Really cool conversations can happen when we least expect them, right? Unforced words between strangers standing across from one another in an elevator hallway, for example, are times of unexplained awe-ness. I find these moments refreshing – which is why I take every opportunity to turn those awkward silences on their head. Any opening, any nugget or trait visible on which to latch, is a chance to learn about someone else’s day … life … struggle … happy dance they are living.
Can I do this all the time? No, of course. I do have situational awareness. Bad hair days and other leave-me-alone times are easily recognizable. Additionally, cell phone usage is close to 100% which makes the art of, say, elevator elocution nearly impossible. Nearly is not completely, however, and there are times when someone’s down can be reversed – albeit momentarily – inside a sterile, vertical, metal clangy people transport box.
I met a man. A pharmacist. Not so easily recognized as such because of all the files tucked under his arm covering a medical ID badge. The paperwork was thick. Responsibility as stocky as the inches of paper coming out of manila folders. He and I, both weary from a different set of burdens upon our shoulders inside a very busy hospital, stood waiting for the elevator to arrive.
This stand by, as I necessarily had to understand during the previous week, just is … There are three elevators in use for that particular wing, but only two are available for visitors, doctors, etc … The third is reserved for construction and maintenance folk.
At present, as was then, possessed elevator #2 sometimes feels going down takes higher priority, thus bypasses all going up button orders. Additionally, to the hospital’s credit, there is a standing rule everyone must exit the elevator if a patient – in whatever condition or transport – needs use of the elevator. All of this was going on as a slightly taller, same-aged man with a lot in his mind and I began a pleasant conversation while standing in a sterile, busy hospital hallway … waiting.
I began, “It looks like you may need to step outside for a few minutes. It’s a beautiful day. I think you have time … These elevators aren’t our friends again today.”
“I’d love to, but this is what I do …” as he used his head to direct my attention to the large stack of folders under his arms. “…All the time. Up and down. Trying to keep up with the demands of everyone.”
“I assume you are a doctor?… I have to apologize, but I am a piano-playing hot dawg salesman, so every white lab coat wearer I kinda start off with the doctor-thing…”
With a bit of a chuckle, he replied, “Well, I’m a pharmacist. These are all the orders I need to verify and check, … Always running floor to floor.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of work … especially with these wonky elevators.”
“Gotta say, though, I’ve been over here four days now and am so impressed with all the work everyone has done with the reason I am here. Everyone doing the work most of us aren’t either willing, or capable, of doing. Thanks for what you do…”
“It takes a team working together … Not just one.”
“So, don’t you ever get a chance to step outside … enjoy even a few seconds of a nice August day like today?”
“Not really. So many floors are understaffed lately and I need to stay alert and inside. Besides, in here it’s always 70-degrees and flourescent.”
As he finished up that phrase, elevator #1 arrived. He and I tried to continue our conversation during a very brief ride to the third floor where he made a quick exit. I remember few words spoken while we rode rapidly from one to three. A few seconds inside a temperamental elevator didn’t allow for an overflow of information. We ended a very brief acquaintance as it began – surrounded by busyness and shuffles of dozens of white coats and scrubs.
This is the work life of one person … one pharmacist who can’t carve two minutes out of his day to enjoy a beautiful, sunny, warm August day. He’s a wonderful guy. I believe this. A few minutes and a few words … I know this to be the case. Health care, especially now, demands extra special people doing extra special things. He is one of them. He is, admittedly, one in a team.
Steady, consistent, … 70-degrees and flourescent, right? This is his environment. This is how he weathers through.
As I finished up yesterday – leaving the hospital after nearly a week of stress, exhaustion, driving, …. and all the tag-alongs that go along with caring for someone in the hospital, his settled phrase calmed my nerves. The empty wheelchair back in its place, my final steps back to the parking garage for a 2 hour trip home were slow and metronomic. I breathed in the 70-degree air one last time as I left the East Wing. Flourescent lights of UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, in my body’s rearview one last time and a welcoming, very familiar, Honda only two floors up awaited my key.
I understand. Not everything is easy. This past week was extremely difficult. Decisions had to be made that were hard on everyone.
This is why I smoosh in friendly conversations everywhere I can. Invigorating talk-abouts with strangers – when appropriate – enliven my spirit. We have to talk to each other in order to keep ourselves alive. Words must flow back and forth – not solely over texts and voicemails.
I understood what helps my pharmacist friend get through his days. I know what helps me. 70-degree and flourescent isn’t my thing. Music, your interesting life in digestible pieces, sunny days in August, … and loving, caring people in my life all make my 24-7’s worth the wait.
… and holding back time in front of moody elevators a few days ago deserved my attention. He never knew my name. “Doug” was never mentioned and a distant memory that never was in his busy, overworked medicinal mind. As we spoke, he never moved the files from in front of his badge. I will never know his name, either. What a wonderful conversation, nonetheless.
Find a stranger today and say, “Hi!”, if you are comfortable doing so. I have some practice and very little shame 🤔 … Seriously, though, … If you can ask about their day, you’ll be surprised what most folks will tell you. Think about what you’d say if asked(?).. Look in the mirror and practice.
I have fun engaging with folks. It’s not always the way to enlightenment, but sure beats the downs in life, I say. Ride as many elevators you can with as many folks as possible for an uplifting experience. If you are adverse to that idea, but need a positive boost in life, look for the usual elevator alternative …
It’s not a moody elevator, but a step in the right direction, anyway.