Friday, September 4, 2009

Chapter 9 - Hold the Elevator Door, Please

One of my friends that went to prep school with me was named Bruce. We both began going to the school at the same time, and we had grown up together in Harrisburg, too. I didn’t know that Bruce would be going to the same prep school, but I was happy to see him on the first day of classes. I was thrilled to actually know someone else here – most of our class of eleventh graders began going to this school as elementary school students in the first grade. They all knew each other very well, and I was worried they wouldn’t accept me as an equal.

One other new student on the first day of school was a very beautiful and cool girl named Susie. I fell in love with her the minute I first saw her. Susie and I had a lot of fun together during our years at the prep school, and to their credit, all of the original class accepted Bruce, Susie and me right away.

My entire senior class only included 13 students. And that was one of the larger classes. My older brother’s class only had eight! So the classes were very small at our school, with a great teacher-to-student ratio. We were all close with most of our teachers, and we’d sometimes go to their homes and study with them, or have dinner with them.

One of my classes was American History, and I was always captivated by stories about the early days of colonial America. There were signs all over the Harrisburg area saying “George Washington slept here” or “Abraham Lincoln met somebody important here.”

American History was always one of my favorite classes, and I hated classes. In the sixth grade, I had a girlfriend named Fran who did my homework for me, and from that year forward, I always looked for a way to make going to school a little less work and a lot more fun.

One Friday our American History teacher gave the class an assignment that required each of us to spend the weekend photographing any five of these local historical signs, and then write an essay describing the event mentioned in each sign and how it impacted early American history.

At a very early age, my mother and father encouraged me to take photographs. My first camera was a Brownie Still Camera by Kodak. It was almost as big as I was. I used to love taking pictures with it, then waiting with such anticipation for a week while the film was being developed.

By the time I was 10, I had a very cool camera that I could hide in my pocket – a classic Minox. When my father gave it to me, around 1962, it was just after the James Bond movies started showing in all of the movie theaters. Dad told me it was a spy camera, which it really was! I took it with me to the New York World’s Fair and all of the pictures I have of those memories were taken with that Minox.

So I had no problem with the photographing part of the assignment – it was the essay part that bothered me. On my drive home from school that Friday afternoon, I came up with a plan to make this assignment more palatable.

When I got home, I called my teacher and told her that our family had to go to Washington, DC that weekend, and asked if it would it be alright if I took photographs of signs that were in Washington instead of Harrisburg. My teacher said that would be fine with him, and I was off and running.

Then I told my parents that I had to go to Washington, DC for a school assignment. I explained about needing photographs, blah blah blah and finally asked if I could use one of their credit cards so I could stay in a motel somewhere near Washington.

Now Washington was only about 80 miles from Harrisburg, but hey, I wanted to have some fun if possible and stay overnight. A little reluctantly, they agreed and my father gave me his Esso gas credit card. Not only could I get gas, but I could now stay in any hotel whose logo was on the back of the card!

Early the next morning I was all packed and ready to begin my adventure. I called Bruce the night before at his house and told him what I was doing. Asking him if he wanted to go with me was like asking a child if they wanted a lollipop. Bruce told his parents the same made up story I told mine, and by 8 AM I had picked him up in my VW and we were on the road to Washington DC! Just the two of us, my cameras and about 10 pounds of munchies -- Twinkies, Good N’ Plenty’s, Hershey’s Kisses and Mallo Cups.

To tell the truth, Bruce was my second choice to take with me. Susie was my first choice, and holy cow, did I ever want to spend 48 hours in a row with her! But Susie’s father was the chemistry teacher at our school, and he certainly knew our American History teacher. There was no way Susie would be able to tell her father my made-up story about having to go to Washington DC for a class assignment, so I was off to DC with Bruce.

We arrived in Washington around 10 AM and drove around for a while, grooving on all of the strange traffic circles and trying to find old historical signs to photograph. After a few hours we both had taken all the pictures we needed for our assignment and began to look for lodging. When we were within spitting distance of the White House, we came upon a magnificent old hotel called the St. Regis. I looked at Bruce and said, “Brucie, I think this place is worthy of us!”

I drove my red Volkswagen right up to the front doors and a bellman, dressed like the bellmen dressed in old Marx Brothers movies, opened my driver’s door and said “Welcome to the St Regis, gentlemen. Will you be staying with us this evening?”

I stepped out of the car and showed  him the back side of my father’s Esso credit card, asking  him if this hotel was one of the hotels that honored this card. He said it was, and we were in! Bruce and I walked into the unbelievable lobby, and within ten minutes, we were in our room on the third floor.

And what a nice room it was! I’m sure my parents figured I’d be staying at a Best Western or a Travel Lodge, but they raised me to aim higher than expected, to stand above the crowd, to be the best I could always be. Plus, the room was free – all I had to do was show them the Esso card.

I think the room rate was somewhere around $120 per night back then in 1969. That’s like $800 in today’s money. But the room WAS very plush – incredibly soft bed, gorgeous furniture, and we could see the Washington Monument from our window.

Bruce and I surveyed our surroundings, and then Bruce said, “Hey, let’s make a movie!” He had an old Brownie camera, too, but Bruce’s Brownie was a movie camera. To take a movie, you had to wind the camera up by hand. If you didn’t keep winding it up while shooting a scene, eventually the camera would simply stop, and you’d have to wind it up again. But Bruce was very proficient with his Brownie movie camera, and he had an idea.

He was writing the script of this movie in his head as we talked. He wanted a slapstick, comical sort of movie with lots of close-ups and scene changes. He said, “Let’s take all of the furniture out of this room, piece by piece, the lamps, the end tables, the chairs, even the mattress, and put it all in the elevator. We can stack it so it all falls out when the elevator door opens. Then I’ll run downstairs to the lobby, and film everyone’s reaction when the door opens.”

I thought this was a BRILLIANT idea for a movie short, and said “let’s do it!”
With Bruce filming, I left our room and pushed the button to call the elevator to our floor. Bruce got cool close-ups of my finger pushing the button and of the needle above the elevator door slowly moving as it approached our floor. I then put a chair from the room into the doorway of the elevator so the door couldn’t close, and made about 10 return trips to our room to move the furniture from the room into the elevator. I was laughing like a girl, and Bruce kept yelling “CUT! You’re ruining the scene!!”

After about ten minutes, every piece of furniture except for the headboard was inside the elevator. We couldn’t figure out a way to stack it so that it would all fall out when the door opened down in the lobby, so I hid in the elevator, behind the king-sized mattress, and I would push everything out when I heard the door open.

Hitting the elevator button to call another elevator to take him down to the lobby, Bruce instructed me, nay, directed me, to wait several minutes to allow him to get all set up to shoot the scene in the lobby, and then I was supposed to get in the elevator, push the lobby button, ride the elevator down, and then, while hiding at the back of the elevator, push everything out so that it would all fall into the lobby of this magnificent old, classy hotel, making lots of noise and drawing lots of attention. I was supposed to stay hidden the entire time. Bruce would film the door opening, the furniture falling out, and then quickly film the reactions on the faces of the people watching this stunt.

I was ready! Bruce rode his elevator down to the lobby while I counted “one Mississippi two Mississippi” until I got to 180. Then I pushed the button for the lobby, scrambled to the back of the elevator, and with my heart pounding from excitement and anticipation, stood behind the mattress.

The elevator car began its descent to the lobby, and as soon as the door opened, I pushed hard against the mattress and shoved everything out! It all fell into a huge heap - expensive side chairs, lamps with the lamp shades still attached and getting smashed (we didn’t think about that beforehand, and we were really sorry that happened,) even the writing desk.

But there was no Bruce, and the only people that saw what happened was an elderly couple. I wasn't aware of it, but the elevator stopped at the SECOND FLOOR because this couple had pushed the elevator button!

I came out from behind the mattress when I realized what happened, and the couple saw me. I asked them if they would like to use the elevator, and they responded, “no, thank you. We’ll wait for the next one.”

I again used a chair to block the door from closing, and I ran down the stairs to the lobby to locate Bruce and tell him why I was delayed. I knew I had to hurry back to my elevator before the elderly couple could alert anyone. Bruce was where he was supposed to be, camera in hand, right near my elevator.  I told him I’d be down in two minutes.

Within 60 seconds, I was again on the second floor, putting everything back into the elevator. I pushed the button for the lobby and got into position behind the mattress and waited, once more, to arrive at the lobby.

All of a sudden, the elevator stopped, the door opened, and I could tell I was home! I pushed against that king-sized mattress, and all of the furniture and accoutrements from our St Regis hotel room spilled, quite noisily, onto the lobby floor!

I never saw Bruce filming, because I had done my job by staying hidden behind the mattress. I could hear a lot of commotion and people shouting., when all of a sudden, the elevator door closed and the car began ascending with me still inside. I was supposed to wait a minute until people were milling around the pile of furniture on the lobby floor, then come out from behind the mattress and take a bow. Bruce would then holler, “annnnnd CUT!” Instead, I was on my way upstairs again.

Before I could get to the elevator buttons, the car stopped at the 5th floor and the door opened. A very stylish young couple were standing on the other side of the door, and when they looked at me and the mattress, I said “sorry, maintenance. Please take the next elevator” and pressed the button for the lobby.

When my elevator arrived downstairs, Bruce was still filming. I whispered to him, “Let’s put this stuff back NOW!”

Bruce and I crammed everything back into the elevator and with both of us standing inside, pushed the button for the third floor. There were no surprises this time and the door opened, fortunately, on our floor. We got everything out of that elevator and back into our room within two minutes.  We replaced the mattress on top of the box springs, and put all of the furniture back where the dents in the carpet showed it all belonged.

We then waited for the knock on our door that we were sure would be coming any second. After an hour of waiting, Bruce and I left our room and rode the elevator down to the lobby. We walked right out the front door, and began to explore this part of Washington DC by foot.


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