Escalators! (AAG 2018 Recap, Part III)

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What would any self-respecting AAG recap be without an entry inspired by a conversation I had with a Finnish-German (or, German-Finnish, not sure which direction that goes) friend over breakfast in the Louis Armstrong Airport on the way home Saturday morning? Why, it would be stuck on the first floor, literally and figuratively.

Lauri Turpeinin and I happened to be on the same flight from New Orleans to Atlanta, so we met at the airport and grabbed breakfast: beignets for him (his first of the trip) and an andouille egg sandwich for me (my favorite sausage, challenging to procure the further you move away from the Gulf). Mixed within a disconcerting yet fascinating conversation about the ongoing, wasp-like presence of Neo-Nazis in the Eastern European hardcore/punk/metal world, Lauri mentioned that his line of research often incorporates scholarship prone to thick description. This includes, for example, three-volume tomes about the social and cultural “meaning” of escalators. At first, we both laughed it off as the type of academic psychobabble somewhat stereotypical of academe. Within a few seconds, though, I realized that escalators carry a ton of baggage culturally and geographically. I’m sure Andrea Mihm (author of, loosely translated, The escalator – cultural studies about a mechanically developed in-between-space) would have a lot more to say about it, but let’s go to the (mental) tape:

  • When I was a kid, it made me happy to see an escalator; a vast majority of opportunities to ride them happened in the context of some leisure activity like mall-shopping or pavilion-carousing, far from home. To this day, whenever I see some kid (or someone with the maturity level of a kid) running the wrong way down or up an escalator, I try to reserve judgment because I spent most of ages 6-15 wanting to do it but never conjuring the courage.
  • With the rise of the 24-hour news cycle in the United States, escalators became a surprisingly common object of demonization, an evil mechanized foot-shredder, preying on absent-minded shoppers in thong sandals and (in some rare, extra horrifying scenarios) barefoot pedestrians whenever outlets needed a fresh, hot fear injection on slow news days.
  • Likely influenced by the sensationalizing of escalators as bringers of humanity’s downfall, The Simpsons tackled the machines via an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon on “The Front” (9F16) in 1993. Though it wasn’t my favorite gag from that episode, it was definitely memorable, and it provided a lynch pin for the plot about Bart and Lisa submitting I&S scripts under Grandpa Simpson’s name. That episode, to my knowledge, was also where America found out that Grandpa’s name was Abraham.
  • Escalators played a pivotal role in my mobility when I lived in DC. I interacted with one of the DC Metro’s notoriously long and temperamental escalators almost every day, including the legendary ones at Bethesda and Woodley Park. I never had the pleasure of riding their record-holding counterpart at Forest Glen Metro, but I heard legends of it throughout the DMV. On a few unfortunate occasions, I had to hike all the way up the broken escalator at Dupont Circle. On others, one of the two platform escalators was broken, closing whichever one went down and forcing me and hordes of other yuppies to wait in line for the elevator, missing our train and delaying our ride home by a solid half hour at least. It sounds sensationalized, but like anyone who’s experienced the DC Metro anytime in the twenty-first century can attest, I WAS THERE, MAN. Of course, next year’s AAG meeting will take place around the Woodley Park Metro station… any geographers not satiated by the zoo (a walking distance from the conference hotels, in Cleveland Park) will have the pleasure of taking that escalator down into the bowels of the Earth, wondering if it will ever reach its destination.
  • Mitch Hedberg, one of the truly great stand-up comedians of the modern era, had a classic joke about escalators that I can’t imagine anyone else surpassing. Sorry for the convenience.
  • In August 2015, I lugged the heaviest suitcase imaginable from Paris to Brussels to meet up with my friends Ruth and Casey. I navigated the Brussels Metro to the station closest to our AirBnB. I believe it was Sainte-Catherine. Anyway, my insurmountably heavy suitcase had a bum wheel; I had purchased it for 30 Euro at the Porte de Montreuil flea market, and I got what I paid for. I righted the caster just enough to slow-roll it up to a street escalator. Something was wrong with this escalator, though…it was sitting still. I looked around to see if anyone in a uniform could help me, but that area of the station was desolate. This was strange for such a busy Metro station in the middle of the day. I lugged the broken suitcase over to the escalator on the opposite end of the station… which was also not running. I was on the verge of tears. It was the middle of summer, and I was sweaty and exhausted. I began to wonder if it was even a good idea for me to be in Brussels when a young man walked by me, onto the entrance of the escalator… and [CHKVROOOOOOM] it started moving. I felt like an idiot. Paris, DC, Madrid, and anywhere else applicable had not thought of installing sensors that activated their escalators whenever a rider stepped on, thereby saving unimaginable amounts of electricity. I was mostly frustrated because it hadn’t even occurred to me to try stepping onto the escalator. If I had, I would have spent about seven fewer minutes underground and enjoying the cobblestone street over which I had to drag my gigantic (what may as well have been a) back-of-bricks. Those smart escalators in the Brussels Metro probably made me look, to any potential observers for a brief moment, stupid. I still imagine a group of Belgian security guards watching me through CCTV and wondering what’s wrong with me.
  • Another note on the escalators in the DC Metro (or, for that matter, in any city not known for its warmth and compassion): People who stood on the left side of escalators going either direction placed themselves directly in the cross-hairs of raging commuters. Sometimes, these interactions grew ugly. I’ll never forget being stuck on the right (standing=acceptable) side of the escalator up to the 7th and F exit of Metro Center when the left (standing=unacceptable) side came to a halt. A woman yelled quite authoritatively “please move to the right if you’re going to stand!” Someone about 6 or 7 people up yelled back “there’s a blind person up here!” I can’t describe how quickly and diametrically the women’s countenance shifted from angry to embarrassed as she yelled back, “oh, I’m so sorry!”
  • Perhaps we will never come to an effective agreement on whether it is ever appropriate for somebody to stand still or to aggressively climb on an escalator. Just ask Krist Novoselic.
  • Finally, and perhaps most pertinent to this conversation, I must discuss the busted escalators at the Sheraton Hotel during this year’s AAG conference. Though three hotels had been outlined for the sessions, the Marriott and Sheraton were doing the heavy lifting across Canal Street from one another. Understandably, the Sheraton did not widely publicize a particularly gruesome accident that happened to a contractor less than two weeks before AAG registration opened. I wonder if this slowed progress on fixing the escalators between floors two and four. I’m also still highly skeptical that the floor-by-request button-less elevator system that many conference hotels have adopted is at all effective. Either way, having to run up poorly marked stairwells in order to make sessions on time was not ideal. I also doubt that the handful of geographers understood my reference when I yelled “rock n’ roll!” in a British accent while searching for the proper door to the 4th floor, but that one’s on me. Thankfully, the downward escalators were working, so it was possible to ride down and decompress for a couple flights before inevitably getting AAG’d in the lobby. [EDIT: I managed to forget this segment when I wrote the original entry, despite Lauri and I having talked about it at length that morning in the airport. I just added it in; thanks to Sarah Gelbard for calling out my omission].

And that is just what I thought up in the span of two minutes of conversation. To be fair, I did embellish this list slightly while compiling it, but I stand behind what a crucial role escalators play in the urban (and even suburban) landscape. The next time your knee-jerk reaction is to scoff at a case study or topic, think twice and realize how Clifford Geertz was onto something when it called it “thick description.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to start compiling data for a research project on the apocryphal Florida Man (based on another conversation I had at AAG). Here’s a music video featuring both escalators and Gary Numan. And they said it couldn’t be done!

 

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