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in the Lift

Anecdote as a method,
Lift as a place

Lifts can bring together the microcosm of a building in a small confined space for a short period of time. In a residential building, people usually take the lift from the ground floor to their own floor and the other way around, coming and going, pressing the corresponding button, waiting in silence for the doors to close and then a minute or two inside that metal box before leaving it and pursuing their activities. In the short documentary ‘Lift’ (2001), Marc Isaacs narrate a simple, honest and captivating portrait of a London tower block’s lift and the life of its residents by staying inside the lift with his camera for ten hours a day over two months. In this practice, Isaacs’ watchful eye captures moments of the mundane in its slowness, emptiness, spontaneity and humanity, showing bits of life in their beauty and tragedy the more people interact with him and reveal themselves inside the lift, suddenly transformed into a reflective space suspended in time. He asks simple questions, some more intimate than others and some neighbours are more likely to engage in a short conversation with him, inside and outside the lift, showing their vulnerability. The first question we hear him asking is broad but also representative of the first thing we would like to know of the social interactions that usually take place in a lift (min. 2.12):

Marc Isaacs: Do people speak to each other in this lift very much? 
Woman: Sometimes, when we know each other. 
Man: Yeah.

Marc Isaacs captures people but he also represents the lift as a cold mechanical space with its artificial light, its steel walls, metal cables and pulley, its sounds when the door opens, its automatic voice saying doors are closing or ‘ground floor’, its music, its panel of buttons and the display of digital numbers, its textures and even its flies, as a metaphor of Isaacs being a ‘fly on the wall’ as he can see and hear what happens in the lift at all moment. However, his presence is not ignored and is even filmed by himself at some points of the documentary, highlighting his subjective stance. His project is localised as we talk about specific people in a specific place, but it is also universal as we are many to live these short talks, seemingly uninteresting, in a lift. For example, in my building’s lift in Beijing, people usually do not engage conversation or say ‘hi’ and, if they do, is to ask me, to the foreigner, from where I come from. That is by answering that question once to the right man that I got a job in February 2018.

Many common situations happen in a lift, but when some are remembered more than others, as when the lift worked better than any job search website, and ‘something’ can be learnt from them, they then become anecdotes. Anecdotes are short stories about an incident of private life that ‘seem to demand to be told, to be put into circulation’ (Michael, 2012: 25). The anecdote, as an analytical method, is closely related to auto-ethnography in studying an event that has affected the storyteller is some way that makes that personal experience to be considered ‘anecdotalizable’ (ibid: 26). The anecdote reports an episode of social life that is out of the ordinary, a difference that breaks with the sameness of the context. It is valuable to its owner because it brings a concept alive with relevance through a real-life example, but also to the people who read or listen to it as they may react and interpret it in diverse and interesting ways. Attentive to the relation between anecdotes and lifts, here would be the one that incited me to make this association.

In late February 2018, after the Chinese New Year, I was in my fourth month living in Beijing with my partner, on a business visa, which could only allow me to stay three months renewable. I was running out of time. After a disappointing experience in a short audio-visual project for an international foundation, I was desperately looking for a job and the residence permit coming along. On a Friday night, I entered in the lift and pressed the button of the fourteenth floor when a man already inside going to the twentieth floor stared at me while the doors were closing. Under that yellowish light, I stayed on the back and Oliver, the unknown man, was on the front, and initiated a conversation that went more or less like this for a couple of minutes:

Oliver: Hello!
Thomas: … (Surprised) Hello!
Oliver: Where are you from?
Thomas: I’m French but I’ve lived many years in Barcelona, in Spain.
Oliver: Oh, you are French. (Changed expression) Are you looking for a job?
Thomas: … (Surprised) Yes. I’m looking for one at the moment.
Oliver: Good. I work in a French program. Do you know BISU university not far from here?
Thomas: Yes, Beijing university. It’s a very good university.
Oliver: No, BISU… it’s where I work, really close from here. 
Thomas: Yes, I think I know (no idea which university he was talking about) Well, it’s my floor. Can you give me your WeChat and I send you my CV? So you can see what I do.
Oliver: Yes, you can scan me.
Scan the WeChat QR code while holding the door.

Thomas: Ok, thank you, I will send you my CV tonight. Bye.
Oliver: Bye.

Surprised of the rapidity of the offer, I opened the door of the apartment and said to my partner: ‘You won’t believe what just happened in the lift! I’ve found a job’. Later that night I sent my curriculum and a scanned copy of my passport to Oliver and I had an interview with him on Monday morning. I had another interview for a small company in the afternoon but since it was not what I was expecting, my choice was made. I signed Oliver’s contract on Tuesday and started to work on Thursday of that same week as an Art teacher at EWFZ, a school affiliated to the Beijing International Studies University (BISU). Later on, people’s reactions to that anecdote went from ‘how lucky you are’, ‘you created your own luck’, ‘you can thank the lift to let Oliver be there at the right moment’, ‘Oliver was desperately looking for a new teacher through agencies and you just showed up’ to more mystical interpretations ‘you were both predestined to meet each other in the lift’. As such, this anecdote could be a tool to demonstrate how people find jobs in unexpected places or, the other way around, how the lift creates absurd conversations about, for example, one’s nationality, being the ‘where-are-you-from’ question a premise to getting a job in a country where teaching jobs for foreigners are very common. As accidental teacher, one could ask whether my nationality counted more than my capacities to take over this job position, and there is no doubt about it for, at least, this first encounter. The lift brought together two people that did not know each other and might not necessarily want to be together but had no choice to use the same lift to get home. As talks are always short in a lift, as shown in this anecdote, we went directly to the essential in a rather pragmatic exchange of questions and answers as if it was a one-minute speed dating.


In almost four years, other interactions took place in that lift, from smiling at babies or dogs, talking to curious old men about the weather and France, but little else as, I said before, people are usually silent, and me being most of my time in my thoughts or looking at the ads on the walls which, by the way, I have always thought they should not be allowed in such amount in a residential building. Beyond conversations, lifts might make us thing about details that could be worth studying as the right to advertise, pressing buttons with toothpicks or Kleenex in Covid times; one’s position in a lift whether in the back, on a side, whether near the panel as the person in charge of pressing the ‘close door’ button at each floor; the queues at the ground floor in office buildings and how to overcome them astutely; the experience of getting stuck in the lift and the solutions found to leave it; the suspension in time and space for few minutes, a physical and mental suspension where anything or nothing could happen, a sort of situation we do not control. It is to be said that all these lift dynamics do not necessarily become anecdotes. As we have seen, lift anecdotes are short stories that make us remember what happened inside the lift at a very specific moment, and by sharing them, knowledge is shared too in an entertaining way. It is an exercise that needs to activate one's memory and which outcomes can be useful for oneself and others, for the present and future.

Posted: July 4th, 2021

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