Peter Hill

The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993

Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)

E L E V A T O R   S U R F I N G

Elevator surfing has had a lot of negative press recently on account of all the bad deaths that have been going down.

It's a pretty dumb sport when you think about it. Some of the downtown elevators shoot a thousand feet a minute. You're in a prison there, surrounded by cinderblock walls and metal cages. The surfer is half mountaineer, half lunatic. Some are loners; others hunt in packs. There could be anybody in there with you, it's not just the security guards you have to watch out for. Not all of the deaths have come from wrong-footing a moving car and breaking your spine on the garbage f loor. They say, ...well they say a lot of things, but you know what kids are like, they don't listen.

No one's even sure how it all started. Most likely it's been going on in the projects for years. Not till it reached the campuses in Detroit, Phoenix, Bakersfield, and the rich kids started doin' it that the papers and style magazines made it an issue. But hey, who's complaining? It makes good copy and pays the bills.

Some style theorist out at Amherst been calling it 'a rite of recreational passage'. Can you dig that, a rite of recreational passage? Shit, it's elevator action, that's what it is. It's frightening, its dumb, and it's the quickest way to end up dead outside of walking around Los Angeles at night.

Notwithstanding all that, a crew from Brooklyn and one from Chicago had gotten together with a few assorted screwballs from the Mid-West who'd learned their trade in the giant, but slow, grain silos of the heartlands, to stage the first World Elevator Surfing Championships.

Chicago was the chosen venue and the Windy City had seldom blown a keener wind than that May evening when the Up and Down Boys flew in from the East.

There were four of them and they all squeezed into a cab at O'Hare Airport after a few minutes jiving' around on the forecourt trying to keep warm and to look older than their mean age of nineteen.

Driver was of Polish origin. Friendly guy called Bob. Bob Paderewski.

"You boys been here before? This your first time In Chicago? Tell ya, it's my kinda town. Good enough for Fast Eddie and Al Capone, good enough for me. Then there was Bugsy Malone, yaheardahim?"...lifting onto the freeway, narrowly missing a stationwagon full of Hispanics and battered suitcases ... "Then we had a mayor called Daley. He's dead now. Richard J. Daley. Boy, could he kick ass. But I tell ya, If ya can't make it in Chicago, where can you make it? Look at me". Overtaking fast on the inside, turning to the boys to ask directions. Boys a little tired and scared. Eight months working pizza concessions and MacDonalds to pay for the trip, to earn a bit of respect from their only rivals, the Chicago Heights. Gotta have respect.

"We got newspapers in every language you can think of, and some you never heard of. We invented the blues for Chriss'ake. You gotta go downta the south side and hear the blues. Then we got the stockyards, you hearda them? Down Canaryville and Bridgeport. That's where old Mayor Daley comes from. That's where all the Irish politicians come from. They're turning it into parks and restaurants now and sending the Rapid Transit Authority down there. Loop-do-loop. Place to go. See the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. Visit Chinatown."

Then they saw it in the distance. Only lights at first, outlining the great structures underneath. The skyscrapers that could look down on New York. The lower teeth in the mouth of a wide-open city. Shit, the Boys thought collectively. All those fuckin' elevators...

"My father was Lithuanian, did I tell you that? My mother grew up in Warsaw. I been married four times. A Swede, a Japanese, and two Canadians, but not at the same time you understan'. OK, so don't laugh. My fathers's. father's father came here after World War One. Lived on Marquette Road, down near California Avenue. We moved out to Lemont. S'where I grew up. We always went to the Nativity on Sunday. Our Lady of Siluva. Never f'get the day the fucker started bleeding. Sorry boys, don't mean no disrespect if any of you got the faith."

Bob drove straight through Downtown, along Lake Shore Drive and up by Lincoln Park. He spoke of ball games and fishmarkets, blues bands and thrift shops. He gave the kids a tour, switching off his meter, talked about going for a beer later, on account of this being his last fare for the night and what the hell he was thirsty.

The Boys craned their heads against the cab windows trying to see the top of the great skyscrapers their lights reflected in the vast blackness of Lake Michigan on the other side.

All the great architects had built elevators here. Not forgetting the buildings that surrounded them. The boys had done their homework, leastways Freddie had. Excited now, sitting on the edge of his seat, the one closest to the window.

"The Sears Tower," he gulped. "World's tallest building. Shit, and the Amoco, look at the fucker. World's biggest marble clad building. They put a whole Italian quarry into that."

The others were a little tired of Freddie's knowledge but they let him rave on, rave on, past the John Hancock Centre, merely the world's third tallest building, according to Freddie, then the Greek frontage of Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears, the Adler planetarium, the John G Shedd Aquarium, and the Field Museum of Natural History.

Stretching far into the lake were the double arms of the Navy Pier. They made old movies here. Edward G and James Cagney.

The Boys had booked into a Best Western for their first night in the city. Later, they would sleep in the shafts.

Bob their cab driver had finished his tour of the city by buying them a beer each which they drank In the back of the cab while he bored them with tales of his ex-wives.

They drank in silence. Each was lost in thoughts of tomorrow. They'd start early, grab breakfast somewhere, then head Downtown before the commuters arrived and after the cleaners had left. Eight o'clock would be fine.

They didn't sleep well partly on account of Freddie talking in his sleep, murmuring the names of all the great Chicago architects, over and over again in an excited mantra - Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Dankmar Adler, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Helmut Jahn...

"I wish he'd shut the fuck up," grumbled Eel-Pike who lay closest to Freddie.

"Give him a kick," counselled Mr J who was Eel-Pike's younger brother. "Let's get some sleep."

The Boys got too much sleep once Freddie had stopped raving. They were late. Had to miss breakfast and grab a cab downtown.

The meet was set for the Sears Tower, and not just because it was the world's tallest. It also had seriously weird elevators which came in stacks one on top of the other, and therefore stopped at alternate floors. They gave good landing.

They were also unpredictable, which made them dangerous. But wasn't danger what this was all about? Travellers in one elevator (or meat-cargo as the surfers referred to them) didn't know what buttons were going to be pressed in the other, and the guys in the shaft knew even less. It might go up like a rocket or stammer like a hurt kid.

Getting into the building was easy enough, the hard part was getting an elevator to themselves. It was still quiet, even if they were running late. They would ride it down a few floors to the sub-basement and jam it between floors with the emergency button. The last one through the hatch, which would be Eel-Pike as he was the tallest, would throw the switch and punch the button for the top floor.

That was always the best part. Riding a virgin lift to the top, one you'd never jumped before. Sitting on the roof with the rest of your crew, fumbling for the controls on the hard hats with their miner's lamps. Beams flashing up and down, elevators passing on either side. Close to heaven. Like being in the body of a giant. Steel Intestines rushing through a body with its head in the clouds and its bowels deep in the earth of the city.

Elevator surfers - the virus within the millennium city.

Above and below them the Up and Down Boys could see other lights cutting through the darkness and guessed the Chicago Heights had arrived. But there were a lot of lights.

They weren't the only out of town team. They didn't know it yet but Diva was there too. Flown in from New York. She was a surf legend. Born to a rich family up near Flushing Meadows. She'd freaked out at her parents' excesses in the eighties and taken to the streets. One of the last graffiti artists with any real talent, she'd majored in graphics at the Parsons School of Art and Design before exchanging subway cars for elevator cars. Her grandfather had briefly been a famous artist back in the early sixties.

On her own she jumped naked except for her Sony Jogger and sometimes a camcorder. When there were other around, and some of these guys were real sleazy, she wore her airforce sky-diving suit and her Blundstone boots.

There were two other teams there. One from the mid-West called the Electric Silos. Can you believe that? Bad enough coming from nowhere, but at least give yourself a decent gimmick. The Electric Silos? Sounds like something Iggy Pop would shave with.

The last crew were a two-some. Identical twins from the West Coast. Called themselves Gravity's An. gels. That was better. There was no part of Route 66 they hadn't hitched along. They'd been using their thumbs for three days to get to Chicago in time for the meet. They were nascent computer hackers from Bakersfield, now studying at UCL . They'd come through Vegas on Highway 15, getting that far on a Greyhound, a gamblers' special, and stopping off long enough at Caesar's Palace to try the elevators. Too slow and low, they left.

For the first hour it was like watching a tennis warm-up as they waited first for the Up and Down Boys to arrive, then for everyone to get acquainted with the interior spaces, strike macho poses or, in the case Of Diva, disdainful ones.

Once inside, security guards would be the only problem. There would be complaints. Lots of them. Jumping from elevator to elevator may be pretty frightening for the surfer, but at least you know when you are going to do it. The poor hunks of meat inside the cars know nothing until they hear the sickening thud above thorn and the more fanciful recall tales of severed heads being banged against car roofs by killers on the loose. Others, when they feel the sway, remember they are over a thousand feet up without a safety not. Most complain as soon as they stop at a floor, and everyone gets out there whether it's their floor or not and climbs the fire stairs no matter how far.

But hey, you know what it's like trying to get an engineer out through peak hour traffic, and he'll only say there's some dumb kids in there surfing, and they call out the security guards who are ex-cops on the make with weight problems and if you push them they'll admit to vertigo as soon as you can say "get the fuckers outathere". So what do you do, if you're management? You arrange a meeting at the bank, delegate to your do-nothing subordinate, and spend the afternoon in Lincoln Park With a hoagie and a carton of French fries.

"Hey asshole. Yeah you, I'm talkin' to you." shouted Permafrost , acknowledged leader of the Chicago Heights. He was yellin' at Freddie as they approached each other from opposite directions astride parallel cars. All but one of the Heights attended the Chicago Art Institute, they weren't dumb kids from the projects like the Up and Down Boys. They liked to show they had got knowledge. They could do more than just surf.

"Yeah, you," Permafrost repeated "Yahearda Duchamp? Marcel Duchamp? You know what he said when they asked him the diff'rence between sculpture and architecture?"

"The fuck's he on about?" Freddie mouthed under his breath as the two cars passed each other.

"Elevators, my man, that's the diff'rence. Y'ever seen a sculpture with elevators?" Permafrost crowed. "Thrill to the chill., my man, thrill to the chill." And he leapt towards poor Freddie, just catching the roof of the elevator before it passed. Freddie curled into a ball expecting some severe action, but Permafrost melted away quick as he'd arrived. Playing one move ahead, his specialty, he'd seen a third car approach beyond Freddie's. Some way off though, it was still a four storey jump, but he made it and was soon passing Freddie again on account of Freddie's elevator having stopped to pick up some cargo.

You see, elevator surfing can be either vertical or horizontal. A six storey drop is pretty cool, and most deaths occur around six. Icarus, a founder member of the Heights had gone into the black on five. Tripped on his own Reebok lace. They didn't come better than Icarus neither.

Then there's the horizontal. In some buildings you can get up to ten elevators in a line. It can take all day for that chance alignment. You could ride the surf from one side of the building to the other and perhaps take in a couple of verticals on the way.

During the championships no more than three or four maximum would ride the elevators at any one time. The others took time out on the ledges and beams. Most of the older skyscrapers were built from the centre out and the central construction cranes later became the elevator shafts. Some of the mid-century hotels had bubble lifts on the exterior and it was fun to cruise beneath the stars, but real surfing called for enclosure.

No one knew this better than Diva. Her timing was immaculate, good as Charlie Chaplin's. Straight out of Modem Times. She specialised in the vertical drop. It reminded her of the drip paintings her grandfather used to do back in the fifties. Sort of abstract expressionist but cool. That sort of shit would be making a comeback, she thought, given that all these surfers seemed to be art students.

Those kids had a ball that weekend. Despite the abuse they gave each other. Freddie didn't want to leave. He was in heaven. Round midnight on the Saturday they crept out onto the street via the basement and a drainage cover. They partied at a blues club on the south side. The Chicago Heights served as guides to the others, glad to show off their city. Civic pride, that sort of shit.

Dawn's early light found them sneaking back in, arms full of food and beer from an all-night store, red- eyed like sewer rats. Diva had enjoyed herself too. Busted a couple of jaws on the corner of Pershing and Michigan. Guys didn't know what had hit them. Actually, it was the wooden handle of a claw hammer she kept in the knee pocket of her jump-suit for just such occasions when she was shown disrespect.

Back in the shafts they slept till noon. Sunday was a slow day for surf, but the building was still in use and there was an art to weathering such conditions. Conditions that lent themselves to more graceful, elegant, jumps. Long slow rides, almost to the top. Don't want to go too far and got all tangled in that dangerous machinery on the roof. Quicksilver lost an arm that way and had to retire back in 1991. Damn fine surfer too. Freddie's best friend.

Freddie was mesmerised by Diva and now wanted her as his best friend. He was sitting on a stationary wagon near the centre of the building. Hub of the Universe. She was alternating cars, jumping and diving with a grace none of the others could match. And she knew it.

"Shit, man," Freddie whispered, "a triple gainer ...". These were' the last words he ever spoke, as Diva performed her specialty act.

He did see the infra-red beams from the rifle's telescopic sights twin beams, blood red,. shooting through the darkness from three hundred feet above him, straight in his eyes. But he never heard the shot that killed him. He couldn't. His head was blown off by the time the sound waves reached the place his ears should have been.

For a few sickening moments that were not without a touch of black humour, his headless body continued to stand upright, swaying slightly, before failing chest forward into the void.

The noise from the shot would have woken the dead, but outside of the shafts it went unnoticed.

The other surfers froze. They had heard of surf snipers but this was their first introduction to the new breed of crazed ex-serviceman. Back from the Gulf, some had taken to living in elevator shafts. Apparently, they felt they could only relate to moving bits of metal and needed that sense of enclosure they'd found in tanks and fighter bombers.

They resented the intrusion of these young kids, interrupting their solitary communion with darkness technology.

Eel-Pike was the next to be blown away. Then Permafrost. Then Diva. One at a time. No hurry. Soon they were all picked off until all that was left was silence and a dozen thin beams shining from a dozen smashed helmets a thousand feet below.

The surf sniper smiled, checked his hunting knife, and took an elevator down.

© Peter Hill 1992

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