Frank Mulligan: Elevating employment experiences

Frank Mulligan

I was once a member of a working fraternity that – like icemen, telegraph operators and TV repairmen – has pretty much vanished from the world of gainful employ.

For two high school summers I was an elevator operator at the “old” Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston. As we all know, age is relative. At that point in time, the “new” Suffolk County Courthouse was pushing 50.

However, the old version was new when Lincoln was in the White House, and I mean Abraham not Evelyn.

If you’ve ever seen "The Verdict," the 1982 Paul Newman film (and if you haven’t, you ought to), then you’ve seen the old Suffolk County Courthouse.

The elevators were never caught on film. And they weren’t really that photogenic. The old Otis conveyances were not original to the building, but they were no recent addition either.

Somewhere down the line they had been painted an eye-irritating orange to go with the brass accoutrements and woodish paneling.

There were only five floors, most of them populated by courthouse employees, so they were our most frequent flyers.

The new courthouse had floors in the double digits and a more constant flow of law enforcement officials, alleged criminals and criminals who were on their way to losing alleged status. I subbed out at the new courthouse a good deal of the time, having become adept enough in the art of elevator operation to be flexible.

Actually, the art in the new courthouse entailed pushing a button for the desired floor and a second button to set the beast in motion. The operator was largely ornamental, and most (all) were recommended (knew somebody) who aided in securing the post.

The old building’s Otis elevators were more labor intensive. They had a crank that the perceptive elevator operator would pull with the aplomb of a steamboat pilot navigating the mighty Mississippi.

The art of elevator operation in the old and new Suffolk County Courthouses went beyond the mere technical skills required, techniques which could take up to five seconds to fully master.

A good elevator operator needed people skills, which may be another lost art.

No one likes a surly elevator operator.

We were instructed to smile and exchange cheerful badinage, to wish patrons a good day’s journey, and to adhere to their travel plans punctiliously.

Even those travelers facing arraignment deserved every courtesy.

And if a patron was moved to remark, “This job must have its ups and downs” (for which he deserved arraignment), we were to laugh like we were ferrying Neil Simon.

Unspoken was the understanding that elevator operators who did not add to the overall elevator-voyage experience could endanger the species.

The thought might enter some meddler’s cranium that elevator operators were not really necessary to the process, or could be easily rendered thus.

It was a quainter time.

Frank Mulligan is an editor in GateHouse Media New England’s Plymouth, Mass., office, and can be reached at