News & Politics

Going Up

Elevators Once Were Operated by Friendly People Who Said Hello and Announced Your Floor. In This Building, They Still Are.

CHARLES PATTERSON IS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MORNING rush. He's perched on a stool in Elevator 2 wearing a navy suit, red tie, and black shoes. At 9:05, six tenants approach.

He peeks around the door to see who else is coming and starts pressing buttons: 4, 7, 12, 3, 8. Patterson doesn't need to ask what floors passengers are going to. He pulls a lever, and the door closes.

It's no surprise Patterson can match a face with a floor–he's been operating elevators in DC's Ring Building for 38 years.

"I know 99.5 percent of the tenants," he says.

Maybe not by name–about 600 people work in the building near 18th Street and Connecticut Avenue downtown–but he can place them.

Except for one group: "It's hard to keep up with the summer interns."

MOST OFFICE BUILDINGS SWITCHED TO AUTOMATIC ELEVAtors in the 1950s and 1960s, but Gustave Ring, who built the Ring Building in 1947, said his operators would stay.

"He liked them, the tenants like them," says Walter Cook, director of leasing and management. "People feel safer having them here."

When Ring died in 1983, he left control of the building to his daughter and her children. Cook says there will be elevator operators "as long as the Rings own it."

While the uniforms have changed–until 1973, Patterson wore a rounded gray hat and a shirt with black stripes down the sleeves–the machinery hasn't. The elevators were remodeled in the 1980s, but the black buttons and lever are original.

Patterson says "going up" or "going down" before pulling the lever because unlike automatic elevators, a mechanical one is able to switch directions at any time.

And his passengers never miss their stops. "Tenants don't have to interrupt their conversations," he says, "because they know I'm gonna announce their floor."

PATTERSON, 59, OVERSEES SEVEN OPERATORS. THEY AREN'T security guards, but they look out for suspicious visitors.

"I don't recall an incident of crime in my 30 years," manager Walter Cook says.

A trip from the lobby to the top of the 12-story building takes 15 seconds. Add a few stops and it's still less than 30. Patterson is seldom bored. "There's usually someone to talk to," he says.

He exchanges hellos and comments about sports or the weather, but nothing deep: "I never have time to finish a conversation."

Although he doesn't take silences personally–"on Monday mornings, forget it"–he doesn't tire of hearing "thank you." He counters with "you're quite welcome, my dear" or "you enjoy your day."

Patterson has pet peeves: messengers' loud walkie-talkies and the guy who lets out a huge yawn every morning. "As soon as he walks in, it happens." But he also gets a kick out of watching passengers. He's noticed that more men than women use the stainless-steel doors to check their hair or clothes.

Tenants admit they're spoiled. Says Cheri Chick, who works on the fourth floor: "When we get into elevators in other buildings, we don't know what to do."

BEFORE COMING TO THE RING BUILDING, PATTERSON, A SOUTH Carolina native, worked for the Hot Shoppes chain. His older brother had been an elevator operator at the Ring in the early 1960s and encouraged Patterson to try it.

He and his fellow operators get health benefits and a yearly raise and bonus. "My kids have everything they want," he says. His three daughters are now grown.

Patterson makes about 1,000 round trips a week. "In the old days, my stomach would get queasy if I'd been drinking the night before," he says.

When he's not ferrying passengers, he chats with coworkers or reads a small Bible he carries in his pocket. He's been stuck between floors only four times. "I try my best to calm people down," he says.

He's seen some familiar faces in four decades. "Senator Bobby Kennedy came in once by mistake," he recalls. "So I gave him directions."

A Redskins fan, Patterson was happy to give rides to former linebacker Pete Wysocki and the great running back Larry Brown.

When Patterson finds himself a passenger in an elevator, he follows strict etiquette: "I go to the back to get out of the way."

His wife presses the button.