Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Experiencing Life's Ups and Downs

Experience is essential in writing. Generally, the more horrendous your life, the better writer you can be. It may help get you through a crisis if you can just hang onto the fact you might sell your story later. I wish I had known this when I was younger. It would have made getting “sunday-punched” in the face by a maniac on the streets so much more fun.

Looking back, even embarrassing experiences can be useful. Long, long ago, in a land far away, I worked for county government. One day my boss came to me and smiled. “I have some good news,” she said. “You’ve been chosen to work down at the courthouse on Sunday.”

I squinted at her. “The courthouse is closed on Sunday,” I said. She couldn’t fool me.

She hunched one shoulder. “Visiting hours.”

I gasped. They housed the most dangerous male prisoners awaiting trial on the top floor of the old, stately courthouse. This was certainly an honor. I couldn’t go into the housing area for the males, and I knew only the most experienced deputies worked in this high security area, but perhaps I would be in charge of scheduling the prisoners for their visits. Maybe they expected me to run warrant checks on the visitors. Maybe I would make the visitors empty their pockets and step through the metal detectors. It was a heady thought. This was a chance to climb the ladder to success.

On Sunday, I walked into the empty lobby of the building. Doors usually opening to the courts and other county offices were closed and locked. I glanced around the ornate lobby with the polished brass scrollwork and pushed the buzzer to the jail, hidden discretely in a panel in the corner. The lavish doors to the old elevator moaned open and the sergeant stepped off in full-dress uniform with his stainless steel, four inch, .357 magnum Smith & Wesson strapped to his side.

“Good, you are here. You ready to take over?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I stood a little straighter, squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. “I’m looking forward to it.” I was a half hour early so they could train me on the security gates, or show me how to screen the visitors on the computer.

“Okay, climb in.” He stepped back into the elevator and pointed to a lever. “The building is closed except for the jail. When visitors come into the lobby, Deputy Knowles and Deputy Harlan will run them through security and then send them to you.”

“Great. I’ll be ready for them. What will I be doing, running them for warrants? Checking NCIC? Logging them in with a scanner? “

He cocked his head. “Um…you’ll be operating the elevator. We shut it down so it doesn’t operate automatically. You just push this button here, and then manually swing this lever over to open and close the door.”

“Then what?” I asked.

He grinned and adjusted his black, basket-weave gun belt, making the leather creak. “That’s it.”

My eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’”

He picked a piece of lint off his dark blue Eisenhower jacket and ran his sleeve over the polished brass badge. “I mean, that is it. You’re going to operate the elevator.”

My shoulders dropped and my gaze locked on his. “The elevator? That is it?”

“Yup. You’ve got it.” He rocked back on his heals. “Now, push that button and take me back to the fifteenth floor so we can get started with visiting hours.”

I sighed. My corporate ladder to success was manually operated. “Yes sir.”

For the next five hours I rode up and down fifteen floors. No deviation. Visitors would climb on, some of them dressed nicely and others reeking of body odor and cheap cologne. The elevator jiggled and swayed up the shaft until it squeaked to a stop at the jail lobby. I’d crank open the door and off they’d go to visit their loved ones.

It was an excruciating five hours. In retrospect, however, I realize it gave me some insight as to what it must be like to be the captain of a square-rigged ship in 1805. I mean, I was in charge. The elevator went where I directed when I jabbed my finger against the “15” button. I controlled the lever like the captain controls the tiller. We were in constant motion. In fact, when I finally stepped off the elevator, I felt as if the lobby were moving.

Lastly, I got to clip out orders, just like a captain. “Step to the rear,” I’d bluster. And the visitors did what I said.

“Thank you for coming. Please come again,” I’d order. At one point Deputy Harlan overheard me issue this command.

“Melanie,” he said. “You don’t have to thank these people for coming. They are not customers.”

“I was just being polite.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, they are here visiting murderers, rapists and arsonists. Asking them to come again isn’t necessary.”

I’m glad I didn’t listen to him. The experience was invaluable while writing my British commander. He is such a gentleman, even while threatening the enemy with destruction. If it weren’t for my experience being an elevator operator, I may not have been able to write him with such a devotion to duty and honor.

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