.
I thanked her politely and imagined the day she tried to use those stairs for an emergency only to find that the exit doors are locked from top to bottom.
Is it any wonder that I never heard from that company again? I think not.